This week, the latest invaluable pensée from Global Times is “If you are the foreign one.” It’s about foreigners on the TV dating show Fei Cheng Wu Rao. “They are too frank and say things inappropriate for match-making talk, which makes them seem alien,” is one choice quote from a Chinese DJ in Beijing. Perhaps this is the reason why “the worship of foreigners has ebbed,” according the manager of a lubricant oil company in Qingdao (your go-to source for stories about frustrated love).
Meanwhile Zhou Xiaopeng, “chief marriage expert” at dating website baihe.com, reminds us that “foreigners have advantages in terms of the fact they don’t care as much about the age or job of prospective dates” (it’s true, we’ll shag anything that moves), before warning that “all they have learned is the old feudal culture, which says that women should stay at home raising children and doing housework.” Plus they don’t want the Chinese parents to stay over during Spring Festival.
I have little to add to this pinnacle of reporting and opinion, but I did dig up an interview I did a couple of months back with two of these heartless foreign monsters who were on the last series of Fei Cheng Wu Rao, Lauren Hallanan and Mark Pinner. Lauren’s last episode as one of the 24 female contestants on the show, who reject or vie for a date with a contender by switching off a light in front of them or not, is above if you’re curious (relevant bit starts at 48:40, no English subtitles).
I’ll let them give the laowai’s perspective.
Alec Ash: How did you both come to be contestants on FCWR?
LH It was actually the simplest thing ever. I was a big fan of the show, my Chinese friends would joke that I should go on it, and I’ve been single for a while, so I went along on a Saturday afternoon for an interview. I honestly didn’t think I would get on, I just wanted to see the process. The questions were about my personality, the ideal person I was looking for, and past relationships. It was a lot of fun.
MP For me, it was pretty similar. They were asking why I wanted to be on the show, what kind of girl I was interested in, my past experiences.
Alec Ash: Did you feel they look for a certain type of guy or girl?
MP I think they look for someone interesting. They were very explicit about who they don’t want. They don’t want people who are perfect. Because it’s boring. The dynamics of the show are designed to weed people out, and if you’re the perfect guy and [all] 24 girls want to go out with you, that’s not entertaining. On the application form, they ask if you have any weird pet peeves.
LH I think they do hope that the girls are good looking, but that isn’t by any means the main factor. A lot of the girls on there are extremely smart, with PhDs. Some of them have unique backgrounds or interesting jobs. There’s a girl contestant right now who’s a race car driver. They actively look for unique and interesting people. There are also a few who are there for their looks.
Alec Ash: Why do you think contestants go on the show? And why did you?
LH There are some who are just looking to be famous. But a lot more than you would expect are completely innocent and looking for a boyfriend. Some girls told me that their jobs are really busy and they don’t have time to meet people outside of their circle. There was one girl whose mum signed her up for the show. And when a girl [gets a date], the others will be really excited for her.
MP I went on because I was interested in the process of what it would be like to go on Chinese TV – and if I met the woman of my dreams, then that’s good too. Most of the guys are there to get a date with a girl. But when they prep you before the show, they ask you, what is the purpose of FCWR? And the purpose of FCWR is entertainment. You owe it to people not to screw it up badly by being fake. Just be yourself.
LH They say that to the girls too. If a girl goes on and doesn’t act like herself, they tell her we want the person that we interviewed. If you’re not that person, then we don’t want you. We assumed that the person in that interview was your natural self, and we want to see that person. Some girls are so much fun in the interview, and then just stand there.
Alec Ash: What’s it like behind the podium?
LH In general it’s pretty nerve-racking because you know that even if you’re not talking, they might still be filming you. And because there are so many other girls, you have to make an effort to make yourself heard. You have to be proactive and think of questions and raise your hand. It’s pretty exhausting. Also, we don’t get to sit, except for a tiny break [if a guy gets to the third round]. It can be several hours of standing, because once we start filming we just keep going and going. If we wear heels, we can put other shoes behind the podium and switch, but you have to stand on a higher foot block, so no-one notices the height differences. But some girls stand in heels for hours.
Alec Ash: How do you feel the experience is different for laowai contestants?
MP They’re curious about foreigners. From their point of view it’s just different, and they’re after different people. I do think they liked me because I fitted a stereotype of the English gentleman. One of the girls invited me to do a waltz on stage with her.
LH I felt that people had pre-conceived notions of what I should do or say, and that there was a give-and-take between what they wanted me to be like, and what I am like.
Alec Ash: What did they want you to be like?
LH I think it was difficult for them to figure out too. Because in a lot of Chinese people’s eyes, Americans are extremely outgoing. I’m outgoing, but not in a crazy party-going way. And I can be quite conservative in my dress and what I do on the weekend. That was a little difficult for them to get their minds around. On the show you can see I wear lots of different clothes all the time, because they couldn’t figure out what to do with me. They would say: “You’re so cute!” And I would say: “Please don’t make me wear bows in my hair.” So they would say: “OK, what about sexy?” And I would say I’m not super comfortable wearing sexy stuff either. You can also see it from some of the questions that I get asked on the show, especially from Le Jia [the resident “psychological analyst”]. He makes sexual references and asks me about past relationships, and I think he sometimes expects me to say one thing but I would say another thing. It’s all stuff that I’ve dealt with before, at a one-on-one level with Chinese people, but never on such a large scale.
Alec Ash: What have you learnt about Chinese attitudes to dating from your experiences?
LH Marriage is a lot more at the forefront. The girls are not just thinking about having a date.
MP Absolutely. A lot of them are thinking, will we get married in six months? Will we have a kid next year? That’s the kind of timescale you’re looking at. And that’s why there’s more of a tick-box thing.
LH That’s true about China in general, but it becomes a lot more evident on the show. Right through the interview process, and also on the show, they want to state clearly and exactly who you are looking for. You can’t just say, I don’t know, it depends on feeling. Back home it’s more about who you meet, and you know when you start talking to a person if you like them, then you find out slowly what his interests are. But on the show, it’s all laid out there. They want you to know who the exact person you are looking for is, and what your requirements are.
MP Tick, tick, tick, no, no, no, yes, yes.
Alec Ash: What are the key criteria, for both sexes?
MP The first thing guys are going to go for in a girl are her looks.
LH Whereas a lot of Chinese girls don’t like the really good-looking ones, because they have no anquangan [sense of security] – they’re afraid that if a guy is good-looking he’s definitely not going to be faithful to you. If a guy that is too good-looking comes out, he will likely get a few lights go out immediately, because they feel he’s going to have a million mistresses.
Alec Ash: So what are the positive criteria from the ladies’ perspective?
LH Money is always a big winner.
Alec Ash: That’s a long running criticism of the show, that it promotes money worship. Do you feel some of your fellow contestants are just looking for rich guys?
LH Oh, yeah. There’s a lot of subtle things that they look for. Because they’re never going to state how much money he actually makes. There’s a rule about that now, and it’s been toned down. But in the video spots [about the male contestant’s lifestyle], you notice how many guys are driving a car. It’s because they want to show you what kind of car they have. Or if there are scenes inside their house with friends, they can display things. Or a guy might say his favourite food is something ridiculously expensive.
MP Whereas in my video I was buying jianbing and riding a big scooter, so hardly a flashy lifestyle.
Alec Ash: Are there any other topics off limits for direct discussion?
LH There are definitely some topics you’re asked not to talk about – politically sensitive things, like if someone is from an ethnic minority, or anything superstition related. You’re not supposed to talk about your astrological sign, or which Chinese year you were born in, because there are pre-conceived notions that if you were born in this year, this is what your personality is like and you and I are a good fit together. Also, you’re not supposed to talk about religion.
Alec Ash: Is there anything else you feel viewers don’t know about FCWR?
LH People do give tips and suggestions, and the show is structured, but a lot of people assume that we know everything about the other contestants, or that we’ve been given lines to say. It’s really not fake like some people think. From beginning to end it’s all real – they don’t even take a break in between guys. They just cut out little bits and pieces.
MP For me, I felt they hardly cut anything. They also tell you, don’t get phased if girls turn their lights off. They say, there are all kinds of weird reasons for turning your light off. So when someone says why they don’t like you, the Chinese reaction is just to say xie xie and move on, which is a dynamic I suspect you would see less on Take Me Out [the British version of the show].
Alec Ash: Are you allowed to date outside the show?
LH You’re not supposed to. We had to sign something.
Alec Ash is a writer in Beijing. This interview also appears on his group blog the Anthill.