Amongst the Expat community circles here, people talk of "China days" or "China weeks." If you're feeling particularly gloomy it might even stretch to a month. These consist of times when the way China is gets you down. I commiserate with one Canadian roommate about people shoving and stepping on her feet in the subway without looking or apologizing, with an Aussie upstairs as Chinese love interests become scarily clingy, with my American roomy across the hall when our company and indeed the entire country seem determined to move steadily backwards with increasingly inane bureaucratic policies.
Police dispute attracting a curious crowd
(Photos credited to EB Words)
Our students tell us for the 18 millionth time that they hate all Japanese people because they hate all Japanese people. They sit silently for an entire hour rather than admitting that they have no idea what you are saying in order to save face. Bank tellers laugh when you tell them you won't have money to eat until your bank card comes in and when asked what can be done they suggest you borrow money from your friends. A cynical Expat need not look far to find something endlessly frustrating about the culture. To be fair, I think this is true everywhere.
The China-ism that has most gotten under my skin is the phrase "mei banfa." It means roughly "there's nothing that can be done (to help the situation)." My first month in Guangzhou I walked into a supermarket looking for a hair scrunchy (admittedly a word I didn't know). I described it in Chinese to a staff member standing idly in a bright red uniform. She told me the store didn't have any. I asked where I could find some and she repeated - the store didn't have any. I asked if there was some place nearby that she knew of that might have it or if she knew of anything that I could use as a substitute. Once more - the store didn't have any.
"Zenme ban?" What can I do I asked.
"Mei banfa." There's nothing you can do she responded.
Suddenly a rack of scrunchies caught my eye directly behind the staff member. I asked, "What about that one." She looked and said, "Oh you can use that," without changing her solid expression.
It's this attitude that has eluded my understanding and recently, I have tried hard to grasp it. I surprisingly found something to ponder in a place more known for showing the uglier side of China – on Chinasmack (no longer publishing new content). In particular, in a piece entitled "What are young Chinese thinking?". The piece is a collection of portrait style full body photos of Chinese people holding a white poster board containing a single thought in black marker in front of varied surroundings from dorm rooms, teahouses, and towering office windows, to railroad tracks, mountain sides, and the Great Wall. Some of the thoughts are simplistic. Many are very poignant and thoughtful.
Some signs include messages like:
-- “I HATE the WEATHER in CHINA!”
-- “I want to save people.”
-- “When I go to the big city, I feel like I don’t know anything.” (From an illiterate Gansu farmer holding up a blank card)
-- “Living here, I feel frustrated!” From a Shanghai man standing in front of a crumbling neighborhood housing block.
Some expressed bitterness about girls being materialistic and only being interested if you are a rich man with a house and a car. Some express indignance at being forced to become a migrant factory worker away from their home town. They talked about economics, about social situations, about government policies, about stubborn cultural traditions. I found them moving, thought provoking, funny, odd, but always relate-able. In reading the thoughts I found myself asking, “Well, what really can you do about a situation like that?”
It was not so much a statement of surrender to circumstances beyond control, but a humbling at the mountains that stand between these people and their dreams. When I ask my students what they can do if they aren’t satisfied with the way their government is run, they simply say, “Nothing.”
“Nothing?” I ask.
“Well, if I don’t want to disappear, yeah.”
I never know what to say in these situations. I want to point out that you can write letters to your representatives, or boycott companies you don’t support, or take to the streets in number. But who am I? A foreigner who can’t speak the local language, can only poorly speak the state language. A kid fresh out of college who decided to take advantage of the economic situation that lets anyone with a passport and a native English speaking tongue live like a king (or at least a wealthy duke).
And the people I’m talking to? They can tell me family members that died during the Cultural Revolution. They remember what Guangzhou was like before it was a city. They can show me pictures of the second child they paid dearly for, and recite over 200 hundred years of famines, wars, and atrocities that have been plaguing their country.
So when friends laugh at people with massive bags of green beans they’re taking home by train because it’s a few jiao cheaper, or when kindly looking grandmothers elbow their way into a taxi in front of a pregnant woman with 8 grocery bags, or even when someone stares into my face and says something insulting about foreigners that they assume I can’t understand, I try not to make it into a China day. There’s too much wonder here for that.
A wide eyed elderly person stares bullets at the seated passengers pretending not to see her only to profusely thank a teen who gets up and offers his seat. Taxi drivers overhear you telling your friend the correct pronunciation of a street name and launch into a rapid fire Mandarin and Cantonese lesson complete with anecdotes and breathy laughs between every sentence. Masseurs grind into your foot even harder when you tell them it hurts, then chuckle. Even the huge grin of the 13,855th “HELLO,” yelled from a passing bicyclist a half block back – They all make me shake my head and smile.
It’s crazy, and there’s just no helping it.