“This person is ‘ma fan’”

Ma fan, for non-Chinese speakers, is actually not the name of a person. It’s a Chinese word that looks like this 麻烦. It can be used as an adjective as well as a noun, meaning “trouble.” The kind of “trouble” referred to by this word is specific. In my view, it is to make or create an inconvenience or an inconvenient situation that demands one’s time and energy. It’s an important word in Chinese society today, especially first tier cities that have attracted many foreigners and heightened government oversight. The three are inextricably linked. And, I have become a part of this circle, acquiring for me the label ma fan.

It’s not uncommon to hear a Chinese person say to a non-Chinese person that s/he is “ma fan” or trouble. I’ve heard the term “ma fan” frequently used to refer to Africans in Guangzhou when I did fieldwork for my postdoc in China. It’s a term that almost all Africans, who have been in Guangzhou for a period of time, have picked up and turned around to use on Chinese people. The term gets tossed back and forth between Chinese and Africans during their business transactions. My new landlady indirectly used it to refer to me when we finally met to sign the lease. I was inconveniencing her with requests that’d absorb her time. Strangely, I, too, felt like I was inconveniencing her. Between the two of us, the government and all its regulations are absolved of any responsibility for imposing on our time.

It’s been ten days since I’ve been in Guangzhou for a new employment contract. Although I have lived in this city for two years before, this time is different in several major ways. Asides from my improved employment contract, the process of settling down in this city has been more complicated, shedding new light on what it means to be a “foreigner” or, more specifically, a “foreign expert/professional” in China. Although I don’t look “foreign” among the billion Chinese people, my passport identifies me as a “foreigner.” My American passport subjects me to everything a non-Chinese person experiences in this country when it comes to renting a place to live, registering my presence in the city and country, and applying for a residence permit. All must be completed within 30 days in order for me to legally stay and formally take up my position at Jinan University. Let me add a caveat about the 30 days limit that added extra stress: application for the foreign expert certificate takes 10 days and for the residence permit 14 days, which leaves me with six days to sort out the living situation.

The Chinese government’s (or Beijing’s) control of population movements in the country, from its own citizens to non-citizens, is total. And, I deliberately didn’t use the term “immigration policy” because China doesn’t have such a policy yet, as it’s historically been an emigration country. In a previous blog, I had pointed out that Guangzhou has many internal migrants without hu kou‘s and cannot receive social services, ranging from health care to education. Here, I draw on my experience as a “foreign expert,” who was invited to return to work at a Chinese university where I was previously based for two years, to shed light on the experience some non-citizens might have with the state apparatus. There are procedures and expenses for everything related to my entry to China, from the point of applying for the work visa to receiving a residence permit (temporary, of course, because it’s rare that a foreigner gains permanent residence). Actually, entering the country is the easier part of the entire process, it’s remaining in the country after arrival that could be wrought with challenges. The latter entails quite a few government departments and the cooperation of Chinese citizens.

After my employment as a full-time academic staff was approved and the terms of contract negotiated, the paperwork process to bring me into the country began. A form asking for my academic background and application for the foreigners’ work permit were completed. A health exam, including chest x-ray, was completed and the report submitted along with photos to the secretary handling my paperwork. Thereafter, was the long two-month’s wait for the state and province to approve my appointment before the university could issue an invitation letter for me to apply for the work (Z) visa. This waiting period coincided with the long winter holiday, so there was a long silence. With news about China’s relatively turbulent economy, I was concerned that perhaps the appointment wouldn’t be approved due to cutbacks (this is usually the case in the US).

At the beginning of March, news arrived that my work permit has been approved, and I should immediately apply for the visa. The urgency wasn’t because the new semester had already begun, but that there was a high-level event that I should try to attend. It was a combined memorial for Philip Kuhn, a respected China and overseas Chinese studies scholar, and meeting


Part of the memorial for Philip Kuhn held at the university

with other overseas Chinese institutes or centers in China. I was told that I could use printed scanned copies of the three letters to apply for the visa, which I didn’t do because I didn’t want to risk my visa application being denied by the Chinese Consulate in LA. After the original documents arrived by courier, I then underwent the process of applying for the visa. Surprisingly, the turn around time was quick. I was on the plane the week after.

I landed early the day of the high level event. It was a whole day’s affair. There wasn’t time to feel the jet lag. The very next morning, I was out in the streets with a housing/real estate agent apartment hunting. A Chinese friend, who was in Lagos for her business, had found an agent to help me with this process before she left Guangzhou. So, even though she was in Africa, she was able to reconnect with the agent, who introduced a new agent to assist us. She passed on his contact to another Chinese friend who’s in Guangzhou, so she met with the new agent to view four apartments before my arrival. That day when I went out with agent, we viewed six apartments. I was


Apartments I saw in one day


The real estate agency that helped with apartment searches

through after that, so immediately decided on one. The landlady was in her hometown (Chongqing) for an urgent family matter, but she agreed for me to sign the lease first and move in. Move in day was interesting; new problems with the apartment cropped up, creating a headache for the agent and his agency. The person they had hired to tighten the curtain rod and cabinet doors as well as to replace the light bulbs arrived at the apartment to find a broken door handle. The whole unit had to be replaced. The water heater stopped functioning. The stove still needed fixing and couch replacing. A week later, I’m still without a couch and stove, but everything else has been replaced or repaired (twice and thrice). The landlady agreed to pay to replace the couch and stove, but I’d have to purchase them. The stove has been the harder item to find, as it’s an old model and not readily sold at appliance stores. I’ve been told by acquaintances that I should check major grocery stores. That means having to go from store to store, as no one knows for sure which store would carry it.

As the agent pointed out at one point, the above things could be resolved with money. The more challenging part was meeting the deadline that the person, who’s been handling my state-level paperwork, at the university’s foreign relations office suddenly informed me about – that is, the above mentioned 10 and 14 day requirements for the two different applications (I don’t think all foreigners who have a work or business visa apply for the foreign expert certificate). In addition to redoing a health exam and obtaining yet another


The area of the International Travel Health Center where we register and pay

report, I had to secure a place to stay as well as obtain a proof of registration from the local police station (公安局) within six days. According to the person at university, she didn’t know that I’d have to go to another department, 街道办 (jiedaoban), to register (备案) and pay rental tax (technically the owner of the accommodation is suppose to pay for this, but because they also have the right to refuse to rent to a foreigner, the renter ends up baring the cost). It was the real estate agency that informed us that all foreigners must do that prior to going to the police station to register. So, it’s like a double registration, which also required the landlady to be present to show her id and the deed to her apartment – of course, and also to sign the forms. The biggest challenge was obtaining the landlady’s cooperation. She was away from Guangzhou, but also didn’t want to deal with any ma fan after her return to the city. When she was back in the city, she met me on Sunday to sign the lease, and said that earliest she’d be able to go to 街道办 would be Tuesday and would confirm that day. It was nerve wrecking to say the least: the university was pressuring me on the side for the registration document and the agent was becoming impatient with the prolonged process. The landlady did eventually call the agent to confirm that she would meet us at


Employees at the neighborhood 街道办

街道办 Tuesday morning. By the time we finished there, the women responsible for handling registration at the police station had gone to lunch. Needless to say, the agent and I were back at the station before 2:30pm to be first in the queue. By late afternoon, I was handing over the police’s proof of registration to the university’s foreign relations office. We were all relieved. Now the rest of the process of making my stay legal is up to them.

A colleague, Heidi Østbø Haugen, has written about the vulnerable position of Nigerians, who overstay their visas in Guangzhou. Most of the people Heidi has written about wouldn’t qualify for a work visa. But, those with sufficient capital could apply for a business visa, which also suggests that they have a local collaborator to assist them in navigating through the state apparatus. In any event, foreigners could choose to overstay after their visas expire as a result of the costs to renew it (e.g., the costs could include transportation to exit to Hong Kong and to return to Guangzhou, accommodation in Hong Kong, and fees to renew the visa that could add up if one has to do that every three months on a non-work visa), but bureaucratic processes, not to mention linguistic barriers, to remain in the country make overstaying a much easier option. I can’t recall which Chinese person suggested to me that I should ignore 街道办 and just register with at the local police station. After having gone to both places, I’m uncertain if that’s possible. When I lived on campus it was possible to just register at the police station, but renting off-campus is a whole different situation that creates vulnerability and stress.

Interestingly, it seems that most Chinese people are oblivious to how their government imposes so many controls over foreigners’ presence and movements. It’s also possible that their sense of powerlessness over government regulations makes it easier (and more satisfying) to blame those who are put into a more vulnerable position than themselves.

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One Response to “This person is ‘ma fan’”

  1. Pingback: Want to work in China? Be prepared (forewarned) | AfricaChina Diary

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