When friends back home ask what life is like in Beijing, I usually just say, “Bonkers,” and change the subject. It’s easier than explaining how, one afternoon last fall, I found myself wearing a neon-pink t-shirt doing a bastardized version of the “Single Ladies” dance while my artistic collaborator, an eight-year-old Chinese girl who I was instructed to get freaky with onstage, sang a forgotten German pop song for a purported broadcast audience of millions and a live audience of hired models.
Fine, I’ll explain. A few months ago, I got a call from Zhang Yang, a producer for a Beijing TV variety show called “You Can,” whom I’d met while working on another story. “Wen Xiao,” he said, addressing me by my Chinese name, “are you free tomorrow? We need you to dance.” I’d once jokingly told Zhang that he should put me onstage to show off my freshest moves. I didn’t think he’d actually do it. I was wary of being yet another white guy acting like a dumb-ass on Chinese TV, but a chance to infiltrate the bizarro world of state television was impossible to refuse. “OK,” I said, “I’ll do it.”
Early the next morning, I showed up at the studio, where Zhang introduced me to my new partner, Yang Shuo. She, too, had been called in last minute. She was wearing leather boots, a pink angora sweater, and a newsboy cap—fancy duds for a third-grader, and that wasn’t even her costume. Despite her youth, she was already an old hand at showbiz, having performed on China Central Television’s (CCTV) “Music Express” and the Hebei Children’s Spring Festival program. I was impressed, but her mother, Hao Chunna, demurred. “She’s too shy,” Hao told me. “She likes to sing, but she’s not a natural performer.” She wasn’t a natural conversationalist, either. When I tried to make small talk (“What’s your favorite song?”), she seemed dubious of my presence (“All of them”). I couldn’t blame her.
In a storage room full of spare fire extinguishers, Yang Shuo’s mom produced a mini-speaker that played “She,” a boppy, mid-tempo marshmallow by the German band Groove Coverage. While Yang Shuo started singing into an invisible microphone and stalking provocatively around the imaginary stage, I just froze. It was then that reality sank in: I actually had to dance. I don’t know how to dance. The best I could manage was a sort of rhythmic power walk with lots of arm motion, like an old man at the park.
Zhang seemed as disappointed as I was. To make this work, he said, Yang Shuo and I needed to interact. He suggested I lead her around by the hand, shimmy right up near her, and finish in a swing-style dip pose. I reminded Zhang that Yang Shuo was eight years old. “It’s OK, Chinese people don’t think like that,” he said. I insisted. Fine, he agreed, just make it look like you have a connection.
We didn’t, at all. But that could be fixed. Zhang walked us to a well-lit cafeteria space to shoot a pre-interview. “So when we ask how you two met,” Zhang said before the taping, “what are you going to say?” “That we met today?” I replied. “No,” Zhang explained, we had to say that we—an eight-year-old and a 28-year-old, from two different worlds, who barely speak each other’s language—met two months ago at auditions for this show and were so moved by each other’s talents that we decided to collaborate.
A minute later, Zhang’s assistant came by with a new twist. It turned out the reason they’d brought us in at the eleventh hour was that a previous contestant, an Egyptian rapper with the Chinese name Wang Lin, had gotten into a motorcycle wreck the day before and fractured his leg, and they needed a replacement act. The producers smelled opportunity. We now had to say that we were originally a trio—Yang Shuo, Wang Lin, and myself—but since Wang Lin was in the hospital, we were forced to perform as a duo. (Never mind why the three of us would have made a plausible team in the first place.) Zhang said we should dedicate the song to our good friend Wang Lin and wish him a speedy recovery.
The interview went smoothly. I’m a bad liar, but as I got warmed up, the b.s. started to flow. “I’m a writer,” I said, “but my dream is to share my dancing talent with others.” Because of Wang Lin’s accident, “I had to invent my own dance, a white-people dance.” “Do all white people do this dance?” Zhang asked. “Not everyone,” I said. “Maybe just me.” “Do you think you’ll win?” “Of course we’ll win. There’s no possibility of losing.” “What do you have to say to Wang Lin?” I looked into the camera. “Wang Lin,” I said, “I really miss you.” I felt tears coming. “I hope you can recover as quickly as possible, quickly come back into our lives. I’m really sad you can’t . . .” I cracked up. The crew lost it, too. After a minute, I composed myself. “OK, let me try again,” I said.
We changed into our clashing costumes—me: blue pants and a hot-pink tee with the word FASHION emblazoned across the front; her: a black-and-red tutu ensemble—and reported to the makeup room, where a male stylist wearing a surgical mask turned me into a slightly less masculine Robert Palmer girl. We now looked our parts: a child star and her fey Eurotrash hype man.
A few acts came before us, each with an uplifting backstory. There was a middle-aged French singer with a rat tail who had taught a group of Chinese boys how to break dance in overalls, and a preteen magician / swordsman from the United States whose family had moved to China. Our Wang Lin subplot made sense: If we were going to win, there would need to be tears.
Finally it was our turn. Yang Shuo and I introduced ourselves to the three judges and assumed our starting poses in front of the giant Red Bull sponsor logo. I recall only snippets of what happened next. What I do know is that three minutes and 50 seconds is a very long time, so I decided to run through every move I could think of. It started out easy: the hand roll, the swimmer, the cast-and-reel, all of which I executed with the flair of a longtime Bar Mitzvah–goer. But after I’d exhausted the Macarena, the funky chicken, the “Walk Like an Egyptian” dance, and a dyspraxic version of the worm, I was running out of material. For a minute-plus, I lapsed into an improvised modern dance / ballet that became a Vinyasa sun salutation before transitioning into warrior poses one, two, and three. As planned, I spent the last few bars pumping up the crowd before returning to our final pose, which I botched by striking four measures early.
We lost, of course. All three judges voted for our opponent, a 38-year-old Korean pop singer who could actually sing. Coming off stage, I felt bad, not for myself but for Yang Shuo. Unlike me, she’s actually got talent. That said, she now had the distinction of participating in possibly the worst performance ever recorded on Chinese television. Which was sort of my goal. When I signed up for “You Can,” I figured I would dance so badly that it would expose the singular awfulness of Chinese television. Not that it needed my help: Flip through the channels at any given moment and you’ll see a predictable combination of World War II epics (Chinese good, Japanese bad), Korean soap operas, Korean-inspired Chinese soap operas, plus a slew of identical-looking talk/dating/talent shows, the most popular of which are Chinese copies of foreign programs. While most networks run like businesses, the party still has final say over content—a system that discourages risk-taking. And when foreigners go on television, it’s often as the proverbial “trained monkey,” the strange Other to be gawked at. I thought that by embracing that role and pushing it to the extreme, I could somehow transcend it.
My plan was a little too successful: The episode never ran. It wasn’t clear why. I’m guessing the segment just didn’t compute. Nothing about it—irony, self-humiliation, off-script-ness—is part of the media vernacular here, where every shot needs to be pre- and post-approved. I wanted to become China’s William Hung, the “American Idol” auditioner whose Ricky Martin cover launched him to dubious stardom. But this country would never embrace a William Hung. “In China, show business is all about making people comfortable,” Julien Gaudfroy, one of the judges on the show, told me later. Based on the audience’s reaction, my dance did the opposite. It had to go.
Then again, it’s possible I just sucked too much.
Christopher Beam is a staff writer at The New Republic.