China in One Word: Mafan

Two years ago, Chinese author Yu Hua published a book called China in Ten Words. Each chapter is a short essay on contemporary China, the theme of which comes from the chapter’s title (“The People,” “Grassroots,” “Copycat,” etc.). It’s a wonderful book and has resulted in a party game of sorts for China academic types, wherein we each pick our words to describe China and explain our choices. (Yes, this is the nerdiest party game ever. Yes, I’ve played it more than once.)

My all-time favorite Chinese word is mafan 麻烦. Pleco gives the basic definition of mafan as “troublesome, inconvenient”; it can also be a verb meaning “to inconvenience someone.” But mafan is far more than “Our appointment is set for 2:00, but could you make it 2:30 instead?” I’ve always found it almost untranslatable, and in conversation with other Chinese-speaking foreigners will often say things like, “The whole process was just so much mafan” (using it there as a noun, which doesn’t actually work in Chinese). Mafan implies—to me—the annoyances and frustrations that result from bureaucracy, or an inflexible adherence to illogical rules. If you’ve ever been to the California DMV, you have experienced mafan.

My personal source of mafan lately has been new visa rules that went into effect on July 1 (with another round following on September 1), which have resulted in me needing four separate visas to stay in China since then. It’s difficult for me to get a long-term (1- or 2-year) visa here, but previously I had managed to obtain a six-month, multiple-entry visa that enabled me to enter and leave the country as much as I wanted. It seems like those days might be over, at least for now; in the meantime, I’ll just keep reapplying and dealing with the mafan that inevitably arises from any transactions at the Shanghai Entry-Exit Bureau. And comparatively speaking, the mafan there isn’t actually all that bad: the annoyance comes from the repeated act of applying, rather than the process itself.

In fact, living in China is a lot less mafan than it used to be, at least for those of us who aren’t starting up our own businesses or otherwise dealing with the government on a regular basis. I’ve managed to survive just fine without a Chinese bank account (Chinese banks are a notorious source of mafan for foreigners), and I needed nothing more than a passport and a stack of cash to rent an apartment. Getting a cell phone, paying utility bills, buying train and plane tickets—all of this is reasonably straightforward and can usually be accomplished pretty easily. I, and almost every other expat I know, routinely complain about the mafan we encounter here, but in the grand scheme of things, mafan-laden situations are often limited to fairly specific tasks (obtaining a visa being the primary one).

Again, a huge caveat that I’m speaking as someone who doesn’t have many dealings with the Chinese government. Any foreign journalist in the country would have, I’m sure, a completely different opinion about the level of mafan involved in living and working here. But it’s also telling that I can live here and more or less limit my interaction with the government to the visa process. Chinese authorities used to keep much closer tabs on foreigners living in the country, and living as I do—somewhat under the radar—has only become truly possible in the past decade, or even less.

But while mafan might not be the single most perfect word to describe life in China any longer, it’s still one of the most useful arrows in my vocabulary quiver. Because really, there’s simply no other word—in any language I’ve studied—that so completely encompasses the rigidity, frustration, and lack of logic that come together in a perfect storm to create mafan. And when you’re caught in that storm, “inconvenient” doesn’t begin to describe the experience.

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