This is a column I wrote that was originally published in the China Daily on July 4, 2014, all copyright belongs to China Daily.
A few minutes after my plane touched down in China, the woman who picked me up from the airport looked at me very seriously and said: “You are very beautiful.” “Thank you”, I said, bewildered. “I think I’m going to like China.” Don’t worry, it didn’t go to my head, because not long after that I was also told my hair was a mess and my skin terrible. One new friend asked what sort of fashion labels I was interested in, before looking me up and down, patting me on the arm and saying: “I think you like comfortable clothes.” My language teacher taught me the grammatical structure for “become” with the sample sentence: “Belle is becoming fat”.
It may have been upsetting, but luckily obsessive viewing of China’s most popular dating show, If You Are the One, had prepared me for this sort of brutal honesty, which is by no means unique to China, but it’s certainly foreign to me.
For the uninitiated, If You Are the One, or Fei Cheng Wu Rao, is one of the most popular dating shows in China and it enjoys a cult following in Australia where it is aired with subtitles.
The reality TV program follows a game-show type format in which a single man faces 24 women standing on lit-up podiums. Each of the women has a light, which they can turn off if they decide they are not interested in the man. They are quick to hit that switch, which makes a noise that’s somewhere around the icky mid-point between stomach-dropping rejection and bone-crushing humiliation.
Too short? POW! Too tall? POW! Pursuing a passion career? POW! POW! POW! POW!
If a woman keeps her light on, it means she is interested in the man, and if he is also keen, the couple may win a holiday together, where, hopefully, love will bloom. But scoring a date is not easy.
I spend a lot of the show cheering for the underdog – the blokes.
“What’s wrong with him! I shriek at the screen, as the girls hit their switches on a nervous young man from Chengdu. “He works with baby pandas! Sure he wears Coke-bottle glasses and polo shirts, but you can work with that! He’s a classic fixer-upper!”
But it’s too late. He’s gone. To be replaced by a slightly paunchy middle-level manager from Chongqing.
“C’mon, Chongqing,” I whisper. “You can do this. Works for a foreign company, yep that’ll play well … close to your family, uh huh, and, no! Don’t tell them you like cycling, you idiot! These girls hate that!”
It’s a mystery, but it seems that as soon as someone wheels a bike out, the stage goes almost black.
Admittedly, there are times when even I just can’t get behind the hapless chaps. Like the man who had an entire video describing his love of eggs. No one wants to go home with someone who has one minute to tell you about himself and they focus on omelets.
But what makes the show such compelling viewing for me is not the saccharine sentimentality, but the blunt honesty of the contestants. The women often reject a man on the basis of weight or height, telling him that he doesn’t look like he can “protect them”. (From what? Hidden dangers lurking on the streets no one has mentioned to me? )
And it’s not just the girls: A man once plainly described himself as “stubborn and narcissistic”. He could have chosen to say “headstrong and confident”, but why sugarcoat it?
It’s this sort of bluntness that makes the show so popular in Australia, where viewers gasp in shock at the upfront nature of the participants. It may also explain why the short-lived Australian version of the show, Taken Out, didn’t last.
It’s quite entertaining to watch someone be told they look too “weak and childish” to date, but having to observe someone being told that they seem “very gentlemanly” but “I’m, err, just not getting a vibe” is excruciating. Give me the cold hard truth over faux politeness any day.
So when I meet a friend for dinner who points out I look tired, have a soy sauce stain on my top and asks if I’ve put on weight, I just laugh it off. After all, at least they are being honest.