So I’m sick. Sick and travel are never fun. Recycled air on the plane is usually the culprit. Sick sucks. In particular, it sucks when you are out of your element. Travelling in the US usually affords you the ability to walk into any familiar looking pharmacy and choose the appropriate cold medicine from the dizzying array of choices.
International travel comes with its challenges, but most of my travel for the last few years has been to familiar western culture countries. When you get sick, you can at least understand some of what you are seeing in the store. Identifying the cold medicine in Barcelona, even with Catalan, was doable. My Spanish is passable enough that I can get by in most western European countries. Well, Finland was challenging, but they speak very good English.
China is an all together different problem. First, the character set is foreign to me. Second, Beijing is huge. HUGE. I am having trouble orienting myself because no matter what direction I look, there are buildings. Lots of buildings. This is the first city I have ever been in where I didn’t immediately know where I could walk from my hotel to get basic snacks/soda. I’m staying in a relatively nice hotel too, but there is no shop in the hotel. Oh, and English is not a first class language here, so good luck when you have to deal with the local shop owner. Hit or miss.
So when sickness befell me here, I was in a bit of a quandary. The hotel told me that I could find a shop about 3/4 of a mile away. However, he warned me that because it was after dark (8pm ish) that the doors would be closed and the lights off. I just had to knock and the woman would let me in. Not knowing where I was going, and trying to make sense of the cityscape was proving too daunting given my current state, so I went upstairs. 10 minutes later, I realized I had made a bad decision and needed to get some medicine.
20 minutes later, I was in the 7-11. This was 7-11 in brand, but the layout was not familiar. In fact, the shelves were quite sparsely stocked. Nothing like the overflowing sundries of the USA stores. Sadly, no one there spoke English, and I was unable to find anything which even remotely looked like medicine. So I gave up and decided to venture further down the street in the hopes of lucking up another store. Luck was with me.
Turns out the pharmacy was right next door, just as the hotel guy had said. I guess the 7-11 was a landmark for me to use, but this is where he was sending me. The door was in fact locked, and the woman was communicating with me through a small service window. This is where the fun begins.
Me: “I am sick and need medicine.”
Her: [blank stare]
Me: “Do you understand English”
Her: [head shake]
Me: [crap] “Uh ok…” [fake cough, grab throat] “sick.” [point at mouth]
Her: [squints, walks away, grabs something, brings is back – a liquid of some sort]
Me: “Do you have pills?” [bunch up fingers, point to mouth] “pills?” [mimic drinking water, and throw back some pills]
Her: [groans – takes liquid back and brings back 2 sets of boxes, clearly different brands]
Me: “Uh, OK, which one do I need? Which one is better?”
Her: [blank stare]
Me: “Which would you take?” [separate the boxes, point to both of them in turn, and point at her, cough, point at boxes, and shrug]
Her: [point to both of them in turn, point at me, cough, point at boxes, and shrug]
Me: “OK, I will take this one I guess.”
And then I thought, “if only there was a technology which would translate what I was trying to say…” And I pulled out my Windows Phone, and fired up Bing Translator, and typed in:
I am sick, and have a sore throat. Which of these would you use for yourself?
And when I pressed translate, this is what popped out on the screen:
I have no idea how close this is to my original , but when I showed her my phone I saw something flash across her face. It went from a look of annoyance with me (she had to wait for me to pull out my phone, fire up the web browser, tap out the message, and then show her the phone), to mild amusement, to surprise, to a giggle and a smile, at which point she shook her head, and took the box from me and gave me the one I had not selected. So I tried another question:
I also have a cough. Will this medicine still be good for me?
To which she shook her head positively. I had one more:
I have liquid in my nose. Do I need a different product?
Again, she giggled, almost girlishly, and put her fingers on her nose and moved them down in a way that told me she understood. She walked over to the shelves, and returned with another box. She proudly presented to myself, and I didn’t need a translator to tell me that she got this for me, she would use it and I would feel much better.
Sure, it was a one way conversation, but when I think about the enormity of what happened, all of the machines involved in the process to enable that conversation, and how it happened somewhat painlessly. Quite simply, I was floored.
On my walk back to the hotel, I thought maybe I wanted to quit my current job to go try and build the Star Trek universal translator. My whole life, from watching shows, I always just assumed the translator would do it all locally. With mobile and cloud, this simply doesn’t have to be the case. Sadly, I lack the engineering ability to even begin to scope or think about this problem, but I am sure my kids will have that in their future. Sure of it.
I love living in the future. In my job I get to see and experience it everyday. However, it was one of those real life moments which always brings it home for me. Stranger in a strange land, coughing his way to shop around the corner.