I’ve long thought that “bless you” is a funny thing to say after people sneeze. My sneezing doesn’t mean I’m going to get the plague, and I don’t need to worry that my soul is escaping through my nose. Still, it’s just polite — and I never realized how accustomed I was to saying and hearing it.

Chinese does not have a word that approximates “bless you.” You sneeze in Beijing, and this is what you get: nothing. People don’t seem to realize that they have just witnessed a momentous occasion. Even if they know you well, they simply go on about their business, making you feel insignificant and unloved.

More problematic is that in my Chinese program, we aren’t allowed to speak English. So when someone sneezes, we’re reduced to sitting there and making the international shrugging-shoulders-and-moving-hands-apart-with-palms-up gesture that means “Hey, man, I wish I could help you out, but you see the position I’m in. There’s clearly nothing I can do.” I find it fascinating that I’m so acculturated to “bless you” that I honestly feel trapped and uncomfortable when I can’t even say something similar to it.

Some of us have taken to saying the Chinese word for “good,” because there isn’t anything else to say. This word, , is pronounced hǎo and is useful in plenty of other situations as well. You can hear it pronounced if you click on the link below.

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