“You must be kidding,” I said to no one in particular, in English.
I was playing Jessie, the manipulative American hussy. The acting job was supposed to be a lark, an adventure. Fresh out of undergraduate school, I’d been in China for three months, working in international business, exploring this new culture, flirting in Chinese. I met a guy at a party who asked if I wanted to meet his friend, the director. I said no. But two days later, immersed in the fluorescent misery of my corporate life, I was suddenly inspired. A glamorous TV career! I took my suit off in the office building bathroom, pulled on jeans, and made the call.
I’d only skimmed the script, which was written in simplified Chinese characters; I had studied only complicated ones. But I figured I could read it as we went along. Director Wang, the director, told me the show was about “man’s common search for truth and beauty.”
Teacher Chen, my middle-aged tutor, sported a short cloud of poofy hair and wore layer upon layer of clothing, garments she never removed even inside the office. A day before filming, she’d read through each scene with me. She was horrified the day she found the sex scenes. “Love business!” she whispered to me urgently. I wasn’t worried: I’d never even seen anyone kiss on Chinese TV. “Do we kiss?” I asked her, smirking. She flushed. “Yes, you even sleep,” she confirmed.
Ye Hui played my love interest. He was unstoppably macho, designed by producers and personal trainers to turn the tables on American stereotypes of wimpy Chinese guys. My role was the exotic, mysterious femme fatale, relieving Eastern women momentarily of that chore. Ye Hui was protective, sexy and soap-opera cheesy. He tutored me in Chinese characters and held my hand furtively on the cast bus. He asked questions about American girls. I asked about his wife. We carried tiny red dictionaries and cultivated our delicate flirtation.
Until we finally reached the climactic sex scene. Teacher Chen was vague about what was in the script, but my titillation had turned to paranoia by the time we finished the lesson. The plot line: I was a liberated, wealthy woman who seduces a married Chinese man, falls in love with him “for real,” and then sacrifices everything for true love when she agrees to marry him.
“You’re a good girl in the end of the show,” Director Wang frequently assured me. I thought I didn’t need reassurance. Bad girls were more interesting to me. And after all, this was Chinese TV, bound for censors. It had little chance of being racy by my American standards, didn’t it?
Ye Hui tried to warn me. “Tomorrow’s scenes,” he coughed. “Do you understand?” I nodded and smiled provocatively. And then I ran home and called my Chinese friend Jane. She came over and looked at the script. “You might have to wear a bathing suit, since you sleep,” she said, “but I doubt it. Chinese directors are pretty conservative. You get to kiss Ye Hui!” She swooned.
Sleep? I imagined a scene in which we woke up together, my naked, pale arm glowing hideously across his chest. 3-D freckles. Hairs? I shaved. I waxed, quick tanned and unearthed my bathing suit (it was the middle of winter and I was still optimistic). The next day, I had it all under control: makeup on every single tiny shoulder freckle.
It was the day of the scene and I had one directive. “Get the press out of the room,” I said from the bed. The journalists slunk away, leaving a cast of dozens: lighting technicians, make-up artists, Director Wang, Director Li, Assistant Director Su, costumers (for what?), prop boys, script consistency staff.
Ye Hui and I were front and center, unable to make eye contact. He had just carried me from the door to the bed, dangling my head awkwardly. The karaoke soundtrack blared in the background. He set me on the bed. We waited for direction. Director Li said something incomprehensible and Ye Hui began unbuttoning my shirt. The cameraman was three feet away. Was he zooming in on the buttons? Apparently, because we cut before the shirt was even off.
But when the camera turned away, Ye Hui and I were shirtless for real. And after weeks of sly glances and furtive electrical frisson, the attraction between the two of us had suddenly disappeared. His skin was rubbery; he was dripping with sweat; I noticed him noticing my freckles. His hair was sticking up in clumps. My breasts, described in the script as “heaving,” sat propped between us in their blue-and-white polka-dotted bikini cups, no more titillating than elbows. Around the bed, cameras buzzed like mosquitos. At least the sizzle of the lights might help the fantasy, I thought: third world tropics, humidity. But searching within for motivation, I found no arousal at all, just a dead spot, like a numb patch on the skin. I was half-relieved, half-disappointed.
Flushed from the heat, I slumped back against the pillow. The makeup staff descended upon me with hair products. Then Director Li piped up again, and told us to take our pants off. Ye Hui watched me look the words up and then, with an amused glance, dropped his pants to the floor. His belt clattered. He was wearing tighty-whities. He was diesel and hairless and tan. He flexed his stomach, which looked like several bricks stacked on one another, and puffed out his utterly hairless chest. His sweat looked festive, like that of a calendar boy: under normal circumstances, I’d have thought that he was hot.
“Are you embarrassed?” he asked me.
“Why do you ask?” I had a bikini on, at least. “You have to take those straps off,” said Director Li, interrupting. “They’ll show.” I took the straps off my shoulders, trying to leave the actual boob cups on. Not possible.
Now we would kiss and sleep. I prepared myself for our first illicit kiss. Ye Hui! I pursed my lips. But before Ye Hui could crane his neck down and kiss me, Director Li shouted: “Roll around on the bed!”
I paused to consider what that might mean, but before I could ask, Yehui, jumping forward and tilting me back with his thumbs, pinned me to the bed, opening his mouth as wide as a gate and stretching it over my head. This was a soap opera kiss? Don’t they usually fake the tongue? Not that there was that much tongue, really it seemed to me to be mostly teeth. “No laughing!” Director Li said when I shouted out. Ye Hui stopped the frantic grinding and became a huge, dead weight on top of me. I hadn’t moved an inch. “Rub his back,” said Director Li.
Dutifully, I began to massage Ye Hui’s back, starting at the shoulders (I was underneath him), while he kissed me enormously with his mouth still open. My bikini top was somewhere near my waist. I shrunk back, wondering if he might swallow my head, and continued gently rubbing my fingertips in small, even circles.
There was an awkward silence in the room. At the time I pondered whether the scene might be exciting for our immediate audience. Now I’m sure they were just astonished, wondering whether Western girls do it like that. Maybe they assumed I was a virgin.
Ye Hui peered down at me, worried for my reputation. “No, no,” he said. “Like this.” He faked a split second version of clawing, wild orgasm, grinding his tighty-whitey hips and shouting.
I was beside myself.
Apparently, I was supposed to be writhing in ecstasy. And I had given a chaste backrub, missed some key vocabulary clue? I sat up, naked to the waist. “Cut,” called Director Li. I crossed my arms over my chest. The makeup artist rushed over to repair my lips with a tool kit of lipsticks. I imagined surgery would be the only way to put them back together. “You know,” I said, “I’d be more comfortable if Director Li were also naked.” The lip gloss brush retracted.
Silence. Ye Hui inhaled sharply. I turned to him. “Are you embarrassed?”
“We’re all professionals here,” Director Li announced. He unbuckled his pants and dropped them to the floor. He, too, was wearing tighty-whities. I wondered whether they even sold boxers in China. “I feel much better prepared,” I said, unfolding my arms and flashing the crew. I ran my eyes down Director Li, who edged behind the cameraman.
What can I say? I’d already come off as a convent girl, messing with the reputation of foreign temptresses everywhere. Better to be a bitchy movie diva. If they wanted me to be their bad girl, I figured I might as well do it to the hilt. At least I’d be in character.
Ye Hui was like a stunned statue beside me. I grabbed him to my chest and pulled him back down on the bed, writhing and clawing his back.
It was to be my first sex scene, and my last. Such a small moment an anecdote, it seemed at the time, like an awkward/funny first kiss. How was I to know that Foreign Babes in Beijing would become a hit? I hadn’t even expected it to air. But mere months after my sweaty kiss with Ye Hui, I was the subject of hundreds of journalistic rants against xenophobia-inspiring, home-wrecking Western sluts (and the girls who play them). I got marriage proposals and hate mail. Teenagers followed me on the streets, calling, “We want to be like Jessie”; newspapers juxtaposed pictures of me to busts of Mao and Chinese soldiers. The headlines read: “Neo-nationalistic Chinese embrace foreign babes.”
The requisite fifteen minutes later, after the hubbub had all died down, the show was still airing. It was on over fifty times across China. I watched it once. The sex scene lasted twenty seconds and looking at the screen, I flushed uncontrollably. It had that filmed-in-a-toilet gritty quality of low budget porn. But had they intercut other people? I looked like a naked, wild tigress. Ye Hui appeared possessed by passion. We kissed hungrily, tore our clothes off and clawed each other’s skin, sweaty with love. There was a shot of Ye Hui’s pants disheveled on the floor. Even I was convinced: it looked like a night of sizzling sex, true love. And I wasn’t the only one. My boyfriend leaned toward the TV, watching me writhe on the screen, his eyebrows raised. “My God,” he said, shaking his head. “Did you have to kiss him for real to film that?”
Rachel DeWoskin and Nerve.com