street shot of Hong Kong

You know that your life is too fast when the streets start telling you to slow down

I was on the Line 10 subway here in Beijing a few weeks ago when a group of German grad students got on.

They were tall and blond and excited in a way that only new students of Chinese recently arrived in the city can be. They started chatting to an old Chinese lady and her grandchild, the small girl babbling brightly on her lap, asking her grandmother to please put on her shoes. The old lady made polite small talk and the students made the little girl giggle. The students told her they’d only been here for a month and they couldn’t read any of the Chinese street signs.

And then the old lady said the loveliest phrase in Chinese, which has since become my favorite. She told them to ‘慢慢来‘ (man man lai).

Man man lai means ‘slowly’ but can be used in any situation that requires comforting. You can say it to a child struggling to learn a difficult math equation. You can say it to an unemployed and confused twenty-something. You can say it to a heartbroken friend.

Man man lai bears the suggestion that time is the answer. Time will either reveal all, or at least your next step. There is no hurry, take it easy, no need to worry, let’s take this step by step. These are all connotations of man man lai and I find it infinitely comforting.

One of the first questions hurled at me when I graduated was ‘so, what’s your five-year plan?’. I looked at the person who posed it as if he had two heads. But now, I have the answer to that question. Now, I would say that I have no five-year plan. I can only see the next step in front of me and the rest? Man man lai ba.