As I approached the front gate to my house, sweaty and out of breath, I rushed to unlock the mailbox. Inside rested an envelope, the exterior taped with lace ribbon and decorated with a few dried flowers. Turning it in my hands, I noticed the words “Please handle with care” printed along the bottom in precise cursive. Even after penpalling for over six months, this new letter from Malaysia made my heart skip a beat in excitement.
My journey with penpalling began in the third grade, when my English class formed a partnership with a school in Hong Kong, and I began writing to a boy in the same grade. Through this collaboration, I grew increasingly fascinated with the differences between our school lives — it was hard to believe that his school lunch was stewed fish and steamed rice, freshly made! The correspondence faded as the semester came to a close, yet the cultural knowledge I gained was irreplaceable. In the following years, I further developed my interest in understanding other cultures when traveling with my family thanks to my father’s job at American Airlines. Whether visiting London’s bustling city center or Kyoto’s serene bamboo forest, I loved every moment of my time abroad, yet I felt the need to reestablish the deeper personal connection penpalling gave me. Nothing compares to receiving a physical manifestation of effort and knowing you are bringing that same joy to someone else.
I was determined to finally find another penpal, but without school as a liaison, I had no idea where to look. One day, during the summer before ninth grade, as I mindlessly scrolled through Instagram, I came across a hashtag named #lookingforpenpals. It featured hundreds of users looking to foster friendships across the world. I clicked on a girl from Seattle, Washington’s profile, and after a brief conversation, we agreed to correspond. I was ecstatic anticipating her first letter.
A letter per month quickly became a letter per week, as I went from one penpal, to three, to six. South Korea, Malaysia, Germany, and various American states became interconnected through the ink of my pen. As I had hoped, my appreciation and understanding of these various places also increased. The recommendations my penpals suggested influenced my monthly playlists, the television dramas on my to-watch list, and even my culinary tastes. For example, the gift of instant milk tea I received in my envelope from Malaysia put all San Francisco boba shops to shame. I began to diligently finish my homework early so I could write letters and decorate envelopes in the evening. Sharing the worries of daily life with my distant friends made tough days easier to handle, and was well worth staying up late for. I was also able to compare and contrast the elements of our lives, just as I had done years prior in third grade.
For the first two years, I was able to set a consistent penpalling schedule. However, as junior year rolled around, heightened academic responsibility made squeezing in time for writing letters more difficult. School also became the focus of my penpals, and gradually the number of replies in my mailbox dwindled. Though I was hurt that these precious relationships were fading, I came to accept the shift in priorities.
This year, in the middle of a particularly rough week, I was reminded of penpalling when watching a Youtube video entitled “How to Get Your Life Together.” One of the points the video made was that balance is essential to a healthy lifestyle. This message helped me acknowledge that even though academics are important, so is continuing to make time for my outside passions. I have since been motivated to rekindle my penpalling and embrace the benefits of stress relief and joy the hobby has always given me.
Last month, I slipped an envelope into the mailbox and imagined it arriving to my new penpal in Virginia. She is a university student, with similar academic interests to me, and I hope she enjoys the washi tape and bear-shaped stickers I used to carefully decorate her letter. More so, I eagerly anticipate the bond we will form and learning about her life on the other side of the country.