Thursday, January 8, 2009

Illegitimi non carborundum

Illegitimi non carborundum

“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” I always seem to pull this phrase out when dealing with Chinese bureaucracy.

Now, just so you don’t think I’ve suddenly turned racist (I know all of you had your suspicions), I should note that Western bureaucracy is just as annoying, but has different characteristics. This is bureaucracy with Chinese characteristics.

One of the major differences between Chinese bureaucracy and Western bureaucracy is that Western bureaucracy tries to find legitimacy in its confusion. It is this way, because it has to be this way and this, o one of little knowledge, is the best way we can do it, at least for now.

In bureaucracy with Chinese characteristics, however, they make no excuses: you don’t understand it, we don’t understand it, and nobody knows why and we are caught in this horrible agonizing trap… oh and sadly, you’re holding the stinky side of the stick. This is often referred to this as the 'meiyou banfa' culture (沒有辦法).

Illegitimi non carborundum isn’t actually proper Latin… the ‘bastards’ part is Latin, but carborundum is actually the name of an abrasive used for sanding and grinding surfaces. The phrase was made popular by the American WWII General, ‘Vinegar’ Joe Stilwell, who was a China hand assigned to the Sino-Japanese War.

I can figure that this probably became old Joe’s slogan when he found himself charged with helping the Chinese fight the Japanese, only to have his progress hampered by infighting among the Chinese (communists vs. nationalists). Although both camps had united to fight the Japanese, there was still a war going on within a war. For example, when Stilwell attempted to distribute weaponry, the nationalist leader refused to let him give any to the communists, which were often at strategic points holding off the Japanese. Thus poor Joe couldn’t get his objectives accomplished because of conditions like ‘help us win the war, but don’t give half the army any weapons’. Meiyou banfa.

Thus, any time I can’t get things done overseas due to bureaucracies, be it China, Hong Kong or Taiwan, I find this phrase leaping to mind. The only thing more exhausting than dealing with red tape, is doing it in another language and culture. While I’d be the first to say that all bureaucrats are bastards (ABAB), the 'grinding' part is such an apt description of the process of trying to deal with things when you don’t have the wit or analytical abilities that help you manage your native cultural landscape.

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