Despite what people think, Chinese is a kind language.
English is cluttered with articles, verb tenses, word derivations, idioms and a slew of grammatical rules and regulations. But Chinese has the ability to express one’s thoughts and feelings in succinct, well-placed words that take up little space yet convey great meaning. I sometimes think this is why Americans listening to Chinese, but not understanding it, feel people are always arguing or snapping at one another. The word phrases are so short that they sound rude. Add to this the 4 different intonations required to give a sound its meaning and, I agree, Chinese does appear to be a battleground of verbal abuse.
But despite how you feel toward the language, today I give you Chinese at its best, my favorite phrase which I probably hear a dozen times a day. It’s said by shopkeepers after I’ve purchased items, by taxi drivers when I open the car door to leave, even by the gate keeper when Little Flower and I exit the apartment complex.
“Man zou!” they say kindly with a smile.
Man (mahn) means “slowly.” Zou (z-oh) means “go / leave.” “Slowly go,” or rather “go slowly,” for more accurate English word order.
What an interesting combination! In English, a person would have a dozen similar phrases to choose from: “Be careful as you go,” “Take care,” “Watch your step,” “Have a nice day,” “Peace be with you,” “Safe journey,” “Look after yourself,”—the list goes on. But in Chinese, how simple and elegant to merely say, “Man zou (Go slowly)!”
At first, I thought “go slowly” was only used by those dealing with customers. I heard it from taxi drivers, market sellers, shop keepers, restaurant staff, and a wide range of others in the business sector. Yet even in the church I attend, I am often told after services, “Man zou!” by our kind, elderly women ushers or parishioners who walk out with me. Everyone is so happy to see a foreigner join them in worship. Their sincerely said "man zou!" wish me safety and peace as I leave the sanctuary and head out into the busy city life.
My favorite and most touching man zou story is actually one that took place 7 years ago in Inner Mongolia. I was teaching English in Hohhot, the capital city of the province, and had to pick up overseas’ boxes at the main post office.
Hohhot had one main post office where international boxes landed. It was located about a 30-minute bike ride from my home. I knew a package had arrived when a parcel slip came in the mail. These I then signed and presented at the counter to collect my item.
After waiting 2 months for my goodies from home, my package slip finally arrived. I excitedly hopped on my bicycle and headed out into a light drizzle. It was wet and cold, but I wanted that package and I wasn’t about to wait another day to get it.
After making my way through traffic with thousands of other bicyclers, I arrived at my destination. A very nice elderly bicycle attendant was there to help me neatly park my bike along with all the others. I quickly went inside to collect my goods. I thought this would be something that could easily fit into my basket or be tied on my bike’s back rack. What I was presented with, however, were 3 huge boxes that I had no idea how I would get back across town.
I made 3 trips from the counter to the outside steps of the building where I piled these heavy carboard things. The bicycle attendant was trying to be helpful. Having nothing else to do, she was stacking these next to my bicycle while I went in to fetch another.
Then came the dilemma.
Standing there in the drizzle, surrounded by these boxes and one bike, I just knew this was an impossible task to pedal them all home. Although the attendant insisted this could be done, I really had no idea how.
“I’ll take a taxi,” I told her. “I’ll come back later for the bike.”
“No, no!” she said, adamantly shaking her head. “Too expensive. You take one box, I’ll watch the others and you can come back again.”
Three hours in total to come and go for boxes?! And in the chilly rain?!
To me, that really seemed a waste of time and energy, especially as a taxi would take 10 minutes and cost me only 8 yuan ($1.15). But for my bicycle lady, so determined to be helpful, that was a lot of money. No matter what I said, she vehemently objected to that taxi.
After about 10 minutes, my patience with this woman was wearing thin. I wanted to get out of there, even if it meant hurting her feelings in the process. And what’s more, I suddenly gained an eavesdropper I certainly didn’t want.
A rather disheveled old man with few teeth, in a long, filthy Russian army coat, suddenly stepped into our conversation circle. I really wasn’t in the mood for another lecture but this time, I found he actually had something useful to offer.
“I can do this for you,” he said. “It’s very easy.”
I was still in favor of the taxi, but the attendant kept poking at me, urging me to give the man the two long cords the post office worker had passed to me before I had left her counter. So, with nothing to lose, I handed it over to him.
What proceeded next was an amazing feat.
In 5 minutes, all 3 heavy boxes were securely in place, balanced and strongly tied to my bicycle in an ingenious fashion.
He stepped back and smiled at his work.
The attendant looked smug.
I was stunned.
“That’s great!” I told him. “I really had no idea how to do that. Thank you so much!”
He said it was nothing, although he was obviously pleased to have helped the clueless foreigner.
I quickly hopped on my bicycle. He and the attendant gave my bike a gentle nudge to send me on my way. I then waved and called out a final “Thank you!”
And their reply?
A very heartfelt, endearing, "Man zou!"
From Chengdu, here’s wishing you all “Man zou (Go slowly)”, and and additional “Ping An!” (Peace), throughout your busy day.