Explore the World with a Pen Friend!

Tom Barber shares his experience of making friends by exchanging letters with pen pals located in different parts of the world.
By Tom Barber
March/April 1986
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Daniel Chan, Tom's pen pal from Kowloon Peninsula.
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Our planet earth: It's a big, beautiful, boiling pot of people, cultures, languages, and customs. Many of us seem to think that life begins and ends in the United States, but there are nations beyond ours that are so fascinating they can take your breath away. And you don't have to be a millionaire to experience the people of a foreign country. You can be a world traveler and not go any further than your mailbox!

How? By finding and writing to pen pals — young people in foreign countries to exchange letters with.

Finding Pen Pals and Making Friends Worldwide

When I was in the ninth grade, my teacher told us about International Youth Service (IYS), an organization that helps you obtain a pen friend from any one of over 100 countries (you get to choose the country) for a nominal fee. I was eager to correspond with someone from a foreign nation, but with so many nations in this world, which one should I choose? I thought about writing to someone from the tropics and learning how they fished for conch and speared swordfish. I imagined writing someone from the Far East and learning their ancient customs . . . or someone from Africa and feeling sorrow and hope for them as they wrote about poverty and sickness. (I should admit right away that one of the first things I learned when I made a pen friend was that life in foreign countries is not always as I imagine it!)

Still, one area stood out from all the others that I thought about . . . Hong Kong. I'd always wanted to visit Hong Kong, with its towering mountains, enthralling pagodas, and enchanting people. I could even imagine the smell of incense in the air. So I sent in my application and fee to IYS and asked for a pen friend from Hong Kong, someone about my age who was interested in sports and school activities, had various hobbies, and enjoyed collecting things.

Two or three weeks later, I received a letter from the organization telling me to write to a boy named Daniel Chan from Kowloon, Hong Kong. I was very excited and began my letter at once.

That first letter was the hardest one for me to write. For a while, I was at a loss for words — I couldn't believe that I had to tell this person about my whole life! After I thought for a while, though, the words began to come. I told him of my family and pets, and our customs, culture, and holidays. Then I walked to the post office and airmailed my letter.

It seemed like I waited weeks for a reply. Finally, one day I went out to the mailbox and found a letter from Daniel. I was very excited to hear from him. He told me of his customs, family, and school. He also told me he lived in Kowloon Peninsula, which is really connected to Red China and separated by a river from the rest of Hong Kong. That letter made me realize how geographically ignorant I was: I thought Hong Kong was a part of China!

We exchanged more letters. I was very surprised when I learned the number of courses Daniel took in school. I felt I was bragging when I wrote him that I was taking poetry, geometry, choir, Spanish, biology, and history. He wrote back that his courses were physics, chemistry, biology, Chinese, English, mathematics, geography, additional math, physical education, music studies, and religious studies.

I was flabbergasted! I thought schools in the U.S. were tough, but this was unbelievable! I wrote him back that my mother wanted to thank him because now I had stopped complaining about my homework.

In another letter, I told him how I imagined Hong Kong as being "a land of rickshas, pagodas, and temples — a land with the smell of tea leaves in the air." He wrote back, "You've been watching too many movies. This is a place of skyscrapers, shopping malls, designer clothing, and modern ways." He even sent a picture of himself and his friend Phillip showing off their designer shoes!

I wrote to tell him of a new hit movie in the U.S., and he wrote back to say he'd already seen the same movie in Hong Kong. We wrote each other about our hobbies and our favorite sports. I taught him some Spanish and he taught me some Chinese. We learned and benefited a lot from our friendship.

I am now 17. Daniel and I have become extremely close friends even though we've never even seen each other. I was happy for him when he passed his college qualifying test, and excited along with him when he got a part-time job in a toy factory. I felt sorrow for him when he told me how he lost his mother when he was little and when a typhoon recently struck Kowloon. We send each other birthday and Christmas presents, pictures, clothes, and food. We have even talked on the telephone. It may seem strange, but you can get to know someone really well without ever seeing him.

So I urge you, write someone from a foreign land. Whether it's a little boy from Iceland, a teenager from Asia, or a young girl from the shores of the Nile. Grab this huge, beautiful earth by the tail and go on a ride that you'll never forget.

Open your heart to a pen friend.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The fee for using International Youth Service is 85¢ per address, with a minimum request of four addresses.  


Some Examples of Tom and Daniel's Pen Pal Correspondence

Tom: I live in a large house. How about you? My house has 19 rooms.

Daniel: 1 live in a very large apartment building with my father. l can't imagine what anyone would do with a 19-room house.

Tom: I live with my mother, father, and grandmother. My grandmother helps with the housework and fixes some of the meals. My mother works as a secretary, helps with the housework, and prepares some of the meals. My father works as a zone manager for a newspaper.

Daniel: I have many brothers and sisters, but they are all older, so I live alone with my father. After I come home from school, I cook the meal, do the dishes, and start my homework around 8:00.

Tom: Prices are constantly rising here. To see a movie costs an average of $4.00. A can of pop costs 50¢, and school lunch is 90¢.

Daniel: The prices in your country seem much lower than the prices in Hong Kong. School lunch is $2.50, to see a show in the cheapest seats in the house is $13.00, and a bottle of Coke is $1.50.

Tom: I turned 16 years and 6 months old today, so I was able to obtain my driver's license.

Daniel: Because Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world, there is a very large flow of traffic. For this reason, you must be 21 before you are able to take the examination which qualifies you to become a licensed driver.


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