Popular TV show sees foreigners discuss range of topics in Chinese, Xing Wen reports.
The surroundings are Spartan. A dark high-ceilinged, storehouse-like room with sets and props that, under no circumstances, could be described as lavish. The centerpiece is a paint-shedding rectangular conference table, decorated, if that is the right word, with a red tablecloth and 15 or so cumbersome wooden chairs.
But first impressions can be deceptive. This is the unlikely threadbare setting for a popular TV show that focuses the viewer's attention on what is important, and that is the show's content. Informal Talks was created by Hubei Satellite TV and the acclaim with which it has been greeted shows that it is furnishing the mind, if not the set. The show has scored at least 9 out of 10 for each season on China's review aggregator site, Douban. Its fifth season aired on Chinese video streaming platform, Bilibili, on May 17.
First aired in 2015, the show gathers a panel of non-Chinese young men to share their insights on a range of topics, some mundane, some profound, such as table manners, wedding customs, folklore and other cultural elements from their own countries, engaging in debate on a wide variety of issues from their different perspectives, all in Chinese.
Its producer Yu Qing says when choosing the topics, they give priority to those that concerned the younger generation of Chinese.
Da Zuo, the show's host, says he browses through comments on review websites and collects practical feedback from the viewers.
"I hope that, during the discussions, I can put forth some questions from the perspective of Chinese audiences and help them to understand the subject through the show," he says. "We aim to clear up some misunderstandings among people from different cultural backgrounds via free-flowing exchanges in the studio."
To better engage himself in the talks, the host has been motivated to expand his range of knowledge by reading books about the histories of different European cultures or such classics as A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking.
Keeping it real
Chen Ming, a teacher with the School of Journalism and Communication at Wuhan University, acts as the secretary-general in the show who usually sums up panelists' opinions and gives learned explanations for certain social phenomenon related to each topic discussed in the show, making it easier for the audience to comprehend their conversations.
He says that most of the time, by probing trivial problems people might encounter in their daily lives, or a topic that is of current interest, they end with a meaningful conclusion. "For instance, we could start with women's enduring fascination with lipstick, and later distill the phenomenon into something abstract, such as the psychology behind customer behavior at certain times," says Chen.
Likewise, in the third episode of the new season, the fact that there are more than 100 million WeChat users who have chosen to only display posts of the last three days, rather than all their posts, provoked a discussion on how to subtly keep a distance from other people and how different cultures handle personal space.
Such entertaining and informative content enables the show to attract a large group of loyal viewers who would send a torrent of danmu, "bullet words" or short live comments, to take part in the discussions when watching the show on Bilibili.
Liu Bin, a Beijing-based computer programmer and a keen fan of the show, says that it satisfies his curiosity about places beyond China.
"It's quite impressive that although the guests are all foreigners, they can still analyze the topics and express their views in a comprehensive way through fluent Chinese," adds Liu.
To Brian Gonzalez, the Argentine guest who has been a fixture in the show for the past four years, the charm of the show lies in that every participant just tries to come across as genuine.
"We won't behave in the way that some celebrities might do in other reality shows," says the 28-year-old. "We just share true stories that happened in our lives."
The Buenos Aires native started to learn Chinese when he was 15, and three years later he came to China and entered Beijing International Studies University where he got a bachelor's degree in Chinese and a master's degree in international trade.
In 2015, Gonzalez impressed during the auditions held by the production unit of Informal Talks at his university and successfully grasped his very first chance to appear on TV.
"I was very shy and really cared about what other people thought of me, but now I am more eager to express myself in front of the camera," Gonzalez recalls.
Alistair Bayley, from Australia, shares a similar experience with Gonzalez.
Bayley says he was trying to seriously portray himself as an intelligent person of unimpeachable character as he thought that he was a "spokesman" for his country. However, he gradually focused more on showing who he is by sharing personal experiences and conveying his own viewpoints.
"I found that when you represent a country or an idea too forcefully, people don't want to interact," says the 26-year-old. "What they are willing to do is to get to know you more and develop a relationship with you like they would have with their friends, classmates or co-workers."
Bayley has lived in Japan and China with his parents and has been exposed to different cultural realities.
"Being immersed in cultural diversity in my early years, I acquired the ability to put myself in the shoes of others," he says.
Pool of opportunities
Bayley, who won the 12th "Chinese Bridge" Proficiency Competition for Foreign College Students in 2013, further demonstrated his language skills with logical and in-depth arguments.
Moreover, he also found a stage outside the studio to strut his stuff-last year, he was offered a job by a We-Media platform launched by a group of foreigners which aims to culturally bridge the gap between China and Western countries. His main work is to write scripts and record videos for the platform.
Last month, Bayley and seven colleagues traveled to cities in northern, southern, eastern and western China to film videos exploring conditions and customs through the eyes of foreigners.
"I got this opportunity mainly because of my performance in Informal Talks, and all these adventures have really enriched my life here," he says.
Iranian participant Mohammadjavad Estilaf, 31, is relishing the opportunities that his appearances on the show have given him.
A former business Chinese major at East China Normal University, Estilaf showed his comic talents by mimicking his teachers in front of his classmates. He was encouraged to develop his talents further. He seized an opportunity to take a postgraduate program in broadcasting and hosting at the Shanghai Theatre Academy in 2010.
Two years later he began to host TV shows on the International Channel Shanghai using English, Mandarin and the Shanghai dialect, which gained him a loyal following among Shanghai natives.
"Informal Talks provides me a bigger stage which has connected me to audiences in other parts of China," says Estilaf, adding that he has already been invited to play a part in several TV dramas.
Dylan Jaye, who has American-Italian parentage, says China is "a place of tons of opportunities".
The graduate from Oxford University, who once worked at a London-based investment bank, learned a lot about the general economic climate in China and always wanted to experience life here on his own.
"Everything is still growing in the country, and because of that, there's a lot of space for people, especially young people, to do important things and to have a big impact on what's going on," says the 23-year-old.
As a music lover, he has also noticed that he could take inspiration from the work of Chinese musicians, especially that of Taiwan pop icon, Jay Chou.
"I have a music dream. I love the music here more than that of the West, at least at this point in my life," says Jaye. "I think there's a lot I can learn from both traditional Chinese music and modern Chinese music."
Jaye has realized his dream. His first album will launch this month.
"The show is a valuable showcase for us to display our talents and uniqueness, which might bring us other kinds of opportunities," he says.
Bridging the gap
According to Jaye, his upcoming album features Chinese elements both linguistically and musically, which will help his listeners in Western countries better understand Chinese culture.
In a music video he posted on Sina Weibo last year he raps about how he and other foreign friends found their feet in Beijing and started to use online shopping platforms, mobile payments, food delivery services and shared bikes.
Gonzalez, the Argentine guest who garnered over 1 million followers on Sina Weibo, says after watching the show, many of his fans began to learn Spanish or visited the place where he comes from.
"What I am doing is just letting Chinese young people learn more about Argentina, a country far from China, showing that we are not that different and we have many things in common," says Gonzalez.
Chen agrees and adds that the show gives viewers deeper insight into the social contexts of other countries, which allows viewers to understand cultural differences more easily.
"I used to read piles of books to learn about the culture and history of other countries, but different cultures are presented more vividly during the show's discussions on a wide range of topics," says Chen.