Ever Had a Penpal?
Pix and Text by Priyangwada Perera
Ceylon Today Features
When was the last time you received a letter, a personal letter? Discard all the bills you get in the post and recall when was the last time you got a handwritten letter or a card via snail mail?
Even though there is no specific ‘day’ in Sri Lanka that we celebrate having and being a penpal, like in the US, it is interesting to know the history of penpals.
It was in 1860 that Modern Postal Services were introduced and people started receiving letters through modern post. By 1931, the term ‘penpal’ was included in the Oxford English Dictionary. There started all kinds of penpals and before the world wide web, or the internet friendship was on a very different scale.
In a world where the internet was not a reality, for a 14-year-old me, getting a penpal from Germany, one from America and by the time I turned 15 years old getting another two from Finland, was like having the entire world at my doorstep. In fact, we first found our foreign penpals via International Youth Service (IYS). Everything was done on snail mail.
How we’d go about it, is by choosing four countries, indicating the preferred age and gender of our possible penpal. The forms were filled in school since it was cheaper to send a full coupon of 12 people. Plus, it would also mean one extra penpal free of charge. We could request a penpal by paying them one US$1.
With our language abilities, interests and hobbies, they matched the requirements of the youngsters who were interested in finding foreign friends. Anyone between the ages 10-20 could request a penpal. Each person would get the address of a penpal and we had to write the first letter. If we were lucky, we also had the chance of receiving a letter from a ‘surprise pen pal’. As teenagers, when my best
friend found a great girl from Germany, one fine day she sent us the addresses of five of her best friends. But IYS got us going. Soon, everyone was filling the coupons and getting a penpal. From Grades 9 to 11, there never was a day in my class where a classmate did not receive a letter.
The joy of seeing classmates with a dainty, colourful letter with radiant envelopes and all kinds of stamps was shared joy. Letters were sent round the class and all of us read. They always had photographs of beautiful, exotic places, their friends and family and of course, their pets.
I remember how a Brazilian boy never wrote back and a boy from Czech Republic never sent more than one letter and so did the British girl I was in touch with. But the other four continued. To this day, I stay in touch with all four. Now the communication has moved to social media of course, however, the letters, gifts, posters and everything that came from overseas are still kept like treasures.
Today, we get agitated and impatient when the internet is slow, calls are not picked up or missed calls are not attended to, I think of our old life. How did we have the patience to wait for over a month to hear from someone? There was so much anticipation and ecstasy when the letter finally did arrive. There was no joy like receiving letters.
The joy of collecting the letter ourselves would often be missed because we would be at school. So, holidays were even more important where we could actually collect the letter ourselves from the postman.
People keep glorifying yesteryears and it all gets tagged as nostalgia. However, if you are wise enough to have an impartial view you would know it is neither that simple or cheap. To have someone from a different country, who takes the trouble to sit down and handwrite pages and pages of letters is beautiful enough.
On top of it, we made sure to find beautiful writing pads and if there weren’t any then came all the cutting, pasting, drawing and colouring-which produced customised writing sheets and envelopes. Looking back, you realise how much love, how much time and effort we put into each one of those letters while our parents bought us unique Sri Lankan gifts like handmade jewellery to send our penpals and bore all the postal charges before going to the post office to do the needful.
It’s a situation quite different from nowadays where it was not about just befriending someone and chatting online when you have time to kill –there was commitment and both parties were happy to work hard for it. It was a win-win situation.
It is sad to find out that International Youth Service is no more. Their heartbreaking announcement read that IYS has been in operation since 1952, and they have arranged pen friends from over 100 countries for school children for over 56 years. But “The internet has led to a situation where sending ordinary letters is old-fashioned.
Letter writing, once very popular, is now a hobby of a few.” I look at my photographs, picture postcards, bracelets, key tags, posters, letters, even the empty chocolate boxes from two decades ago and feel glad my childhood was different. Now it is just a matter of meeting them somehow. Perhaps, once the pandemic is over.