Last year, I found myself ushered through the doors of Chinese TV. With a career in entertainment, the world of television is not one that I’m unfamiliar with, but since having our daughter in 2012 and our son shortly after in 2013, I have been living on the fringes of the performance world. What’s more, this was my first experience on Chinese TV.
Ironically, it was my motherhood and not my music that got me the gig. Mama Mia (妈妈咪呀) is a reality TV talent competition designed for mothers; in the end, I progressed to the final round to “win” third place nationally. I had to laugh when I examined my “prize” backstage and noticed the following characters engraved on the slick glass trophy: “Third Place Chinese Mother.”
Of course, I’m not Chinese; I’m Canadian. I have a Chinese husband and two bi-racial kids (and the very strong presence of my mother-in-law), but my blonde hair and green eyes set me apart. Coupled with this intercultural love story and my ability to speak Mandarin, the network had their bait for ratings held tightly in hand. That begs the question: Was my position in the top three connected in any way to my talent?
My husband balked at this question. In that moment when his face was poised in reaction, the words having yet to fall from his lips, I expected a pat answer of reassurance. “The real question is,” he said, lowering his gaze, “Is it really a competition?”
We both laughed. And, shiny glass trophy aside, my real prize was this: to have become a symbolic part of China’s national movement towards a modern definition of family. The ensuing barrage of requests to be on other television shows confirmed this perspective. And while that may seem like a good thing, the “reality” of reality shows is that each appearance requires at least a week’s time as well as the full participation of my husband, in-laws, and children (whose needs are irrelevant to filming schedules), and each performance is entirely (or quite nearly) unpaid. The latter is particularly frustrating when you’re required to take time off from paying jobs. Is the symbolic role worth it? Do I now have a responsibility to this movement?
“If you come on our show, your celebrity status will rise!” the directors say via recorded WeChat messages, incorrectly assuming my ultimate goal. Typically, they are also implying that gratitude ought to be directed at the network, not the participant.
The truth is, what I really hope for China’s future is that people like me – foreigners married to nationals who are integrated into the culture, speak the language, celebrate the holidays, feast on jianbing – may one day no longer be newsworthy. Will mixed marriages one day be seen as normal, common, boring even? Perhaps this is an imposition of my Canadian ideals, but I still dream of a more racially-inclusive China.
For now, watching the video memory of it all, all I see is the camera zooming in on my kids while the hosts circle my husband and mother-in-law in search of either comical or heartwarming cultural differences. You can almost hear the rushing swoop of their collective hope to prey on possible conflicts between us. Oh right, and the afterthought: a conciliatory song.
Honestly, I think Chinese television – not unlike Chinese fashion – makes a habit of being “over-the-top.” It’s a little much for my taste. But perhaps accepting the odd TV performance request will be the very trick to enabling that ultimate dream. With more visibility comes less novelty – or so say the history books.
About the Illustrator
Sixteen-year-old Xiaoqing Zhao is a Year 12 student at Harrow International School Beijing from China. She is currently taking A-Level Art. Her illustration is based on combining personal elements from Ember’s family and Chinese culture.