How did an English Language Assistant from the UK working in China suddenly find himself before an audience of millions? Robbie Stanley-Smith tells us what he discovered during his moment in the spotlight.
At the beginning of last November, a Chinese teacher and colleague at my school sent me a message on WeChat (the Chinese near-equivalent of WhatsApp) asking if I was looking for a girlfriend in China. There followed an application and an interview for a TV show. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for.
Conquering nerves is rewarding
It's six weeks later. I find myself crouching on a small, circular platform, clutching a microphone, breathing heavily and trying to listen to the voices of the hosts and the previous contestant, but understanding nothing. I'm surrounded by scaffolding, cables and stage machinery, dimly illuminated by fluorescent lighting. Suddenly the entire set starts to rotate around me and my insides begin to melt. I feel like I'm trapped inside a Transformer which has just woken up.
Watch snippets of the show:
This was the sign I was about to emerge from a narrow tube onto the studio floor to blinding lights and the screams of the audience. That was the worst part, but after one hour – intense and surreal in equal measure – it was over.
Gradually, it all started to sink in. Not many Westerners can say they've been on a Chinese TV show.
Chinese dating is a serious business
The English equivalent of the show, Take Me Out, is generally light-hearted and casual. Successful 'couples' are whisked off to Tenerife or Cyprus for a date, which is filmed, and the result is shown on the next week's episode. On the Chinese show, called If You Are The One, instead of filming successful contestants on a date, a sponsorship deal with a travel agency gives you an all-costs-paid (and TV-camera-free) four-day holiday in the Maldives, one of the world's leading honeymoon destinations.
The show seemed to emphasise a long-term arrangement, with many of the questions revolving around the topic of marriage. ‘Who holds the purse strings?’ was a question that prompted some earnest debate.
Even the name of the show in Chinese 非诚勿扰 (Fēi chéng wù rǎo), emphasises the cultural difference – the phrase actually means ‘serious inquiries only’.
Just how good my Chinese is (or isn't)
Part of my motivation for becoming a British Council Language Assistant was to learn Chinese. I’m not a Chinese graduate and there is no language requirement to go to China, so I’d only been learning for four months when the show was recorded in mid-December. But my teaching schedule is just 18 hours per week, so I’ve had a lot of time to invest in learning Chinese.
I’m glad I had put myself in a totally Chinese-speaking environment; it's the best way to learn a new language. But an hour of being grilled by twenty-four female contestants and three presenters was a wake-up call, to say the least.
On the show, it looks as if I could speak fluent Chinese. In reality, this was an effect created in the editing room, and nearly every question I was asked had to be either repeated or translated into English by one of the more experienced foreigners on the show.
For the background video segments, I was told what to say and given several attempts at recording each sentence.
By the end of the show, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed. My chosen date asked me on camera to say 我喜欢你 (Wǒ xǐhuān nǐ – I like you) to her in English. In my anxiety I said ‘I love you’ – something I honestly never thought I would say on Chinese television to someone I’d just met. That was the only thing I said in English!
The matchmaker is still important in China
One of the strangest things about the show was how the contestants (both Chinese and foreign) were given very little time to talk to each other directly. Most of the talking was done by the host, Meng Fei, and two co-hosts, Huang Lei (an actor) and Huang Han (a psychology professor), on whether our personalities were compatible. This might conceivably have something to do with the matchmaker figure in Chinese legend, 月老 (Yuè Lǎo – the old man on the moon), a god who joins couples in marriage.
In imperial times, there was a go-between in traditional Chinese marriages, who would act as negotiator between the two families involved, a bit like an estate agent. Although things have clearly changed since then, it's still common to hear talk of 条件 (tiáojiàn – conditions) in connection with relationships, as though dealing with a contract. The most important conditions are usually whether the man owns a car and a flat, which were always specified on the contestants' online profiles.
What it feels like to be a star
On the show, I got a taste of real showbiz: having my hair and make-up done, being on stage with a mic, and playing cello and table tennis in front of an audience of millions. To be honest, though, I was more nervous about speaking Chinese than anything! In the week after the show was broadcast, I did get recognised and asked for photos a couple of times in the city centre.
But just the fact of being a foreigner in China can make you feel like a celebrity sometimes. My experience of going on the show was an extreme example of a feeling familiar to any foreigner living in China. From the wide-eyed (and occasionally crying) children to the endless requests from strangers to take photos with you in public places, just leaving the flat is often enough to make you feel like a minor celebrity, albeit a slightly uncomfortable one at times.
There isn't always a fairytale ending
I have just got back from my free holiday in the Maldives. It was another fantastic experience and I still can't believe it, but it wasn't exactly your typical honeymoon. For starters, I was sharing a room (and a bed!) with an English man from Tianjin who I'd never met before. It didn't work out with Bella, the girl I left the show with, maybe because she was from Dalian in northern China, a good thousand kilometres or so away from where I live in Suzhou near Shanghai. It’s a bit like living in London and trying to establish a relationship with someone in Prague.
The same was true for my roommate Chris, and indeed for the other two contestants on the trip – Tracy from Beijing and Noza from Uzbekistan. Fortunately, they all turned out to be friendly and interesting people.
A year in China has made for an intense, surreal and rewarding experience, and this was an unforgettable part of it. But however happy the endings may look on screen, it seems that even in China (where anything is possible), an hour's meeting on a TV show is perhaps not the best foundation for spending four days in the world's most romantic holiday destination.
Find out more about becoming an English language assistant. The deadline for applications to teach in China and Spain is 21 February 2016, and has passed for all other countries.