Several times a day I hear the theme song from If You Are the One, the hit Chinese dating show, blaring from my co-worker's cell phone: It's an embarrassing techno mix with a man's voice wailing, "Can you feeeeel it?!" But what really makes me cringe is something else. It's not the show's blatant materialism, or the Chinese government's aversion to the program. It's the fact that I was once a contestant on the show. A film crew visited my home and recorded an episode for the dating show at Jiangsu Satellite Television in Nanjing. But almost no one but me knows about this bizarre episode, because when it came time for my segment to air, my portion was cut out, censored, or as we say in China, "harmonized."
If You Are the One premiered in January and has since become a national phenomenon. The format is copied from the British dating show Take Me Out. The Chinese version is in your face about money; male contestants will frequently show off their bank statements and luxury cars in an effort to woo interest from a parade of 24 women, who will either pass on them or vie for a date. One memorable female contestant, Ma Nuo, was once asked by a guy if she would like to go on a date with him and ride on the back of his bicycle; she famously responded, "I'd rather cry in the back of a BMW." She has since been banned from appearing on television.
The show's popularity has also been a curse. As ratings went up, so did government scrutiny. In China, popularity and influence go hand in hand, and that makes the government nervous. Previously, a drama discussing topics like China's spiraling real-estate prices and local-government corruption, Wo Ju ("Dwelling Narrowness"), was taken off the air midway through the first season after it began to attract a large following. Or, as the director of If You Are the One told me, "You can say whatever you want in China, as long as you're not influential. The government doesn't care what you say if no one is listening." But if someone is listening, it's a different story.
About two months ago, I applied to be on the show. My Chinese co-worker thought the novelty of being a foreigner would give me a leg up, and he was right. A week later I got a call from the director.
When I arrived at the station, I entered the meeting room and was greeted with familiar signs of China, despite the modern-looking building: A group of men gathered in the corner were chain-smoking, another group of playing games on their cell phones. The director's first words to me were a reminder of what I couldn't say. "You can't talk about religion on TV," she said. "China is an officially atheist country, so there is no mention of religion on TV or radio." She also told me I couldn't mention television shows that had been banned, or other potentially controversial topics.