The Blog

Looking For Chinese Solutions, Finding None

We shrug our shoulders and say one of the most important and infuriating phrases in the Chinese language:.
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By the time you read this the heat will be on in Beijing. Finally. But right now, as I write, it's cold -- cold in my local café, cold in my apartment, cold everywhere.

Citizens of Beijing wait until sometime in mid-November for the city to turn on central heating. Until then, they -- we -- bundle up in sweatpants and hoodies at home and at work. We sleep under extra blankets, warm our hands with cups of tea, and, on especially cold days, curse the day we came here until our throats are toasty warm.

And then we do it all again in the spring when the city turns off the heat on March 15.

But, like with many other aspects of life in China, we grin and bare it. We shrug our shoulders and say one of the most important and infuriating phrases in the world: mei banfa.

Mei banfa translates roughly to "there's no way," or "no solution," or "no recourse." Depending on the context, it amounts to a shoulder shrug, a resigned sigh, a deep breath and an acceptance of the things you can't control, which, in China, is almost everything. Living in a country of 1.3 billion can be frustrating, and the Chinese have a way of taking it all in stride.

No cabs? Mei banfa.

Over-crowded subway/market/sidewalk? Mei banfa.

Bike stolen for the second time this month? Mei banfa.

No toilet paper? Big time mei banfa.

No seat on the train? Mei banfa -- no solution.

I enjoy living in China for many reasons. But like every foreigner here I've had my share of Bad China Days, and it takes a certain degree of Zen to get through them. When I first arrived in China the up-and-down waves came in daily and weekly increments. Now, they come every three months or so, and they can change on a dime. One minute you're euphoric about life here, the next you're looking into plane tickets home.

It's not so much the big things - the traffic, the smog, the sheer masses of people - that drive me nuts. I expected those things. For me, it's the little details that can get under my skin. Things like trying to find a battery that lasts for more than ten minutes. Or the impossible task of finding decent deodorant.

Sometimes you're tempted to fight back with China. If, for example, a cabby doesn't know where he's going but won't admit it, you yell and complain and question his competence. But there's really nothing you can do. When you fight with China, China mostly wins, and there's only one effective way of dealing with it: to shrug it off and say "mei banfa."

Mei banfa can also be maddening. It's used frequently as a means of getting out of doing something a person doesn't want to do. Like one's job. It can be a face-saving mechanism; if a repairman doesn't know how to fix your busted air conditioner, it's easier for him to say there's no way to fix it than to admit he doesn't know how. Mei banfa - his ace in the hole.

Sometimes you desperately want there to be a banfa even when there is no banfa. Like the time I ordered a sandwich at a sandwich shop that had run out of bread, or when I found a piece of denim in my noodles and asked (in vain) for my money back.

No bread for your sandwich? Jeans in your noodles? Mei banfa. Nothing to be done.

On the other hand, sometimes there is a banfa even when there is apparently no banfa. Once I was writing a story about train travel in China and I was in a hurry to meet my deadline. I went to a ticketing agent near my apartment and asked for tickets to any of three destinations - Shanghai, Shenzhen or Guilin - on any of three dates.

The agent didn't even bother to look at me when I made the request.

"Mei you," he said curtly, shaking his head.

No tickets.

"Really?" I asked.

"Mei banfa," he said.

Nope, no solution.

In fact, there was a banfa. The banfa was presented to me at the next closest ticketing agent, where tickets were available to all three destinations on all three dates.

It takes a bit of Zen to live in a country this crowded

I realize this is straying dangerously close to expat navel gazing. An obvious banfa to my complaints about day-to-day life in China would be to go home. But I do love this place. China is dynamic and fascinating and challenging. It's an incredible place during an incredible time. For every one thing that drives me crazy about this country, there are several reasons that compel me to stay.

Still, when people blast tinny music on speakerphones or passengers cram onto the subway while I'm trying to get off or...

Deep breath. Mei banfa.