I was visiting Toronto and walking to the St. Clair subway station when I noticed three bewildered Chinese women. One approached me and showed me her cellphone, which had the words “Travel train chimgman chu” (or something like that) displayed on it. I read it aloud three times and shrugged my shoulders. “Finch subway station” she said. “Ah!” That I understood. I gestured that I was going there too, and beckoned them to follow me.
When the train came we all got in and sat down. The spokesperson drew intricate Chinese characters on her phone, with her index finger. As she finished each character, a printed version appeared on the screen. If it was the character she intended she clicked OK; if not, she deleted it and tried again. When she was satisfied she pressed the Translate button. Out came a string of English words, something like “work friend time travel.” She showed it to me and held up seven fingers. I understood from that and her gestures that they were three friends who had worked seven months to fund this trip.
She swiped her phone and showed me pictures of the trio in New York and at Niagara Falls. She then fingered some Chinese characters on her phone and pressed Translate. “All over the place is humanity.”
She then wrote something her application translated as "The traveler makes friends nice.” I nodded vigorously. She handed her phone to a young woman sitting nearby, to take our picture. Then I handed her my phone, so I could also have a picture. We giggled like silly schoolgirls. And the polite Canadians in the subway car began to take an interest in this lively drama. I discovered that the only phrase the women knew in English was “Thank you.” I guess I should have taught them “I’m sorry”, another useful phrase in Canada.
When we got to Finch station we got off the train and I directed them to their bus, hugging each of them as they boarded.
Today anyone can go anywhere and make herself understood if she has a smartphone with a translation app. And it’s true that the traveler makes friends nice.