马上 Be There Directly; Be There Shortly

René was at work in the office waiting for his lunch to arrive. He had ordered an eggplant dish and was waiting for what seemed an eternity. He called the restaurant and a young man on the receiving end said:

马上就到
(mǎshang jiù dào)

René read that literally in his mind: ‘On the horse and then it will be arriving.’

René quickly learned a whole new time frame, a period of time that would happen sometime soon, probably say within half an hour or perhaps longer. He had no idea when the 'horse rider' would arrive, and he joked with his colleagues that it could easily arrive tomorrow.

René had heard the expression used by waiters in restaurants when he asked when the food would arrive and the reply was 马上 which could mean that the dish was on its way from the kitchen to the table or the chef had just got his act together in the kitchen and was preparing the food before it made contact with the wok. René had also received countless text messages when he had arrived earlier then his Chinese friends and they texted him with a simple: 'I am on my horse.'

马上is intentionally vague. You can’t really answer back to the waiter with: ‘you said three minutes and look ten minutes have gone by.’ So next time you hear the expression you might want to ask specifically 具体地说 (jùtǐde shuō: 'be more precise,'), but then again, there is no guarantee when exactly the horse and its rider will arrive.

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