The immigration officer turned my passport upside down, and turned it back up. Puzzled, he called over a colleague who could actually string a sentence in English.
"What you do here?" he asked.
I tried to pronounce the name of the dating show I was invited to work on but, judging from the look on their faces, every attempt I made only made it worse for myself.
Just as I started picturing myself in a detention cell, I found an email from my hosts, Tape Consulting, that carried the show's logo. Their frown disappeared instantly, and I was welcomed to China with an impressed "aww."
The following fortnight was a crash course in Chinese pop culture. I was one of an international group of top creative staff hired to work with the local team on giving If You Are the One a face-lift. Viewed by 100 million people in China alone, in addition to tens of millions of Mandarin speakers worldwide, it is China's most popular dating show.
All over the world, dating shows are the bread and butter of reality TV. It seems like very little fresh insight could be offered here. Essentially, they are fairy tales for grown-ups: Channel 4's Undatables is the Beauty and the Beast, Fox's I Want to Marry Harry is Cinderella, and Fox's The Littlest Groom is Snow White (and not just because of the dwarfs).
In recent years, I spent days on end watching dating shows and I can now safely say that I truly love the genre. In all honesty, it never gets old: Whether a sensation like Naked Attraction, where all the contestants are naked, to make sure they make the right choice; or a social experiment like Married at First Sight, where the contestants get married and only then get to know each other; or There's Something About Miriam, where the male contestants realize in the end that their coveted would-be wife was born a man – I really didn't think anything could surprise me anymore. But then I discovered the world of Chinese dating shows.
At first glance, If You Are the One sounds like an ordinary dating show. But before long I realized that I'm on the Chinese side of the moon. In the West, dating shows are made to maximize the dramatic effect. Here, it feels more like a talk show, featuring young female up-and-comers and celebrities offering advice on love. Market research has shown that the audience watches the show with a genuine expectation to learn.
On the set, the 24 contestants stand on large podiums, shrouded in red spotlights and embedded marketing of the highest order. The host invites the bachelor, who walks out of an elevator onto center stage. This is where the contest starts: At any moment, the contestants can switch off the lights on their respective podiums – whether based on a first impression, video clips showcasing an average day in his life, testimonies of his friends and finally a reenactment of the highlights of his romantic history with an actress.
If he turns out to be only modestly wealthy, the lights will be switched off en masse. Or, if his feet are the smelliest in the region – as one so-called "friend" testified – his appeal will nosedive. If, at the end of all the rounds, all the lights are off, he will make a solo return to his bachelor pad. If not, he will get to choose with which contestant to spend a vacation in the Maldives.
The show's trademarks are the girls' audacity and unabashed materialism. Nuo Ma, one of the contestants, famously quipped that "she would rather cry in her man's BMW than smile on his bike." Chairman Mao must be turning over in his grave.
The Chinese government was especially appalled, and allegedly pressured the production company to amend the format slightly so as to add a psychologist to the panel of judges. So the later seasons weren't as blunt, but the show nonetheless remained a huge blockbuster.
Also, for a Western viewer, the levels of honesty and openness were astounding. Special attention was paid to the bachelor's investment portfolios. One contestant was asked to review her medical record, and another wholeheartedly admitted she wasn't particularly good at anything. He, for his part, said upfront that he'd always prefer a good meal to spending time with his girlfriend.
Last year, the rival Shanghai Dragon TV channel launched Meet the Parents, a dating show boasting the tagline "feel safe, because your parents are watching."
There are a lot fewer contestants, but the panel – the bachelor's parents – is much stricter. An outstanding PhD candidate was asked how good she was at running a household, before her would-be mother-in-law asked to touch her hands to make sure they're not cold – a well-known indication of a cold heart.
The show was a unique window into learning about family relations in China. When the single-child policy was declared in 1979, it was hard to predict how it would affect family structures and norms. When it was finally scrapped in 2015, children had already become the unparalleled centerpieces of their parents' and grandparents' lives. Growing up, they were only surrounded by older family members and, as adults, the entire family relies on their gainful employment. The result is unloosened apron strings that are sometimes interpreted by Westerners as childish behavior.
The bachelor, for his part, is introduced to the parents of five contestants, who can only watch the interaction from behind the scenes, with a fair share of embarrassment. After a few rounds of questioning, they decide whether the man is good enough for their daughter, and if he is, they will go out on a date.
Unlike You Are The One, there are no gender differences in Meet the Parents: the men and women contestants alternate. The first show featured a beautiful 40-year-old divorcee who showed up proudly bearing a bowl of soup she had made. Soup was likely to be the ultimate ice-breaker, but not in her case: When her age was revealed she was unanimously and unequivocally vetoed.
Dating shows are a sobering reality check. Just like everything in China, they make for a surreal mix of past and present, of openness and tradition. Strikingly, the ultra-backward questions of some of the parents were moderated by the host, China's most famous transgender, also known as the Chinese Oprah Winfrey. Similarly, an appalled reaction of one parent to a question about her daughter's romantic history was followed by a friend's testimonial about the sexual adventures one of the male contestants that sounded straight out of the cheekiest college movie.
Chinese culture is just like Chinese food: It tastes totally different when you have it in China.
This post was originally published on The TV Addict