By Rachel Brown
The Chinese dating game show, 非诚勿扰 (in English, “If You Are the One,” although a literal translation would be “If you aren’t sincere, don’t bother me”) is probably best known for a contestant who professed that she “would rather cry in the back of a BMW than smile on the back of a bicycle,” a sentiment seen as emblematic of the signs of material success increasingly sought by Chinese youth. Although I had head about the “BMW incident” before coming to China, I had never seen the show itself until my roommate, a Chinese college student, introduced me to it one evening.
The parade of contestants on the show, which premiered in January 2010, followed a similar routine. Each man would come on stage, introduce himself, and show a short video covering his work, hobbies, romantic history, and testimonials from family and friends. Based on this information (and the contestant’s appearance), the 24 female contestants on stage would then turn a light on or off to indicate their interest. Subsequent rounds of questions continued until there were three women left, from amongst whom the man would make his final choice. The woman then had the option to accept or reject his offer.
Just as I thought that I had the show’s premise down and ceased bombarding my roommate with questions, I was shocked to see a German man appear on stage. The contestant, who lives and works in Beijing, explained, in fairly good Mandarin, that he was passionate about motorcycles and was hoping to find a Chinese woman familiar with Western culture. Unfortunately his choice, a teacher who had studied abroad in Australia, turned him down because “in her heart she had always imagined marrying a Chinese man.”
This is not the first such incident to occur on “If You Are the One.” In 2010, a segment featuring a foreign man was cut from the final episode, likely because unlike the German contestant, this man was successfully paired with a Chinese woman.
Appearances by foreigners have become something of a trend on Chinese television shows (particularly reality shows). In fact, the producers of a recent radio show on Americans in China encountered so many interviewees who had been on TV that they wondered, “Have ALL of you guys been on TV?! Is this the consummate expat experience in China?”
One of the expats explained his view of the trend, saying, “I’ve heard that in Chinese TV, the things that get the best ratings are children, animals, and foreigners, which just kind of says it all. Yeah, oh look at that cute foreigner. He’s trying to speak Chinese. It’s so adorable.” The experience of the German contestant seems to fall into this category – the audience found a foreigner speaking Mandarin amusing, and maybe even impressive, but ultimately a Chinese man would always be the right choice.
Apparently, the entertainment value of contestants speaking foreign languages works in the other direction as well — at least for children. On another reality show I watched recently, elementary school students used English to make presentations on aspects of traditional Chinese culture. After one segment, in which a young boy dressed in a horse costume presented on the Chinese zodiac system, my roommate turned to me and asked, “Is his English standard?” Despite the oddity of the show, I had to admit that his English was probably better than the Mandarin of many foreigners who appear on Chinese TV. Unlike the slight absurdity of seeing foreigners on “If You Are the One,” this show’s appeal seemed to stem from an admiration of the children’s English skills (a sign of the new, globalized China) paired with their knowledge of China’s many historical achievements. And of course it didn’t hurt that the contestants were simply cute.
The most popular recent trend in Chinese television relies on exotic time periods instead of foreign tongues. Historical soap operas, spanning many episodes, focus on intrigue in the imperial court or on the fighting between Japan and China during WWII.
A friend and I accidentally stumbled onto the set of one such show a few weeks ago while travelling in Xi’an. We arrived at a temple only to be told by a man at the entrance that we wouldn’t be allowed in because a movie was being filmed. Of course, upon hearing this we decided we needed to find a way in, and once the man moved away we tentatively pushed the gate open. Nobody stopped us once we made it inside, and in fact quite a number of people from the surrounding neighborhood were there watching and were eager to chat with us. The “movie” seemed to be a made-for-TV film about a Peking Opera company during the “Republic of China” period (1911-1949), and will eventually be broadcast on China Central Television.
We hung around the set for a while watching the actors apply heavy coats of Peking Opera makeup and the crew assemble scenery, but much to our disappointment, we weren’t asked to be extras, despite our eagerness to demonstrate our accented Mandarin. I’m still waiting for my chance to join the ranks of foreigners on Chinese TV; perhaps one day I will be allowed to find the love of my life on “If You Are the One.”
Rachel Brown ’15 is in Saybrook College. This summer, she’s blogging from Harbin, China. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.