Cultural Routes

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Montreal’s CN Station

The St-Jean Baptiste long weekend is coming up and many people will be planning a short getaway to enjoy the three-day-weekend. With the spirit of travel in mind, I’m posting an article I wrote about a train ride I took to Toronto that was first published in Canadian Living magazine, November 1997.

* * *

As I waited to board the train from Montreal to Toronto, a Chinese man approached me and, speaking in broken English, asked if I were going to Union Station. Wary of strangers who ask about my travel plans, I hesitantly nodded yes. “Could you look after her?” he asked, gesturing toward a petite, well-dressed woman of about fifty. “She doesn’t speak any English.” Smiling shyly, she bowed.

“I don’t speak much Chinese,” I warned, realizing he’d chosen me because I was the only Oriental in line.

“It’s OK. Thank you,” he said, and left after a quick goodbye to the woman. We boarded the train and sat together. She slept. I read until the steward appeared pushing the lunch cart.

I’m bilingual: I speak both French and English, but my Chinese is very limited. Stumbling over my mother tongue, I asked if she wanted something to drink.

I understood her Cantonese reply, “Apple juice.” So far, so good. Then came the menus.

“Do they have rice?” she asked as I scanned the list.

“No rice,” was all I could manage. I ordered apple juice.

She pointed to a drawing of a pizza. “Bread?”

“Ye-e-ss.” What was the translation for tomato sauce? “It has tomatoes.” Picking up a pizza slice from the cart, I showed it to her. The thick sauce did not resemble tomatoes in the least. She frowned. I showed her the menu, hoping she would recognize something. Surely, “Chicken Sandwich” was universal. She pointed to another drawing. “Is that bread?”

“Un, no. It’s sweet. A ma-a-fin.” I regretted it the instant I said it. Saying muffin with a Chinese accent is as ludicrous as assuming a foreigner will understand English if it’s spoken slowly and loudly enough. The steward looked amused as he handed me a muffin for her inspection. “How about Pita Pockets?” he suggested.

“Oh, I couldn’t explain that in Chinese,” I groaned. Finally, she decided on pizza, insisting we share the large slice. Quiet settled between us as we ate. She cut the pizza into pieces and hesitantly tasted each one. After we finished, she pulled out a small bag containing toothpicks and offered me one. I accepted.

We attempted more conversation. I strained to understand as she talked about her visit to Canada. She giggled as I formed awkward phrases. We carried on this way and somehow it didn’t matter that I had forgotten so much Chinese. In the end, we understood each other perfectly.

2 thoughts on “Cultural Routes

  1. Living in NY, it happens every now and then that an elderly, Non-English speaking Chinese person asks me for help. My Chinese is also terrible, and there’s such a high level of frustration that comes with being able to understand what the person’s question is, but being unable to reply back in a way they would understand. The most upsetting for me was when someone’s grandma stopped me on the street and handed me a piece of paper. In English, the note said “Please help me find this address [listed below]. Can’t speak English.” She was looking for the entrance to a nearby high school, to attend a grandchild’s graduation. I was rather annoyed, I mean, who tapes this note to their grandma and lets them wander the street alone like that? I had also met a similarly alone and note-bearing grandma in the subway system. Already late for work, I tried to tell her the directions she needed with broken Chinese and hand gestures. It didn’t work very well, and I tried to be on my way…the woman grabbed my wrist, tears in her eyes, and asked me to help her. She must have felt so alone. I ended up escorting her to her station, which led me to be an hour late to work but I thought it was worth it in the end. When we arrived at her station, she smiled and tried to offer me money. I refused, of course, and went back on the train to get to work. Still, I feel so bad for these people who are all alone and helpless in a foreign world…illiterate and unable to communicate with anyone. It really makes me wish I knew how to speak Chinese better.

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