It happened when someone pointed out to me that when using the Chinese language, people often express their dislike for something by saying that they are “afraid”. For instance, instead of “I don’t like <something>” (我不喜欢 wo bu xi huan), we say “I’m afraid of <something>” (我怕 wo pa). In the same way, “I don’t like the cold” translates to 我怕冷 (wo pa leng) i.e. I’m scared of the cold, and “I don’t like the dark” to 我怕黑暗 (wo pa hei an) i.e. I’m scared of the dark.
Even though both phrases “I don’t like” and “I’m afraid” convey the same message of aversion, the former communicates a clear opinion, whereas the latter communicates a sense of helplessness. Fear is visceral and cannot be controlled, and you can’t be responsible if you are helpless.
Saying you’re afraid of something thus becomes a highly effective way of saying you dislike something, without actually having to say it. This not only gets the message across, it also avoids the responsibility that comes with expressing an opinion,
In Chinese culture, such themes of conflict avoidance and fearfulness are usually tied to a fear of failure, or a fear of “losing face”. Countries that go through major political upheaval and perilous times, like China, tend to produce citizens who are scared, paranoid, wary of others and pessimistic. This fear is exacerbated by politicians who are averse to failure themselves, creating a highly nervous environment where people watch their every step for fear of messing up and allowing others to capitalise on their mistakes. The wariness of fellow countrymen eventually produces an insider/outsider division, i.e. if you’re not with us, you’re against us.
It also does not help that we are brought up to be non-confrontational, especially towards authority figures. My school memories largely comprise getting reprimanded for talking back to teachers in school and being told to mind my language, after speaking my mind. I learnt then that reverence and obedience are highly prized.
In the Singaporean context, this fear is also prevalent in terms like “kiasu” (afraid to lose), derived from the Hokkien pronunciation of 怕输 (pa shu). The “kiasu” term has become representational of Singaporeans, who are majority Chinese.
But beyond the “I don’t like” vs “I’m afraid” dichotomy, fear and helplessness are also responsible for a distinct passivity in the way we communicate. This is best illustrated through the common phrase “没办法” (mei ban fa, “it can’t be helped”).
Unlike apathy, where one simply “does not care”, mei ban fa communicates that one is helpless to affect the situation.
saying that one is helpless (or mei ban fa) is thus a convenient way of shirking responsibility
In her experience, the Chinese whipped out the phrase like a magic wand to absolve themselves of all responsibility in certain situations. These included dealing with bureaucracy, deadlines, requests and, of course, circumstances truly out of their hands.
“From wanting to know when my lost luggage could be returned, to my landlady telling me to suck it up with no electricity, to my HR department at work telling me I had to wait for my work pass for three months, I am usually mei ban fa-ed in a really deadpan manner that almost borders on boredom. There’s no real intense emotion,” she says.
Others in China also see mei ban fa as a rite of passage to living in or visiting the country. Sadly, the phrase most often pops up among service staff, resulting in a lacklustre view towards Chinese service, such as among expat blogs. Dealing with this deep-seated Chinese passivity can be tiring.
Natalie shares: “There are days when I use the soft approach and humour them with jokes till they give in. Other days I go hard – not because it changes anything, but because I want to vent my frustration. It depends on how much I want to fight for whatever it is I want and who I’m dealing with.”
Similar to saying that “I’m afraid”, saying that one is helpless (or mei ban fa) is thus a convenient way of shirking responsibility, and is a non-confrontational alternative to saying that “I don’t care”. Chosen inaction is born from the same fear of consequence and/or confrontation that expressing an opinion would likely have.
While this culture of fear and helplessness may slowly fade with every generation who prides itself in being assertive, language informs us about our history so we do better in the future. When I understand how fear governs the mind and results in a deeply passive attitude towards life, I empathise with my ancestors and what they went through. I understand myself and how being Chinese shapes the way I exist in this world. But I also think about the ways these flaws can also be strengths. For a start, I’ll grit my teeth and mei ban fa my way through tough times, hoping to find resilience in passivity.