Thoughts on an American Job Applicant on Chinese TV
27 Jul 2011
I’ve mentioned before that I occasionally indulge in the Chinese dating show 非诚勿扰. There’s another one of these reality TV-type Chinese shows that I watch from time to time called 非你莫属 (English name: “Only You”). On this show, each entrant is a job applicant given a chance to explain the type of job he’s looking for and interview with a panel of 12 bosses right there on camera. If all goes well, the bosses make offers to the applicant, and details of salary are discussed right on the show. Finally, the applicant is given a chance to accept the final offers or decline them and leave the stage.
This show is appealing for a number of reasons. There is quite a range of applicants, from young kids with no experience, to senior citizens, to the destitute and desperate, to the physically abnormal. Quite a few of the applicants just plain don’t have much to offer. The “bosses,” who are on the show to promote their own companies, can also say some interesting things. Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects to me is seeing what kind of job offers are made on the show, and what salaries the applicants will accept.
After watching this show for a while, I was surprised to see recently that there was a young American applicant. Unlike 非诚勿扰 (the dating show), which has had quite a few foreigners on the show, I’d never seen it on this show. The applicant was a 25-year-old white American male named Nathan (Chinese name: 尚德). Having lived in Beijing for a while, Nathan spoke pretty solid Chinese, and had no major issues communicating on the show. But the bosses’ reactions to Nathan were not quite what I expected.
Before I go on, some links are in order:
The Bosses’ Reactions
First of all, I should mention that foreigners on Chinese TV are generally given quite a lot of slack. In general, they’re made to look good, given face, not expected to do a lot, but still rewarded with smiles and applause for whatever it is they do on TV. I’m not saying this is right, but it’s certainly something I’m used to seeing on Chinese TV.
Not so with Nathan. The host’s first reaction to Nathan’s introduction (clearly recited from memory) was, “you learned all the bad habits of Chinese TV hosts.” It was a light-hearted jab made in the spirit of fun, but it was probably an unsettling start for Nathan. He went on to explain that he wasn’t quite done with his undergraduate degree in Beijing, but he was looking for a job in advertising where he could help a Chinese company market to foreigners. He said he was interested in planning (策划). This elicited a response from the off-camera commentator:
> It seems that no matter whether you’re American or Chinese, if you don’t have any job experience, something subconscious when looking for your first job will make you choose planning.
The line of questioning that followed pretty quickly became quite critical. One of the bosses asked about Nathan’s strengths. The exchange went as follows:
> Chen Xiaohui: Can you tell me what strong points you feel you possess?
> Nathan: Well, I guess I’m quite logical.
> Chen Xiaohui: Can you give an example?
> Nathan: For example, well, I think that coming here, Chinese not being my mother tongue, and being able to [talk] with you, ummm…
> Host: And flash that big smile of yours. Yes, yes.
> Chen Xiaohui: Your response has proven that you’re not very logical. Those two things aren’t related.
While the boss’s point is fair, it’s clear that Nathan got a little tripped up and wasn’t able to formulate a quick answer to the question.
Immediately following that, another boss questioned Nathan on what he could offer a potential employer:
> Ge Xiaofei: I’ve read your introduction, so I know you didn’t go to college in the U.S. Sorry, maybe that’s your little secret. But, I mean, in the U.S. you didn’t have a degree, and after coming to China you majored in Chinese.
> Host: Mandarin.
> Ge Xiaofei: Right, Mandarin. Then compared with this year’s college graduates here, you don’t even have a major. So you just have English. But there tons of university graduates with good English. In circumstances like his, finding a job is rough. However, if, for example, you were looking for an internship, and wanted to work at a certain kind of company, I think that would be simpler. Otherwise it’s always going to come back to not knowing what he’s good at and what he’s thinking.
At this point the host came to Nathan’s defense (sort of):
> Host: It doesn’t matter, Xiaofei. I mean, he’s a 25-year-old American, and he’s only been in China for 4 years. […] When you’re under these kinds of circumstances, sometimes our own young people are unclear about what kinds of jobs they’re looking for. So that he’s unclear is totally normal, right?
As the show progressed, the different judges asked various questions and returned to the point of Nathan lacking much real job experience. One of them stated:
> Foreign kids and Chinese kids are essentially the same. They’re all alike, with big hopes but little ability. Big hopes, but little ability. What he wants and what he can deliver on just don’t match. You need to better understand what you can do.
In the end, Nathan was offered a few rather unappealing, low-paying jobs, and elected to leave the show without accepting the offers. After he left, these are the host’s final words on his appearance:
> Just because an applicant is a foreigner, we absolutely cannot give him extra points or take away points. He is exactly the same as our Chinese applicants. At that age, it’s always the same advantage: a strong drive. But they always make the same mistake: not knowing what they really want to do.
My first reaction was, wow, they were kind of harsh. It’s not that they said anything untrue. It’s that Nathan really wasn’t worse, qualifications-wise, than a lot of past Chinese applicants who fared better on the show.
Nathan’s Chinese is quite good for the amount of time he’s studied, but he was at a clear disadvantage here. 非你莫属 didn’t dumb down the questioning at all or give him any kind of “foreigner advantage.”
This is interesting to me, because you don’t see it a lot. It led me to ask a few questions:
1. Is the attitude toward foreigners changing? Such a change is inevitable; could this one insignificant event be hinting that such a change is already underway?
2. Is this a ratings stunt? Would taking a tough stance on foreigners on the show appeal to the audience? (this really isn’t so different from question #1.)
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to read too much into one TV show or over-inflate its significance. But I did find this case intriguing, so I sent an email to Nathan and asked him a few questions. He was kind enough to answer my email. I reproduce his responses (edited slightly for length) below.
Could you tell us your background? How long have you been studying Chinese, where, and how?
Sure. I am twenty-five years old, from the US. I have been in China for about four years. I taught English for two and a half years, the last year studying Chinese with a tutor. After that, I have been studying at Beijing International Studies University (北京第二外国语学院）. Next year I will graduate with a degree in Chinese Language. I have been making up quite a few credits as I did not study at a formal institution before coming to BISU. Although I did study at Global Village in 五道口 Beijing (semi-formal I suppose) for a short time.
What made you decide to go on 非你莫属?
I went to 非你莫属 as an audience member with friends from our school tv station. I normally participate in various activities at our school. Some of the employees there suggested that I try for myself – I figured “Why not?”.
So are you saying you weren’t actually seriously applying for a job? You kind of just made something up to see what would happen?
I was serious about applying for a job, but I was very skeptical about being offered anything realistic. Had I been offered 旅游体验师, I would have accepted it. I talked to a headhunter who specifically works with foreigners in China at a reputable firm. Basically, if you were to find someone who was most familiar with my situation, you would ask her. She said that I should ask for 20,000 RMB a month. That is how much I could bring in as an English teacher. I doubt any of the bosses could make me that offer. Actually, the bosses are almost always much less serious about the process than contestants. They are just there to 打酱油 and get free press for their companies. Also, being on TV is fun.
I did not make anything up. I chose a job after careful discussion with a friend and the headhunter that I know. When I first came to the 非你莫属 office, I said that I wanted to teach English. But after talking with a friend, I decided saying I wanted to teach English was a bit unexciting and I should go for it and chose a job that I thought was interesting. I have been working at our school TV station as a co-host for a new program and in other small capacities. I have also done a few other media-related things that I was told were unrelated while onstage. I might have chose a job like host, but I watched an old episode where a young man from QingHua got nailed because the companies couldn’t offer any kind of hosting job. I know that the host would have given me the stage, and I would have been humiliated because my current language skills and background are definitely inadequate. I am very realistic about my current job opportunities, skills, and goals. Having talked with the headhunter, I thought that I had chosen an appropriate job for myself. I have no experience, but really, it you have no experience this is the show to be on. People with solid experience and good qualifications who go on this show always seem to be offered a low salary with a low position. I figured that they would offer me a low salary, but I never expected to get so much criticism or a job so unrelated to what I wanted.
Your opening lines were pretty obviously recited from memory. Did you memorize a lot of lines to use on the show? How did that work out?
I did not memorize any lines to use on the show other than the opening introduction. Had I known what direction the questions would go, I would have memorized a few responses. But, given the spontaneity of questions and test on the show, it’s nearly impossible to prepare much. Also, poor performance needs no memorization (humor).
Did you you think the 老板 [bosses] (and the host) were fair to you?
I think that neither the host nor the bosses understood why I came on the show or what kind of job I was seeking. I am uncertain of whether the opinions that they voiced on the show were their true thoughts. However, when I went backstage they continued to maintain the stances that they took while onstage. I was baffled during a large portion of the interview because I have never heard statements from the Chinese like learning the Chinese language and culture is unimportant. Views stated were both ignorant and uneducated. Learning Chinese language and culture has been very useful to me, and I expect it to allow me to find a better job. Furthermore, I have never had issues finding a good job in China.
There was one portion of the show (天生我有才), where was I supposed to perform a magic trick I used to use to teach my students English. I was never allowed to perform it as the producer did not want too much foreign language in the show. I believe that this had a dramatic effect on my overall performance because I would have provided another subject to discuss other than my supposed weaknesses – mainly, the difference between Chinese and American teaching methods. If I performed the trick it would have shown my skills and cut me a break.
Was a lot of what they filmed edited out? Was what we saw representative of what really happened?
Yes, I a lot of what they filmed was edited out. I suspect the time I was onstage was approximately between half an hour and fourty-five minutes. I thought that it was fairly representative of what happened, although a few small things were changed – for example: I was the one who mentioned 五毛党. Also, at the end you will notice that they cut to footage of my hands while I said that the last offer was 不靠谱 – that was because I never said that.
What are your thoughts after participating on the show?
I am not really sure what to think about the show. The benefits being I received an email from you, I improved my Chinese, and I also received an email from a very promising company. The disadvantage being the pain of receiving so much criticism from the bosses. The most important thing (because the jobs were not fit for me), was maintaining my image while onstage. I am still unaware as to exactly what kind of person I portrayed while onstage.
Did you get a lot of email responses after the show?
I have not received too many email responses from the show, although all the responses so far have been positive. Most are job offers or letters of support and friendship.
What is your advice to other foreigners thinking of being on 非你莫属 or other similar “PK-style” Chinese TV shows?
I would suggest a media background for anyone interested in participating in 非你莫属. It is unlike shows like 非诚勿扰 that offer safe havens for foreigners wanting to get on TV. Adequate preparation and a bit of luck is also helpful. Be prepared to be completely misunderstood. You must control the atmosphere as much as possible and send off good vibes while appealing to the masses. I would never consider appearing on a show like this with 100% intention of finding a job. One of the reasons for appearing on the show was to improve my Chinese, another reason was to see if I could reap any benefits from meeting people on the show and the emails which I received afterwards. The jobs offered to me were completely worthless. I have been in contact with another contestant on the show, and he said that he was very unhappy with the new job offered. I think that my experience was basically the same as other contestants, with the exception that I was unable to show my talent. Many people believe that being such a dope on TV could ever happen to themselves, but all it takes is a bit of bad luck to produce a bad performance on a TV show like 非你莫属.
Nathan in Person
Shortly after I got in touch with Nathan by email, he just happened to visit Shanghai, so we met up. He was a really good guy in person, and I could tell that he must have been super nervous on the show. He spoke Chinese with my wife, and his (Beijing-accented) Mandarin really is quite impressive.
For me, what’s most impressive is that he had the courage to go on 非你莫属 after only having seriously studied Chinese for less than three years. I’ve been in China almost 11 years, and have gone through grad school in China (including a thesis defense), and still would be very intimidated by the thought of appearing on that show!
Thank you to Nathan for doing the interview.
One TV show aside, though, Chinese expectations for foreigners’ spoken Chinese are only going up. Students coming to China to study are arriving with better and better spoken Chinese skills “fresh off the boat,” and more and more fluent foreigners are appearing on TV. I do wonder how far off a new set of expectations for foreigners is.
I’m curious if my readers have noticed similar trends. I don’t watch a ton of TV (I swear!), so I’d be very interested in hearing about what others have observed.