Chinese people really like to make stuff and build things. This is what the entire economy here is based on. A less developed field, however, is maintenance and repair (except when it comes to bicycles – for some reason, there are bike repair stands and shops all over the place). And the least developed field is customer service.

“Meiyou” is my least favorite word in Mandarin. Often delivered with an indifferent shrug, and if you’re lucky an eye-roll, it literally means “don’t have.” However, it has a greater meaning: “Can’t fix your problem, don’t want to fix your problem, don’t care about fixing your problem.” The English equivalent, usually delivered at five star hotels, is “I’m sorry sir, but this is not possible.” If you want breakfast in bed (not that I’d ever order that–one of my colleagues tried) it’s not just out of scope, it’s not possible.

Very often, reasonable things in China are somehow not possible. My job is to turn impossible things into reality.

I just had dinner tonight at a place with free wi-fi. The wi-fi wasn’t connecting, so I asked fuwuyuan to have a look. He pulled out his shanzhai iPhone clone and demonstrated that he could get online, although it seemed to me like he was connecting through 3G. But connecting through a phone was a good idea. I pulled out one phone, which didn’t connect, and then the other phone, which didn’t connect either.

Blank stare. Gesturing to fake iPhone and its Internet awesomeness. No effort to resolve the problem. Clearly there must be something wrong with my phone, my other phone, and my laptop. Rebooting the router is definitely not in order. Meiyou.

Anyway, when I rented my new apartment, I asked the landlord to replace the antique washing machine that had to have been at least ten years old. Surprisingly (I say surprisingly because even though the rent is absurdly high and at the top of my price range, it’s low for the area), he agreed. Rather than the piece of junk replacement I expected, Suning, an a local appliance store, delivered a high-end Whirlpool! By the way, like many American branded products here, it’s actually a Chinese washer inside. Still, it does a pretty good job, and a much better job than the old one did.

The first guy carried the whole thing upstairs all by himself–one small middle aged Chinese guy with a washing machine on his back, no safety equipment, nothing–and he gently set it on the floor of the living room. I wonder what an X-ray of his back vertebrae and ankles look like – that really can’t be healthy. He opened the box to demonstrate there was, in fact, a washing machine inside and left after collecting the requisite signatures. The installation man was to arrive later, he assured us.

“The washing machine is already delivered,” said the store when my real estate agent and the landlord complained that it wasn’t installed.  Appliances come with free delivery and installation, but only if you can convince the store to provide the service. Gloria, my real estate agent, is persistent. So is the landlord, so the guy showed up again. I’d done some investigation and decided that I wanted the washing machine on the balcony outside the kitchen, because any other location was too inconvenient, and asked the landlord to pass this on to the installer.

“Meiyou” was the answer, delivered through my real estate agent while I was at work. The washing machine was 60 centimeters across, and the doorway to the balcony was 55 centimeters across, no way it was going to work, impossible. So obviously I didn’t need to do laundry. He just left without doing anything, leaving the washing machine in the same place as it was before, still not connected. My laundry was starting to pile up at this point, and believe me, it’s in Beijing that I learned where the phrase “being taken to the cleaners” comes from. It’s over $30 to do a week’s worth of laundry here!

I bought a measuring tape and measured the washing machine. It was 60 centimeters in length, and 52 centimeters in width. It takes extra effort to measure both directions, and when you make your living carrying appliances on your back, you apparently want to conserve energy in any way possible.

Anyway, Gloria called Suning back, and so did the landlady, both apoplectic and getting a rapid response. They sent their best technician out. He was clearly annoyed, not only at me for wanting something so unreasonable as not having about 1/5 of my apartment being dead space, but also at the previous technicians who had failed to solve the problem. And so it is that I met an actual problem solver, that rarest of rare individuals in Beijing.

It turned out that my measurements weren’t right. Washing machines have all sorts of bulges and bends and appendages protruding from their frames, and when you have a leeway of 3 centimeters you actually don’t have any leeway at all. It would not fit through the door. The installer pointed at the door and shrugged and was getting ready to say “meiyou” when I pointed at the hinges and indicated that the door could, in fact, be removed. Nice try, buddy, now get to work.

Blank stare. Defeated look. Sigh. And then a glimmer of “hey, I accept this challenge,” and he set to work removing the door.

When I was a kid, I really liked to take things apart and put them back together again. Actually, I still do, I just don’t have much time anymore. This would have been the most fun project ever for me at age fourteen. The washer still didn’t fit. It had a clip protruding and a dial on its face and a door in the way and a weird plastic lip sticking out at the bottom and damnit, why do washers have to be so irregularly shaped?! But I’d met a kindred spirit. We refused to be defeated by Whirlpool. Even though we didn’t share the same language, I dug through my possessions, handing him tools that he didn’t have as he literally took apart the washer. We worked as a team, me finding the correct tools and pieces to be removed, and him stripping down the washer, piece by piece. After each major piece we’d try to fit it through the doorway, only to discover yet another piece in the way.

And then finally, we got the whole thing under 55 centimeters across. Victory! The installer wouldn’t high-5 me or accept a beer, but he did grin when I gave him two thumbs up. The washer went back together, the door was re-installed, and plumbing was busily run. And best of all, everything works! I can do laundry! It ties up the kitchen sink while I’m doing it because the water source is the kitchen faucet and the washer drains into the sink, but this is infinitely preferable to the prior arrangement.

In the end, the bill was 24 kuai, about $3.50.  The installer handed me my change, adamantly refusing a tip. And the one word he never said the entire time he was here was “meiyou.”

After I posted this article, the Global Times also ran a story on the topic.