Dispatch

I Was Almost a Chinese Dating-Show Star

I Was Almost a Chinese Dating-Show Star

Several times a day I hear the theme song from If You Are the One, the hit Chinese dating show, blaring from my co-worker’s cell phone: It’s an embarrassing techno mix with a man’s voice wailing, "Can you feeeeel it?!" But what really makes me cringe is something else. It’s not the show’s blatant materialism, or the Chinese government’s aversion to the program. It’s the fact that I was once a contestant on the show. A film crew visited my home and recorded an episode for the dating show at Jiangsu Satellite Television in Nanjing. But almost no one but me knows about this bizarre episode, because when it came time for my segment to air, my portion was cut out, censored, or as we say in China, "harmonized."

If You Are the One premiered in January and has since become a national phenomenon. The format is copied from the British dating show Take Me Out. The Chinese version is in your face about money; male contestants will frequently show off their bank statements and luxury cars in an effort to woo interest from a parade of 24 women, who will either pass on them or vie for a date. One memorable female contestant, Ma Nuo, was once asked by a guy if she would like to go on a date with him and ride on the back of his bicycle; she famously responded, "I’d rather cry in the back of a BMW." She has since been banned from appearing on television.

The show’s popularity has also been a curse. As ratings went up, so did government scrutiny. In China, popularity and influence go hand in hand, and that makes the government nervous. Previously, a drama discussing topics like China’s spiraling real-estate prices and local-government corruption, Wo Ju ("Dwelling Narrowness"), was taken off the air midway through the first season after it began to attract a large following. Or, as the director of If You Are the One told me, "You can say whatever you want in China, as long as you’re not influential. The government doesn’t care what you say if no one is listening." But if someone is listening, it’s a different story.

About two months ago, I applied to be on the show. My Chinese co-worker thought the novelty of being a foreigner would give me a leg up, and he was right. A week later I got a call from the director.

When I arrived at the station, I entered the meeting room and was greeted with familiar signs of China, despite the modern-looking building: A group of men gathered in the corner were chain-smoking, another group playing games on their cell phones. The director’s first words to me were a reminder of what I couldn’t say. "You can’t talk about religion on TV," she said. "China is an officially atheist country, so there is no mention of religion on TV or radio." She also told me I couldn’t mention television shows that had been banned, or other potentially controversial topics.

When I first went on stage, the familiar theme song played and I was greeted by oohs and ahhs from the audience. I announced my name and where I was from, and then the 24 female contestants had their first chance to reject me based on looks alone. A few turned me down on the spot.

During the recording, I thought things were going well. I said I liked "open-minded" girls, a euphemism in Chinese for sexually liberated women, which was greeted with much laughter.

I received the obligatory, "You look like Harry Potter," comment and responded with my standard comeback, "I’m much more handsome than him." Everyone in China thinks I look like Harry Potter, and that response usually gets a laugh. A woman said she liked me because she thought mixed-race babies were cute. "I think if we had mixed-race babies, they would be very cute," I replied.

Most Chinese think foreigners, even those living in China, can’t speak or understand a word of Chinese, so she assumed I had misunderstood her. In other words, she didn’t get the joke. It took some intervention on the part of the host to make her understand that that was my roundabout way of answering her.

By the end of the show, there were still eight women interested in going on a date with me. I went through the final round and picked one, becoming the first foreigner in this history of the show to do so. I walked off the set, hand in hand with Ai Xuanzheng, a young Communist Party member from Guizhou, to romantic piano music. (Unfortunately, she lives in Shanghai and we never did end up going on a date.)

When it came time for my segment to air, I watched the entire episode, but it never appeared. The following week the director told me, "You were censored because you were successful."

I’m not surprised I was cut. There is a good degree of nationalist sentiment in China, and while seeing the two foreign contestants before me fail is entertaining, the image of an American male dating a Chinese girl is much more controversial. It happens quite frequently, of course, but it seems the government doesn’t want to encourage it.

Or perhaps it was my somewhat sexually suggestive comments that offended? The audience seemed to laugh, but in a country where pornography is officially banned, my directness may have aroused the government’s ire. After all, the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, complained just a week before my episode was to air that dating shows were "vulgar." In the end, I’ll probably never know.

My brief role as a Chinese reality star did give me insight into one thing: Ultimately, Beijing still sees television as a tool, not a source of entertainment. That’s why foreigners are prohibited from holding many top positions at television and radio stations, which are still owned by the government.* Even the most seemingly frivolous of topics can bring down the axe at any time. So much for wondering If You Are the One.

*Correction: This line has been  modified. The original stated had incorrectly stated "foreigners are prohibited from working at any television or radio station."