The Battle of Mianzi

by Nichole Reber

When Laura, Selina, and I moved to Huludao, China, we learned quickly how ill prepared we were to live there. We walked a mile from our condo to Bohai College’s bus stop at Feitian Square. There we’d smile, exchange a ni hao with the Chinese Bohai employees who boarded with us at the unmarked, nondescript stop on the side of a major thoroughfare. Then the jalopy of a bus would arrive. It had the size of a touring van but none of the comforts. We’d each take a seat, hoping not to snag our clothing on ripped vinyl or scrape our legs on protruding screws. Some locals smiled at us. Most continued talking. We didn’t understand a word of what they were saying, though eventually my ears caught on to certain words repeated along the ten-mile route to and from the college.

Shi, shi, shi.” It is. It is. It is.

Hao hao hao.” Good, good, good.

Life in North China wouldn’t be an extended holiday. It would be the first country I lived in outside the US, the introduction to expatriot life and to Chinese culture beyond some Epcot image, a place to meet new friends and to discover new customs. Photos of previous groups of Westerners, or weiguo ren, revealed a gleeful lot, surrounded by Chinese teachers and students. Vacationing together. Laughing.

Daily we ran head-first into the differences between Western versus Eastern systems of logic. One of which was the language. Wouldn’t it be as easy as Spanish and Italian? Not a bit. Its tones and pronunciation, its syntax and grammar… they just did me in. A pirated version of Pimsleur helped. So did sporadic lessons with a Bohai teacher who voluntarily tutored any willing foreigners. Parroting zao shang hao for good morning, however, is easier than comprehending it. I tried to learn the characters by seeing them as architecture, linking to my career as a freelance architecture journalist before the recession sent me here. Now I was mentally turning Chinese symbols on store fronts and hotels into architectural designs as Laura and Selina and I made the long walk home after work.

None of us had studied international business. We hadn’t read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War or Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, which might have introduced us to mianzi. Even those, though, can only theoretically prepare Westerners for the Chinese practice known otherwise as face…and all the ways you gain or lose it.


Laura, a Texas Latina, aspired one day to study law back in the States. She and Selina, an Irish towhead, were building great rapport. They were close in age. I had a decade on them. Blasts of culture shock brought us together. We’d meet in the first-floor kitchen of our two-story condo to discuss how we failed some quotidian task. These rare moments of musketeer bonding were occasions to share with the other two what one of us had learned, preventing them from having to suffer the same frustration. Laura and Selina would take a break from their online searches for a boyfriend for Laura, which often sent bales of laughter through our two-story condo. Or from their quarrels that inevitably led to the sound of something breaking, like the night Laura smashed their bathroom’s sliding door. I heard it all from my suite upstairs, lost in books and American political news podcasts.

In the kitchen we’d throw together tofu, rice, and vegetables. We’d warm up some tea. We saw the Chinese as masters in the art of deflection. They made impossible promises. They lied. They avoided questions almost altogether. They also gathered information, buddying up to each other or foreigners to glean information for corporations or the government, so we read on expat blogs.

What we failed to recognize was that taken together these actions demonstrate mianzi. Point to an address written in Chinese characters on a slip of paper, and ask a street sweeper how to get there. She holds onto her broom and looks at you. She looks at the slip of paper. “Mei ban fa,” she says. The words replay in my memory. They sound like May bahn fah. “Mei ban fa?” I repeat. She repeats it too then returns to her work. Later I ask an expat what that means: It can’t be done.

Sometimes it seems nonsensical. A foreign teacher asks the Chinese student who works as the teachers’ aid to make photocopies for her class. The assistant says, “Maybe,” then gives an excuse: the printer would be closed. “Maybe” the class could just share. “Maybe” the teacher doesn’t really need it. “Maybe” she could do an activity that didn’t involve photocopies. Finally, frustration takes her almost to the point of yelling, “A simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will do.” But there never is a yes or no. The assistant isn’t lazy; she has to hide the fact that the Bohai owner has ordered her not to permit photocopies. But the foreigners don’t find that out for days or weeks.

These methods of mianzi weren’t much different from those some Leslie T. Chang explained in Factory Girls. She also wrote that colleagues undermine each other in front of superiors. Bosses demonstrate their authority by belittling others and extorting bribes. They reduce wages for tardiness, minor mistakes, illness, and other reasons. They also customarily withhold wages for months, she wrote, making it seem so common a practice that Chinese workers expected it.


The slight smiles of the Chinese, or zhongguo ren, on our bus weren’t welcoming. Weren’t inquiring. They were barely more than mechanical. Still, we accepted them at face value. They were clever disguises for about a month into the school year, when the locals began sharing only two seats with us. They grew more seldom over the next couple of weeks until we were down to one seat.

That was around the time John, a local who rode the Bohai bus with us, extended a friendly hand. He approached us one evening after the bus let us off in Feitian Square and offered to introduce us to the public bus to expedite the last mile of our route home. Laura and I accepted; Selina opted to walk alone.

We joined the loud chorus of the other people waiting at the public bus stop.

“The school has paid you?” John asks, adjusting his glasses. He keeps his eyes turned to the ground.

“Yes,” I say, trying not to inhale fumes from cars waiting at the nearby traffic light.

“They haven’t paid us Chinese since December.”

Four months ago. Four months? There isn’t time to read his face or ask more about it before the bus pulls up. We give our kuai, or money, to a lady screaming bus stop names and shoving people into the bus.

Laura and I lose each other in the tsunami of people. They keep coming and coming. Pushing and pushing. Her white teeth are like a beacon in a tide of rotten ones as she laughs from nervous tension. The next time I catch a glimpse of her, tears are about to spill from her big brown eyes. I know how she feels. Pointy elbows and oversized purses adorned with sharp objects poke us. Nauseating breath from the 100 or so passengers make us recoil. Fogged up windows make the outside near impossible to see.

John hadn’t told us it would be like this. Then again, how could he have known this experience would be so different from our country’s? Our buses simply wouldn’t stop to pick up more passengers once they’d reached a certain count. Some might even bear a sign reading Full. Here, there is no such thing as full.

Fear floods me with endorphins. I start to worry about exiting. What if we can’t get out, if we have to ride this thing around and around until enough people get off that we’re confidant enough to move? Then I think I spot a blurry outline of our apartment building roofline. My instincts take over. I ignore my American concerns about physical space. This is a when-in-Rome situation. I step on toes. I bump people. I shove my way to Laura who’s hidden among people of her same petite stature. My hand finds hers like a mama bear and her cub, and finally the bus comes to a stop. We join the inertia of the crowd pushing us out the door and . land feet-first on the ground. Thud. The bus’s fumes choke us as it drives off.

We look at each other’s golf ball-sized eyes and burst into laughter, wiping each other’s tears away, then we walk to our condo and climb six flights of stairs. There, panting yet still laughing, we relax. Someone tosses rice into the steamer. Our story makes Selina double over in laughter.

Those photos of foreign teachers with Chinese friends appear in the back of my mind. Camping, hiking, laughing, smiling.


After that night the Chinese teachers at the university bus stop didn’t smile. When we boarded they shoved us out of the way. Now we had no seats. Laura stood in the middle of the bus, where she would easily have been tossed through the windshield should the driver choose aggression over grace with the brakes. Selina sat on the floor, which the locals spit on and blew their noses on. I occupied a cold, steel wheel well. The ambience became a war of silence, cold as the North China winter air.

We had lost face. But how?

We didn’t get confrontational. We were Westerners; we’d been raised to find whining despicable. We don’t like tattletales. But while we might go to a counselor or the HR department back in Ireland or the US, Neil and Belinda, for reasons that will appear later, had already proven useless. So, over a lunch of commiseration, Laura, and Selina, and I decided to handle the problem.

In the afternoon we ended classes exactly on time, skipped the teachers lounge afterward, practically ran to the bus. We climbed onto the empty vessel, feeling victorious. We each took a seat. Without the twenty or so Chinese employees on board, the bus’s dents and dimples resembled a pockmarked face. It was as devoid of frills as the outside of the owner’s office. There was just enough time for us to give each other high fives when the zhongguo ren started boarding. That sent us into retreat mode. Laura played with her phone. Selina put on her headphones. I looked out the window, watching John and the other teachers mill around. John’s eyes were angled toward the ground as a group formed near him. But I hadn’t had enough time to wonder why he wasn’t boarding when he jerked his head toward the bus and the bus started bumping in its stationary spot.

The Chinese were disembarking.

“Go ahead. Get off! You… now you… you too. Hurry up!” Laura was yelling at them, standing arms akimbo by her seat at the front.

Among the group outside a woman in the center shouted staccato Mandarin into her phone. The short, greasy-haired driver slid out the door and joined them, instinctively choosing his compatriots. Laura replaced him at the helm. She slammed the door shut to enclose the three of us foreigners.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“I don’t know. They started to board, saw us sitting in these seats, and I think they gave us dirty looks.” She looked outside and continued her tirade against them.

I turned to Selina.

“Look! The keys are still in the ignition.” Her blue eyes glistened as she pointed at them.

She just might do it, I thought. She might hijack this damn thing.


Before the word mianzi had hit our ears, before we had taken any buses or even started our classes, I was riding in a taxi from Huludao to the college. It was the week I’d arrived from the States. When Laura, Selina, and I were still emailing each other about pragmatic things: “Do they have curling irons and hair dryers and deodorant and…?” I was accompanied by Belinda. She exemplified the modern young Chinese woman. She had a college degree and was fluent in English. Now she wanted to get rich, own properties, have a car. In addition to teaching for different schools, she and her husband, Neil, recruited foreign teachers and liaised between us and the Bohai administration.

The owner of Bohai wanted a look at me. She also wanted me to sign an amended contract. Some of us weiguo ren had agreed to cover classes left by another who had reneged on his contract. The classes, we’d been promised, would yield us 150 RMB per hour, or about $24, the going rate for English teachers.

The taxi soon pulled up to Bohai’s gate attended by three security guards. Their long, military green coats and martial manner lent an air of severity unlike the American university campuses I knew. Belinda talked to them in Mandarin and I listened, hoping to pick up words by association of actions or movements. After several minutes, she leaned back and the guards let us in. The taxi pulled up to a two-story building grey as a cadaver and we exited. Its lack of embellishment was the most obvious reminder– outside of censored Internet and news, a blood red flag, and ubiquitous paintings of Karl Marx and Mao– of Communism’s existence in China.

We waited in the reception area for a while before a five-foot-tall, middle-aged Chinese woman arrived. When Belinda introduced her as the owner of Bohai College, the woman perfunctorily shook my hand without looking at me. We moved into her office, a room the size of the apartment I had left in Chicago. I followed Belinda’s suggestion to sit on a couch across the room. It was easier there to notice the decor. Heavy, opaque drapery blocked sunlight from streaming through windows. Brown wall panels compounded the darkness. On her side of the room, the owner began shoving document after document to Belinda. She raised her voice in my direction, grunted at me while waving a pen near the documents.

“She wants you to sign this contract,” Belinda said.

The pages were filled with rows of Chinese characters. When the owner thrust them toward me, some strings of English words in smaller print stood out. Seeing English on the contract made my muscles unclench a little.

Belinda began reading the same English aloud. “You will come to class prepared. You will be paid monthly. You will receive accidental injury health insurance. You will be reimbursed for a return plane ticket to the US should annual contract be finished. You will not lecture on politics or religion in classroom…’”

“This is the same contract I signed when I was back in the States. Where’s the amended part? There’s nothing here about the extra classes and extra pay.”

“Don’t worry. You will be paid.”

I paused, sticking to my American-bred habit of covering my ass by not signing contracts without knowing the details. I pushed for more details about what Belinda had promised, but the air stiffened with the owner’s growing impatience. It wouldn’t make a good first impression to appear distrusting. This wasn’t US business. Taking a leap of trust, I signed. My cap was barely on the pen when, with no forewarning, no change of tone, no slow down in pace of conversation between Belinda and the owner, the meeting ended. The owner shooed us out like flea-ridden stray dogs.

We hailed a taxi back at the university entrance. The owner’s coldness, Belinda’s failure to translate conversation that involved me, and having to sign a contract I didn’t trust set me on edge.

“What did you two talk about?” I asked, trying to keep that edge out of my voice.

“Your contract.” She smiled.

We got into a taxi and headed toward home, but her silence pulled my nerves taut.

“Can you tell me why the contract wasn’t really amended?”

She fumbled through a file on her lap and kept her face averted. “The university owner will pay 120 yuan for the extra classes.”

I pulled out my iPhone to calculate…nineteen dollars and some change… at three classes per week… it added up to a couple hundred US dollars, which certainly made a difference in our monthly earnings of $900.

“What? That’s… What?” My heart rate rose. My pitch and volume were just short of a shriek. I reminded myself again: you are in another country; you have to play by its rules. I wanted to learn Chinese practices, to understand them, to play with them, not against them.

That’s hard to sustain though when faced with such a blatant practice of bait and switch. I sat staring straight ahead as the taxi swerved in and out of traffic. It wouldn’t matter if I asked a thousand questions; Belinda wouldn’t respond. As a Chinese person, she couldn’t. Brought up here, she was a professional opponent in the battle of mianzi.


At the expats bar a night or two later, we met up with Neil and the other weigua ren in town. Large Tsingtao beer bottles were scattered across wood tables we had pushed together. Conversation went round and round as Laura, Selina, and I tried to figure out why we’d been shorted. Some of the Westerners had been in China for years. Their answers couldn’t satisfy us. They had been localized enough by their girlfriends and wives, though, to offer a lot of maybes. Laura and Selina and I persisted. Finally, Neil, leaning against a dirty wall in a rickety wood chair, exhaled a gust of cigarette smoke, and said, “Don’t try to make sense of China. Logic doesn’t apply here.”


Laura’s yelling into her phone yanked me back from fearful images of Selina’s potential hijacking. “It’s too crowded? The Chinese are saying the bus is too crowded?” She talked for another moment before saying, “We have to get off. Neil says from now on we have to find our own transportation.”

“We what?” Selina’s voice smacked the air.

We exited the bus and huddled together in lost face against a late winter gust. A taxi passed by just in time to scuttle us away.

“We should have stolen the bus,” Selina said, her eyes staring out the back window at the dangling trinket on the taxi’s rear view window.

“Someone’s going to pay,” Laura replied.

“You can’t negotiate with the Chinese.”

“Who do they think they are?”

Badmouthing and belittling was easier than privileging true cultural respect. Lashing out more instinctual than understanding. But battling initial hurdles of life abroad only created a cultural war zone. I wanted to salvage whatever good architecture I could from our riddled introduction to China. I wanted to understand.

Images flashed through my mind. The university bus, the public bus, and the brief conversation with John. The images connected. Things started to make sense. My heart lifted.

I interrupted Laura’s and Selina’s volley of insults against the Chinese, explained my theory.

They stared at me. Selina rolled her eyes. Laura fumbled through her purse.

“The teachers were taking out their anger for not being paid against us because we have been paid. They see that as a threat. They think we’re getting treated better than they are,” I explained.

“So? That’s not our fault. Now we don’t have to ride with them anymore.” Laura sneered.

“Yeah, now we can take taxis– where we know we’ll get seats,” Selina said, the arrogance in her voice a thin veil.

“Well, it may not be our fault,” I said. “But it is our problem. We’re in their country.”

They quieted, fidgeted with their fingernails or a loose thread on the vinyl seat for a minute. It didn’t last. They launched into a different conversation, sending peals of laughter through the cab. I might as well have been up in my second-story suite.

Maybe they understood it differently than I did. Maybe mianzi wouldn’t allow for my neutral or sympathetic stance. Mianzi wouldn’t translate into multi-cultural photos of happy hiking friends. It wouldn’t be a custom to carry back to the States.

Mei ban fa. Maybe that was the only Chinese I needed to know.

[The Battle of Mianzi was first published in Eastlit – English Literature from or Connected to East and South East Asia]