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For Love or Money? On Auditioning to Be the First White Woman on China's Top TV Dating Show

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The barrier that stands between me and finding love on a reality show may come down to finances.

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Am I the one?

That's the question I'm hoping to answer by participating in Fei Cheng Wu Rao (If You Are the One), China's most famous dating show and one of China's most popular television shows in general. So popular it's watched by roughly 300 million people -- the entire population of the US -- each week.

For comparison's sake, America's popular dating show The Bachelor, on ABC (DIS), attracts an audience of about 7.75 million for every episode, or 2.6% of America's total population. China's If You Are the One pulls 21% of the national population.

The program is produced by Jiangsu Broadcasting, but like all Chinese television shows, it's ultimately controlled by the government. It's filmed in Nanjing, the old capital of China, and airs on Jiangsu Satellite TV. If You Are the One is likely about to gain even more viewers as the government has recently cracked down on entertainment programs, decreasing the number aired from 126 to 38 every week. President Hu Jintao warned of the influence of Western culture as the decision was announced.

In fact, If You Are the One is modeled after a Western show, a program called Taken Out, from Australia. It's filmed on a stage with one male bachelor and 24 female candidates. The women stand at individual podiums and use their podium lights to indicate interest in dating the bachelor in question. As they watch video snippets about the candidate's life and listen to him exchange banter with the witty host, the women decide whether to keep their podium lights on or switch them off, effectively dropping out of the running. (Of course there are other twists and turns to the elimination process, described here.)
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  • Is she the one?


So how did I first get mixed up in this dating show phenomenon?

In this case the credit goes to a good friend of mine here in China, where I've been living for nearly three years as a retail market analyst. Knowing my adventurous nature, this friend recently convinced me to apply to be one of 24 girls vying to win the heart of a Chinese stud and a ticket for two to Hawaii. A week later, I found myself spitting out the most complicated Mandarin I've ever spoken during a screening interview to appear on the show.

If selected, I'll be the first American Caucasian female to compete, which could prove interesting since Caucasian female/Chinese male relationships are rare and sometimes thought of as rather taboo by parents who stereotype Western females as provocative. (So far, foreign candidates on past shows have included British and American men in the bachelor role and one Filipino-American woman.) What I know now is that I've basically passed the audition, but the producers are still deliberating over whether I can appear on the show as part of a tag-team duo -- despite speaking some broken Mandarin, I'd need my friend to stand beside me on stage and act as a translator.

Still, no Chinese mother should fear my presence on the show just yet. After auditioning, I have to confess that I question my potential compatibility with a Chinese man. Not because of looks, fashion sense, or even the inability for the two of us to communicate fluently. The barrier that stands between me and finding love on a cheesy reality show comes down to finances.

Set in My Western Ways?

Having worked and lived a non-traditional expat life in China since 2009, I have integrated into the culture so much that some of my American roots have seemingly disappeared. I eat the local food daily, shop in wet markets, have learned to eat any part of any animal, and even use chopsticks in my own home. These days I rarely catch more than a short playback of a football game, but I routinely join friends for competitive games of badminton. I wear my coat in the office and drink hot water when I'm cold rather than complaining about the lack of proper heat
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  • Author Kristin Graham at the Haerbin Ice Festival
ing. I place a high importance on saving face, and fully comprehend the importance of one's guanxi (personal network). I even comfortably integrated into my friend's non-English speaking family for the week of Chinese New Year in her hometown of Jilin, a small Tier 3 city. I joined in games of ping-pong, shopped for fireworks, and prepared dumplings and numerous family dinners.

Having a circle of friends that consists of more Chinese than Western expats and observing the US from the outside in, my views of America have been re-shaped and I've come to understand much of China and the way the people think. Quite honestly, I feel at home here.

Still, some cultural differences persist. Some concepts remain incomprehensible to me no matter how hard I try to grasp them. Chinese attitudes toward personal finance are by far the most perplexing.

What Are Your Thoughts on Spending Money?

Tying a dating show to finance may sound like a difficult task. But as my friend translated the personal information form at the audition, it became evident that money was a major theme. I barely got to mention my hobbies and what makes me unique as a person before I was answering the following questions:What are your thoughts on spending money?
  • Are you willing to sign a prenuptial agreement?
  • Who will control the finances in a relationship or marriage?
  • What is your salary? What salary must your potential date earn?
  • Do you own a car and house? Must your potential date own a house and car?
  • What is the profession of your father and mother?
The questions may not have seemed as curious to my fellow contestants, however. While waiting for my turn at the audition, another woman who was there to compete sat down next to me, asking why I wanted to be on the show. The conversation quickly turned to money. She asked about the level and currency of my salary, suggesting that as a foreigner, I must be a high earner of US dollars. (She was wrong.)

The dating show audition was far from my first run-in with China's materialistic dating world. And the questions were not all that surprising given the stories I've heard from many Chinese friends. But it provided a perfect example of how China is evolving.

Reminbi Love

Based on conversations with friends, I've learned that many Chinese women expect to receive luxury handbags early on in a relationship. It's believed such actions show a man's commitment and love. Learning that I was heading to the US for a visit, a male friend once joked that I should bring him back a suitcase of luxury gifts. He wanted me to save him from having to buy highly marked-up products here in China. He literally needed an inventory of luxury goods for future relationships.

In some relationships, men offer their significant other an "allowance" each month, even when the men are already living on minimal salaries. For many women, a man's inability to purchase an apartment is a relationship deal breaker, destroying potential marriages.

I once visited Shanghai's Marriage Market, a designated park where parents convene each Saturday to find their children mates. The park is like an offline Match.com, with paper profiles dangling from trees. The vitals always include income levels and home and car ownership.

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  • A typical profile in Shanghai's "Marriage Market" park.
My amusement with the concept quickly turned somber after striking a conversation with a father who proudly spoke of his son, an engineer. He was vividly distressed over the fact he could not afford to purchase his son an apartment and believed the inability to do so leaves his son no hope for a wife.

No Financial Common Sense?

China's property bubble is no new news. So it makes one wonder just how the future of so many relationships are built on house ownership. As of December 2011, the average home price in Shanghai was RMB 22,238 (USD 3,513) per square meter. Automobiles cost nearly twice the sticker price in the US, not to mention that just to purchase the license plate for a car sets one back nearly RMB 50,000 (USD 8,000).

Factor in average salaries and these numbers become astounding. The average Shanghai salary is just RMB 5,526 (USD 876). While that number is certainly distorted and underreported due to substantial gray income, it still reflects the reality for average Chinese. Ownership of homes and cars is a major financial burden, and yet it plays a critical role in the relationship between two Chinese individuals and their parents.

I've heard stories of couples who earn a combined monthly pre-tax income of RMB 10,000, while paying a RMB 8,000 mortgage every month. They have no money to live, but they have a home.

One of the most talked about lines to come from If You Are the One came from a previous contestant who expressed her views on relationships and money quite bluntly: "I'd rather weep in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle." The show's critics were not pleased, and neither was the government, which came out with a list of rules regarding social and moral values that should be enforced by dating shows. The woman who made the comment did not "win" that night on the show, but she was offered many other TV deals.

In many cases, materialistic behavior is encouraged by parents, as some of my female colleagues have stated that while they themselves do not require a house or car from a future mate, their parents do. The attitude is somewhat understanding based on China's recent past and the life many older parents experienced. Every Chinese parent wants to ensure their child does not have to endure what they did. But their new perspective also stands in contrast to the traditional mentality -- always save for a rainy day. And it shows how China has transitioned into a society that just may be more materialistic than America.

Living in a Material World

It seems only natural that a greater focus on money has emerged given how quickly China is growing its wealth. To be fair, some of this behavior is concentrated in more developed cities like Shanghai. But it's rapidly spreading to smaller cities as well. I recently heard a story about a friend's family member from Jilin who insisted on having a RMB 700,000+ (USD 110,000+) engagement ring. When the even wealthier to-be-groom said no, she convinced her mother to purchase it for her. The two are now divorced.

US wealth is divided between "new" and "old." Spending habits differ between the two types. In China, it's all new wealth, typically earned rapidly and in great quantities (and in many cases unethically), which instantly changes people's lives and views on how to spend it.

I can say with certainty that most of the male candidates in the show I'm striving to appear on would be stunned with the answers I truthfully filled out on my application. Perhaps we Americans will never shake one persistent stereotype -- that we're big spenders with negative savings rates. But I believe that we're still far less materialistic than many modern Chinese. I left many blanks next to questions about earnings, and answered "no's" to questions about whether my date must own his own home, car, and other luxuries. I'm still wondering about the lack of emphasis on relevant questions, such as desired hobbies and interests.

The men and women evaluating my audition performance may have been surprised to learn that I'm not looking for money. I'm seeking an ambitious professional like myself who enjoys traveling, sporting activities, and cultural experiences. I want someone to share adventures with, not someone to sit with inside a home we can't afford to leave.

I sincerely hope I have the chance to participate and set an example for this country that money isn't everything. And, of course, I hope to find the man of my dreams.

Kristin Graham, CFA, an occasional contributor to Minyanville, has been working in China since 2009. She currently works for Kantar Retail as a Market Insights Consultant, offering deep analysis and insight on the Chinese retail market as well as foreign and local retailers operating in China. Prior to this, she worked in investment research for five years.
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