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What ma shang really means

Updated: 2011-12-26 10:51
By Jim Gibney (

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Today we had no classes as we moved into our new flat. We used to live in a flat at school which was basic but not too bad. There was a kitchen with hot water and a sink but no stove, just a hot plate. The kitchen was big with plenty of cupboards, bench space and room to put a desk, washing machine and a table where I could do my ironing. The living room had a couple of chairs, TV, a single bed and mismatched cabinets.

What <EM>ma shang</EM> really means
Jim Gibney [Photo provided to] 
The third room was the smallest with a big dresser and a double bed. The bathroom was off to the side and had an old style bath with a shower head and a slippery tiled floor. It was always slippery because the drain in the floor was broken. You had to be very careful getting out of the shower bath. Two of my colleagues had already slipped and damaged themselves badly enough that they needed time off work.

In typical Chinese fashion we were not told of the move until the afternoon of the day before. After lunch, we were told to go home and start packing to be ready to move at 8:00 am the next day. That is the Chinese way. When the bosses wants something done it has to be done at light speed, while if you want them to do something for you, it is done "mashang". But more about this later.

The new place was across the road from the school and bigger with three bedrooms and a large living room. The kitchen was a tiny alcove tacked onto the side of the building. The flat was on the sixth floor and there was no elevator. The floor was filthy and one of the bedrooms was stuffed with junk. Amongst the junk was a dirty cooker leaking oil onto the floor and its matching greasy range hood. This room was unusable.

The kitchen has no hot water and there is no sink. There is a big trough that is more appropriate for a laundry. The only tap is up so high that the water spills over the sides when anything is washed. There is nowhere for the splashed water to go as the filthy drain next to the trough is surrounded by a wall of tiles 15 cm high. You need gumboots to work in the kitchen. The whole set up is a triumph of bad design.

The kitchen cupboards and the kitchen itself are filthy. My wife cried the afternoon we moved in. She refused to put our food, crockery and cutlery into the cupboards. So now they are stored in cardboard boxes on the living room floor. Not that it matters that much, she says the kitchen is too filthy to cook in. It looks like we will be eating out a bit more than usual. At least the living room is large enough to store all these.

The bathroom's been renovated but it is only half finished. Some of the new tiles already have lost their grout. There are no towel rails. The school bought us a shower curtain but there is nothing to hang it from. There is a brand new hot water heater that works well but the pressure is so weak that it dribbles out the tap. There is a neon light above the sink but it doesn’t work and the bathroom door won't shut.

In the bedrooms there are two small cupboards. The windows don't close properly which lets in mosquitoes. There is an air conditioner in the living room but only one of the bedrooms has one. We will sleep in this room, but, of course, the air conditioner doesn't work. This wasn't a priority, as the worst of summer was over, but it will have to be fixed eventually. We asked the school to look at it, we were told "mashang".

The room for the washing machine, it is too small to call it a laundry, has no power outlet for the washing machine that it is sitting in. Further, there is no tap for the machine to get water and no outlet for the water to leave. If we can get these things fixed the place wouldn’t be too bad. We have let the school know and they replied it would be fixed "mashang". I looked up "mashang" in the dictionary, it means “immediately”.

Somehow, this did not inspire me with confidence. In the Chinese dictionary the word "mashang" consists of the Chinese characters ma (马), which is "horse" and shang(上,)which is "on". So literally, “mashang” means at horse speed. And that is how it seemed. The people who were going to fix everything up would get here just as fast as a horse would carry them. This is about the fastest speed that things get done in China.

Downstairs, the entrance to the building needs an electronic key. However, we were only given one key. That means that if one person is out, that is, at work, the other person has to stay at home because if they go out they can’t get back in. To complicate things, the downstairs buzzer and intercom do not work which means that we have no way of knowing if we have a visitor unless they text us on their mobile.

So any visitor must text us from six floors below. When we receive the text we have to go down the five flights of stairs to let them in. Once this is accomplished, at least we have someone to talk to as we go back up to the sixth floor. I suppose we will get fit and I will put the purchase of my aerobic step machine on the back burner. The school was concerned and said that they would fix the problem "mashang".

There was no internet, TV or phone. Informed of this, the school also said they would be working "mashang". It is a long week in China when you have no TV, internet or phone. That's how long "immediately" took. Most missed is the internet because without it you feel really isolated. The TV has sixty channels on offer, but only one is in English. This is the news channels which is little more than a government mouth piece .

At least we didn't have to cart all our stuff over by ourselves. The school got a moving van and three men who did it for us. The young blokes were very happy and very friendly. They were extremely lean and fit. We soon realized why. It is not the easiest job in the world because they had to carry everything up six floors - on their backs. They wrapped a rope around the fridge, then themselves and carried it up.

Next door are seven new starting teachers, all young women, in a flat the same size as ours. Compared to them we have nothing to complain about. They do not even have a hot plate so they can't cook. Starting wages for teachers are low, so the school has to provide accommodation because the new teachers can't afford any. They get a big pay rise after first year. The first thing they do when they get their pay rise is move out.

However, please don't get the idea that I am not happy. This is life in China and, compared to most Chinese people, we live in a palace. Over the next two weeks the kitchen is cleaned up, the laundry gets water, the air conditioner is replaced and the internet starts working. So perhaps a better translation for "mashang" should be "eventually". Things might be not be done "mashang" but eventually the horse will arrive.

The author is an Australian who has been teaching English in China for almost three years. He has been teaching in Tianjin and despite the tone of his story likes it so much that he has signed up for another year.

The opinions expressed do not represent the views of the China Daily website.

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What <EM>ma shang</EM> really means