Citizen of the world: Speaking Chinese with your iPhone

By | June 18, 2014 | Travel

Citizen of the world: Speaking Chinese with your iPhone | The Momiverse | Article by Bruce Sallan | Photo by Brian Warren | 有了 iPhone, 你也可以講中文

A Dad’s Point-of-View   –  有了 iPhone, 你也可以講中文

I’m writing this as I sit on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles. My older son and I are returning home together, though we’re seated in different parts of the plane. Next to me, asleep, is the random passenger that happens to be my travel partner on this trip.

She’s Chinese. I mean Chinese-Chinese, as in she doesn’t speak more than a dozen or so English words. However, she has an iPhone and it speaks English when she hand-writes Chinese words on its screen!

Over the course of our efforts to communicate, I learned that she’s an engineer. Her husband died 16 years ago and she’s 50 years old. She has one daughter who just had a baby boy. She showed me a photo of them. Her daughter and grandson are absolutely precious and no translation was necessary for us to exchange smiles of appreciation.

She motioned a question of whether she could use her iPhone in flight. I motioned it was okay and when it came on, I recognized the settings icon and reached over and hit it. I saw the airplane mode icon – really hard to recognize in Chinese – and motioned to her to turn it on. She did so. It was fascinating to see all her iPhone icons with Chinese words (symbols) below them. She used her iPhone as adeptly as I use mine – with speed and comfort, so we seemed to share the same language in many ways, after all.

We tried to communicate in more depth, but even with the translation apps on her iPhone, it was quite difficult. She would hand-write a word in her English translation app, Chinese words would appear, she’d scroll through them to find the best one, and then hit the translate button and show me the word(s) in English.

At one point, it seemed that giving her my business card would help our dialogue. She stared at it, turned it over and over, and began typing some of the English words in another translation app that took English words and provided translation into Chinese.

Sometimes, she’d make a mistake typing in the English word and I’d reach over and correct it for her. Other times, she’d choose a word such as “point” from A Dad’s Point-of-View and I’d try to explain without much success how that word related to the entire sentence or phrase.

She poured over my card like it was the secret to hidden treasure. In some ways, it was the secret to knowing more about those words and me. Eventually, she showed me an iPhone icon that seemed to be an image of a text bubble. I suspected she wanted to know my email address and I pointed it out on my card.

My business card shows images of my two books and below those images it says, “Available on Amazon, iTunes, and” She put in the words “Amazon” and “available.” I was surprised that “Amazon” didn’t register for her in English and knew that a translation of it would be useless. I tried to demonstrate that “available” meant available for purchase by showing her money and a credit card from my wallet.

She also typed my first and last name into her translation app which is on my card in several places along with my website name, It was apparent that she didn’t recognize “Bruce” or “Sallan” as names.

I couldn’t figure out how to explain to her there would be no Chinese translation for “Bruce” or “Sallan.” Eventually, she wrote out her name for me in my alphabet and it was a relatively familiar Chinese name. I tried to pronounce it and she corrected me, but with an inflection I couldn’t duplicate. We laughed.

The world is a big place, but technology makes it much smaller.

One of my regular #DadChat participants is Mei, who lives in Singapore. She writes a blog about raising a child with eczema. She joins us most every Thursday evening for #DadChat on Twitter. When we meet at 6:00 p.m. PT/9:00 p.m. ET, Mei is on a train for her Friday morning commute to work! She participates using her smartphone. She speaks and writes English perfectly well so there’s no barrier to our ability to connect through tweets.

With my seatmate, it hasn’t been quite so easy. She’s now quietly asleep next to me, having just leaned her head on my shoulder. I can’t overly express what a sweet moment this is. It’s like when my kids (when they were younger) or my wife leans against me, and I’m hesitant to move, so I don’t wake her up.

It’s a totally platonic moment given I’ve shared photos of my wife and she’s shared photos of her daughter and grandson; but it’s a moment I will cherish, corny as it may sound, as a citizen of the world. I would really like to take a photograph, but I know that wouldn’t be cool. I’ll share this column with her, however, and I wish I could watch her try to translate it.

Photo source:

Dan Cederholm’s Hands by Brian Warren, licensed under CC 2.0

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Bruce Sallan

Bruce Sallan, author of The Empty-Nest Road Trip Blues: An Interactive Journal from A Dad's Point-of-View and A Dad’s Point-of-View: We ARE Half the Equation and radio host of “The Bruce Sallan Show – A Dad’s Point-of-View” gave up a long-term showbiz career to become a stay-at-home-dad. He has dedicated his new career to becoming the Dad advocate. He carries his mission with not only his books and radio show, but also his column A Dad’s Point-of-View, syndicated in over 100 newspapers and websites worldwide, and his dedication to his community on Facebook and Twitter. Join Bruce and his community each Thursday for #DadChat, from 6pm -7pm PST, the Tweet Chat that Bruce hosts.

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