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.

| March/April 1986

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    Tom Barber writing to his pen pal Daniel Chan.
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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.

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