Imagine you’re meeting a potential new girlfriend. She’s cute, seems nice enough, and you’re interested to see where it’ll head.
“How much do you earn? When will you get a pay rise?” she asks. Before you can reply, another potential suitor interjects. “Where do you live? Would you be willing to relocate?” And another: “What’s your relationship with your family like?”
Then your family does show up. “He’s a good son,” they say of you, “but he’s hopeless with money and he’s kind of aimless when it comes to his career.” Your friends chime in, too. “We like spending time with him, but he needs to settle down. We’ve got our fingers crossed.”
In Australia, those potential new girlfriends would be running for the nearest pub. In China? They’d be turning their lights on for you.
This is a game where the aim is to not play games. So instead of coyly asking if he’s into fancy cars, a female contestant will come straight out and ask how the man handles money.
By now, you probably know of the phenomenon that is If You Are the One. The Chinese dating show, described as a cross between The Bachelor and Shark Tank was an immediate success when it hit screens in 2010, with audiences regularly topping the 50 million mark. At first, it was controversial for the contestants’ obsession with money and power (one woman claimed she’d be happier crying in a BMW than laughing on the back of a motorbike), but after a government crackdown concerned with getting back to communist party values, the show is now popular because of what it is: brutally honest, BS-free matchmaking.
Unlike Western dating shows, where the drama comes from women battling each other for the affections of a man they might not even really like, or the manufactured wackiness of opposites attracting, or even the insanity of getting married at first sight, IYATO really is about the desire to find a partner. For life.
It works like this: a male contestant is introduced to 24 women (the women are show regulars, until they get dates themselves). On first impression (no words are spoken), the women can ‘turn their lights on’ to approve him. After that, the man introduces himself, shows video footage of his family and friends talking about him and answers questions from the women. And boy, are they good questions.
This is a game where the aim is to not play games. So instead of coyly asking if he’s into fancy cars, a female contestant will come straight out and ask how the man handles money. She’ll ask him about his previous relationships - how they started, who the women were, how they ended. She’ll quiz him on his health, his family, how clean his house is, what he likes to eat for breakfast. And it sounds weird, but in this way, the show circumvents the superficial not by saying it doesn’t matter, but by acknowledging that it does, and addressing it.
You don’t put yourself in that position unless you’re serious about looking for love, and though it might seem a little strange and maybe kind of dorky, there’s something quite sweet about that.
Unlike other dating shows, almost all of the power is given to the women (though the male contestant can make the final choice, he can also be rejected by the woman he chooses, making for some pretty awkward telly). It makes sense - due to the preference for male babies, at last count, there were about 20 million more men than men in China. The prospect of a hetero mannever finding a partner is quite real.
We could all learn a thing or two from the contestants, male and female. It takes a lot of chutzpah to get up in front of 50 million people and perform your secret talent (particularly when that talent is whistling or rapping - both of which have made appearances). It takes even more courage to answer some of life’s most intimate questions with excruciating honesty (like the time a guy told the women about his last relationship… which ended because he was caught having an affair. Yikes). This is all the stuff we eventually find out about our partners (hopefully, anyway) - so why not dispense with the formalities and get down to brass tacks?
The biggest lesson we can take from IYATO is the notion of going all in. You don’t put yourself in that position unless you’re serious about looking for love, and though it might seem a little strange and maybe kind of dorky, there’s something quite sweet about that. After all, isn’t that what we all want? The grand gesture of not only appearing live on national television, but also showing yourself for who you truly are, is only for the brave. It stands to reason that the Chinese name of the show translates literally to Serious Enquiries Only.
The If You Are The One Australia Special 2 airs on SBS 2 on Sunday February 21 at 7:30pm.