Things I Miss: Penpals

Postcard from my friend Kim, from her trip to Ireland
Postcard from my friend Kim, from her trip to Ireland

If you’ve had a penpal, chances are, you’ve written “Write back!” at the end of your letter, before you signed it with your name, or wrote “PS. Write back!”, which may or may not have been followed by PPS, PPPS, and lots of post-post-post-post scripts, with extra notes, usually intended to be amusing.

I haven’t ever had someone I wrote to regularly. It’s been a while since I’ve handwritten a note that is more than a postcard – which is usually limited to a few sentences on the back of a picture of one of the wonders of the world, or a colourful or scenic tourist attraction. The novelty now lies in those postcards, and receiving mail from the multiple pieces of jewellery you ordered from Etsy or the second-hand bits and bobs you bought for your computer, or the clothes you spent a little too much on, just to get free shipping.

There’s not much heart in it anymore, and we don’t often receive personalised, hand-written mail. I remember having a few penpals, but I don’t know if they fit the traditional definition, because communication dropped after just a few letters, and sometimes there was no other way of contacting the person.

Hello, Grandma

My paternal grandmother passed away when I was very young. But before she passed, she was someone I learned to write to. It was my first experience writing a letter, or a document addressed to a person. She lived in Indonesia, and I remember writing her a few letters, despite the language barrier. When I visited Indonesia, I found that she had framed one of my letters where I had drawn a few line-drawings of diamonds. :’)

My first penpal (2001)

I had my first penpal when I was ten years old. I was heading to a regional camping ground with my school year group, where we would meet students from another school. Before heading on this trip, we were assigned another student from the other school to write to. I remember typing up my letter because I didn’t feel like writing, and I had just become accustomed to typing a lot of my assignments. My penpal, whose name was Kate, lived somewhere up north, wrote her reply on blue Looney Tunes stationery, and she had round, bubbly writing. We met in person at the camp, but didn’t even talk much. In fact, I don’t remember saying much to her expect “hello”.

I wrote back to her about the camp, this time handwriting my note. She ended up typing hers back. We exchanged a couple more letters and one day, I never received a reply. Maybe her reply got lost. Maybe mine got lost. I sent her another letter, but I didn’t receive a reply for that one either. It’s a bit hard to remember now, but I think she may have mentioned moving house.

Dear Emily

I remember reading a book, titled Dear Emily by Maureen Stewart, about a lonely city girl named Maria who writes to a country girl named Emily. Published in 1988, I read the book as a child and I found it very interesting that it was written only from the point of view of Maria – but you could still figure out what Emily might have replied with. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but it seemed that Maria wrote something that Emily was slightly offended by, and Maria never heard back from Emily, even though she had apologised many times. Every time I think of losing penpals or never hearing from someone again, I remember this book. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Maria.

Learning Japanese (2005)

I had some penpals in high school, who we were set up with by our Japanese teacher when I was learning Japanese. I believe it was mainly for us to learn how to write to people and how to introduce ourselves to others (likewise for the Japanese students, who were learning English), because we never received any replies. The Japanese students loved to attach purikura photos, or photo booth photos, and cute stickers. Their writing was always so incredibly neat.

Electronic mail: The letters of today

Over time, I guess things moved over to blogging, and people made friends through blogging networks (and now social media). I found myself writing to people who read my blog. It’s easy to text and chat to people now, and have a seemingly endless conversation. Most text messages are displayed like a conversation with a speech bubble interface. Even emails differ in length, and can be very short. Some people just use the subject line to send a message. While I do this a lot, Jamie and I email each other from time to time, and our emails are pretty long. I still email my friend Blake, and our emails often have photos. I email my friend Anika, who I tutored briefly in web design last year.

Sometimes you don’t receive a response to an email. But now there is always the general understanding that people are busy, that people “have lives”, and that they may not get back to you.

But it wasn’t like this before. You could always find time to write back to your friend. You weren’t always so busy with life. You weren’t always busy with school, or work, or anything. Even though it’s easier now to open up your inbox and type a new email, it suddenly seems a lot more time-consuming than writing a letter did a decade ago. Even though writing a letter required sitting down to write, addressing the envelope, stamping it, taking it to the post office.

It’s a bit sad.

I was writing an email in reply to someone I used to work with. I felt compelled to write “Write back!” at the end, because I had a slight inkling that he wouldn’t reply, and felt that “Keep in touch!” was far too overused. I had also written the latter in my earlier email, and I didn’t want to sound like I was desperate for a response.

Does “Write back!” encourage people to write back? I don’t know.

But I guess I didn’t need to worry about it, because I closed my email with neither of those remarks, and he did reply. :)

Have you ever had a penpal?

Comments on this post

I remember having penpals growing up. I’ll admit I was always that girl that never wrote back. I was the laziest of penpals.

I remember, back in the day, there was an email software that you had a pet/animal and you could give it treats and play with it and it would also receive your special mail from friends. If you got into a good enough relationship with one of your friends your pet would start emailing your friends and their pets.. I can’t for the life of me remember what that was called though, I just remember loving it.

I’m much more of an emailer, I hate my handwriting and writing letters in general. Like you mentioned the addressing the envelope, the stamp, the mailing I’d much prefer to login to gmail and just email someone. I used to have a friend who I’d email back and forth and we had alter egos in our emails, we also saw each other every day and chatted with each other online.. we were weird I guess :P

I think social media might have killed letter and email writing. It’s easier to write a short status update and everyone sees it and knows what you’re doing, before that people would use messengers, forums, chat rooms and email to talk to each other.

I prefer emailing as well now. Before I got into email, I thought penpals were a lovely idea. I think it’s very easy to email someone – sometimes I just send a friend a quick email to ask what they’re up to, or if I want to share something with them. About the alter ego thing though… I don’t find that weird. I sort of did something similar with my close friends when we chatted online. I would type out my alter ego’s words prefixed with the same symbol, or in italics or in a different colour, if it was possible. Digital lets you be just as free and creative as paper!

With being in the “digitalized world”, it makes a bit sense that postcard/mail penpals disappeared… Because it’s easier to communicate on the internet. It’s not the same because the experience of having to actually write and get it sent through the post office is taken away.

It’s so sweet that your grandmother framed one of your letters! It gives it more meaning than just writing to hear back :).

I do feel like penpal moved to blogging.. Technically we’re writing to each other and we live quite a distance from each other? I think having “write back!” does encourage people to write back. Sometimes, they initially don’t have the intentions to write back until you mention about it. It’s fine if you don’t respond. Some letters aren’t meant to have a response.

I had one penpal in elementary school by force. The closest one I have to one today is a friend from school because we always seem to write essay-length emails (until one of us gets lazy and doesn’t respond soooo we restart the convo).

One of my friends emails me again a few days later if I have forgotten to reply (or have just been too busy), or if she has an urgent question. I also get into those essay-length emails. The same thing tends to happen when restarting the chain with a new email. Sometimes the last email doesn’t call for much of a response. But they just get longer and longer! :P

I absolutely loved having pen-pals. Until the digital world kicked in. It was a harsh wake-up call, but in time, I grew to appreciate it and understand it. I’ve had plenty of pen pals before, and honestly I miss it. I’ve Japanese pen-pals and loved receiving letters from them. I’ve even went as far as asking if it would be okay to do snail mail instead of emails. It would not be the same if it was e-mails. Anyone can email, and anyone can write a letter too.

I do appreciate all the emails that you’ve written back. I think that by saying “WRITE BACK” encourages a person to write a response back. It may take the person awhile to do so due to a busy life as either a college student, or their career just isn’t allowing free-time due to whatever task is at hand. Eventually, they will have to understand that the person is busy in general and will reply back when they can and have the time. That’s life unfortunately. It still isn’t the same as receiving a post-card or an actual letter.

My aunt W. for example, she used to me a lot of the time. When I would receive her letter, it would be typed on a type-writer. I hated it because I wanted to see her penmanship. Kind of weird right? My grandma on my mom’s side would write to me, when I was little, and she would write in her cursive writing. I always loved that. A friend of mine (even though we didn’t live that far) would be nice and send me a post-card here and there when she went to Washington state to visit some relatives. That was basically when I was a kid and didn’t have much pen-pals. Or knew what they were. Now, I feel like that social media and email is getting in the way and mail is becoming obsolete between friends.

“Does “Write back!” encourage people to write back?”

Personally, the best way to get someone to reply to you is probably
1. asking them a question they have to answer or at least should answer that isn’t, “how have you been?” or “what have you been up to?” but more specific

2. “hope to hear from you soon” or “I look forward to hearing from you” or “I look forward to your reply” are all other great & professional ways to prompt a response.

While writing snail mail is fun, it might not be as environmentally friendly as e-mailing! However, long e-mails have indeed taken place of the long letters. You have friends all over the world, just ask them for their address & start writing them letters so you’ll have nothing to miss at all! My BFF & I write to one another & she’s only 3 time zones away from me haha.

It’s too bad about your other friend never actually writing you back though…sounds kind of like….it wasn’t going to be the best kind of friendship anyway since she barely even talked to you at camp *awkward turtle*. How touching that your grandma framed one of your letters though. :) That’s really sweet.

I think that is so beautiful that your grandmother framed that, it obviously meant a lot to her and that is so nice.

I had a few penpals, but we just kind of gradually stopped sending letters to each other, I guess we also got a bit older and things changed.

One of the hard parts about writing actual letters today (that I find) is that it keeps costing more and more just to send a letter. It seems like a ridiculous price, it’s something like 70c now? :/

I understand the point though, and it was always fun and exciting to get an actual letter (and still is) where someone has dedicated the time and care and those words have traveled some distance carrying them.

Aww, that’s sweet that your grandmother framed your letter :) I think that’s great that you were able to exchange letters with her back then.

I think it’d be fun to have a pen pal to help learn a new language. I grew up with a few pen pals that I wrote regularly to and one was actually from China. At the time, I wasn’t learning Chinese, so I just wrote in English and she wrote back in English as practice.

I haven’t written a handwritten letter in a long time. While I kind of miss it, I prefer email anyway. It’s faster and more reliable. Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of incidents with snail mail lately. I’d get my neighbors’ mail or they’d get mine. I also got a Christmas card 7 months late, so apparently it was lost in the mail that entire time. It is kind of sad that people think replying to an email is too time-consuming, and I’m definitely guilty of forgetting to reply. I think it’s partly because it’s so easy to just close the email and think, “I’ll get back to it later”, and then totally forget.

I don’t know if I’ve ever really had a penpal. I think the closest thing was from people I’ve actually met in person. Handwritten letters in general are wonderful to receive, and the last one I got was from a friend in LA. I was too lazy to handle the sending back of a letter, but it was much appreciated.

I love handwritten letters and writing them, but I find my hand gets tired after awhile. I still handwrite my notes from time to time– you remember things better when you physically write stuff down.

When I was learning German at school I had a penpal in Germany. I was suppose to write to her in German to practice the language, but she was learning English (and much better at English than I was at German) so we always wrote to each other in English. It only lasted a couple of months though. I think I forgot to write back in the end.

In my first year of university, Tyrone was still at college and so he use to write to me, even though we Skyped pretty much all of the time. It was just lovely to receive something in the post that wasn’t a bill, haha!

That’s really sweet that your Grandma framed the letter! Shows how much she valued the time you put into each letter :)
I’m pretty embarrassed to say, I’ve never wrote a postcard nor a personal letter ha.

These days most of us check their postboxes only for bills! and online purchases are usually delivered at the door. Now a days hardly anyone even emails each other. Now no one really wants to know how you are, they just like to brag about themselves.

I had a pen pal when I was in 8th grade. It was a girl named Devashree. We grew up together but when I shifted to Mumbai in 2005 we lost touch. So we started writing to each other. Eventually we stopped when she had gone to the States for a year on a student exchange program…

I like to email people and talk about random stuff, and I guess I’ll start it all over again now :D

I used to have penpals back in the day before my little brother was born, when he was still my mom’s womb. I miss those days too. I remember those days, because I wanted my mom to name my brother Joshua, but he ended up with the name Christopher and I was sad because of that. Because my penpal and myself came up with the name Joshua.

I was constantly writing to my penpal that happened to be a good friend of mine from another school.

I miss the personal stroke of a pen on paper, that’s probably why I haven’t gotten rid of the letters I wrote to family members when they were in prison. Yeah, my family is bad XD, but does it matter? I just miss the interconnecting of feelings and the feel of people. Maybe I’ll get another penpal for myself without worrying about the computer.

Man, I miss writing letters.

I keep notes with sentimental value. I kept a rather private note one of my closest friends wrote during a tough time; I kept a note my neighbour put in my letterbox to welcome me home from a trip; I keep a lot of my old birthday and Christmas cards. They come so rare now. You’re not the only one. :)

When emails came around, I admit to not writing letters by hand except for like doing Christmas cards. And I don’t mind emails — typing is certainly faster than writing for me! But I do miss that feeling of getting something in the mail like I did with friends and pen pals during the snail mail days.

One of my friend, despite being digitalised like we are, prefer the “old-fashion” things like using a fountain pen or writing in a physical journal and writing actual letters. A few years back, she and I started to write each other letters, and then she started a new concept called the “letterbook”. Instead of writing single letter, she’d write multiple letters in a single notebook and send that to me. I reciprocated, and now we’ve been doing the letterbooks for a couple of years now. She already wrote five letterbooks to me, and I wrote about two or three since grad school sucked my time then. But now I’ve got more time, so I’ve been writing more! And I enjoy it. It’s definitely more meaningful. ^^