Posted by Danwei on Tuesday, May 4, 2010 at 12:25 PM
This article was contributed by Matt Cool. Matt Cool has been living in Zhengzhou teaching and studying Chinese in his spare time for two years. You can watch Matt loose his dignity on Fei Cheng Wu Rao (非诚物扰) on Henan TV.
It wasn’t until I was standing in front of the cameras in a wrestling fatigue doing muscle poses that I realized I had yet again bit off more than I could chew in China. How does this happen? Miscommunication? Ignorance? A desire to see foreigners looking foolish on Chinese TV? As I went through the muscle poses and performed a near flawless worm on the floor, I thought back to the many times my expat friends and I had been duped in China: the trip to the mountain, the basketball game, my PSB forced confession… the list goes on. As I stood holding the 1000 yuan prize, I knew that this was going to be the basketball game all over again. Even with prior experience in the Chinese unexpected, I was not prepared for Henan reality TV.
Lan Lan and I. Like me, she was pretending on the show
About a week before I got onto the show, a friend told me a TV station was looking for a foreigner to be thrown into a dating show and ‘mix things up a bit’. Having had a few friends do TV spots before and having no concern about my reputation, humiliation, or face, I agreed to do it. Knowing full well that I had no idea what I was getting myself into, I waited for more information. Finally, a dinner had been arranged to discuss the details of my role.
The conversation that night went something like this:
Me: So… What exactly do I have to do?
Cute Producer Girl: You have to live in a mansion with 4 other guys and 5 girls and do competitions.
Me: Haha. Great! (Thinking Big Brother, Real World) Ok, so how long will this take?
Cute Producer Girl: 6 days
Me: Whoa, 6 days?!?! How many episodes are we talking about here?
Cute Producer Girl: 8 episodes
Me: huh… ok. So when do we start
Cute Producer Girl: Tomorrow at 6AM
Cute Producer Girl: (giggles)
For the next six days, I was subjected to late night testimonials, cheesy competitions, and reality TV drama. Often there were times when I was told directly what to say but I did get some freedom to create my own reality TV persona. Many of the competitions were rigged. About half the cast thought it was real and about half were actors or spies from other networks1, eager to steal the shows concept (a generic bacheloresque reality TV show).
The competitions ranged from laser tag and ice hockey to theater and charades. In one competition, I was to try to win the approval of a girl’s mother. The mother was actually an actress hired to reject anything I did. No matter what I did during that competition to try to win her approval, I was met with the words: “我就不喜欢外国人!” (I just don’t like foreigners).
The show ended with a final ‘romantic date’ where I ‘serenaded’ one of the girls with a guitar, candlelight, and a bottle of wine. I was instructed to tell her that I was happy to have found her, she was my one true love, and we should run away together and let the others battle it out. Her reply? She told me to play something on guitar and then awkwardly sang an unrelated song back to me. It truly was a beautiful moment.
Left to right: Me, Xiao Le, and the show's host
A happy ending right? I wish I could say so. Following my brush with Henan reality stardom, I returned to my work as a computer teacher. That’s where all the trouble began.
I had a feeling it would be impossible to keep my students in the dark about their famous teacher and eventually they found out about the show when it first aired March of 2010. The students decided it would be funny to start a message board/fan club dedicated to me and my performance on the show. After hundreds of joke postings over praising my performance on the show, I got a phone call.
Cute Producer Girl: Due to your popularity on Internet forums, the Orient Today (东方今报) would like to interview you.
Me: Really?? That’s funny. I’ll have to think about it but I can’t see why not.
I thought about it. The truth was I felt bad about lying to the girl on the show. She apparently thought the whole thing was real. What a great opportunity for me to expose the show for being fake and clear my name.
Me: I’ll do it.
Big mistake. When the article came out, next to a picture of me the headline read: 我很坏我就来玩 (I’m very naughty, I just came to play). The newspaper published all sorts of interesting facts I never knew about myself. They simply made up a lot like I ‘came to China because the job market was tough in America’. I was also ‘part of a Sino-American exchange program as a student’. I didn’t mind some of the inaccuracies (they said I was 26 years old, I’m 25) but falsities that play into stereotypes Chinese people have about Americans bothered me. They portrayed me as a playboy and called me a typical American in the article.
Some Chinese friends advised me to do nothing; others told me I should sue the newspaper. They all agreed the article did not reflect well on me. So much for exposing the show as a fake… The article also failed to mention the other people paid to act on the show or the ‘spy’, which I felt would make a good news story.
In the end I was paid less than half of what I had previously been worked out with Not-So-Cute-Anymore Producer Girl in our verbal agreement. (after taxes about 1,600 yuan). Lessons learned. I survived Henan reality TV.
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Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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