30 November 2008

Mei Banfa

Yesterday I had an experience that epitomized the difficulties of dealing with bureaucracy in China and also was a good example of a "mei banfa" situation.

Friday night I left my cell phone in a cab. Long story, not worth retelling, but I was unable to get it back even though I had the taxi receipt and called the company right away. So yesterday I go to buy a new phone at the China Mobile store right near my apartment. I brought my SIM card registration packet, which was all I thought I needed. I got to the counter, after 20 minutes in line, and explained my situation to the agent. He said that my phone was registered in another person's name, so he could not do anything on the account because it wasn't in my name. He said it was a stolen number. I realized that this was because I bought the phone at an electronics mall, and not the China Mobile store, and I didn't have my passport when I bought the phone so they just registered it to a random name. My Chinese was not good enough to understand, but I'm sure they explained this to me at the time.

Anyway, the guy tells me that I need to produce a list of ten numbers that I've called within the past month. Sounds pretty simple, right? I think for a minute, and then tell him that I don't know anyone's number by heart, that they're all in the phone that I lost, isn't there any other way I can prove my identity? Isn't the fact that I have the SIM card packet enough? "Mei banfa, mei you banfa," he says. Ahhh, this terrible expression. It basically means "impossible," but it is used in a wide variety of contexts including "no way around this problem," "there's nothing I can do," "I don't want to help you," and "that's life." It is the ultimate indication that you have hit a brick wall in China. I argue with the guy for a little while longer, but he just repeats himself: "mei banfa." I soon realize at this point that I need to somehow scrounge together a list of ten phone numbers. I did not expect buying a new phone would be this difficult.

I leave in defeat and return a few hours later with a list of 15 or so numbers that I'm able to find on scraps of paper and in my computer's address book. I also bring my passport, my Registration Form of Residence (all foreigners have to register with the police), my receipt from where I bought the original phone and SIM card, and my SIM password card. I think I'll surely have no problem now. It's later in the day and the line is longer now. Finally I get back up to the counter. The guy types in the first ten numbers. Half of them go through and the other half come back as not in the system. He tells me that it must not be my account because half of the numbers are wrong. "This must be a stolen number," he says. I assure him that I have called each of these numbers in the past month, and that the phone number is mine. "Mei banfa," he says. I am about ready to punch this guy. His attitude is so bureaucratic and he clearly isn't interested in helping the dumb foreigner. I am reminded that China Mobile is a state-owned enterprise of the People's Republic of China.

This has already taken about two hours of my time today and all I want to do is get a new phone and register my number. I am getting frustrated now and I tell him that it's not my problem, I know I called these numbers, please try again. "Mei banfa," he says again. Then he thinks for a minute, and asks me when I called these numbers. About half of them I'd called the day before. He tells me that sometimes it takes a while for them to come up in the system, so I should come back in a week and then it will probably work. I tell him that I can't be without a phone for a week, that's ridiculous. "Mei banfa," he says again. I think we're up to at least 5 now. I'm really getting pissed now and I tell him he needs to do something, please help me out, I'm not lying, this is not a stolen number. I am begging him. He looks at me for a while, and then gets up and returns with a form. He painstakingly fills out some sort of affadavit, writing my story in extensive detail and giving him the authority to override the system and register my number in my name. He gives me a bunch of papers to sign. I hand over my passport. Approximately 11 signatures later, my phone number is oficially registered in my name and I'm the owner of a new cell phone and SIM card with my original number.

And that's the thing about "mei banfa" in China. There is, in fact, almost always a way to deal with the problem. Nothing is ever really impossible. Sometimes it just takes a while.


Anonymous said...

At last we have resolution and along with it, a metaphor for life

Annie said...

Well put anonymous. You're a great writer Greg!