When “I’ll Write Soon” Meant Actually Writing

CNN quoting first lady Michelle Obama in Beijing earlier this week, praising studying abroad as “citizen diplomacy”:

“I’m here today because I know that our future depends on connections like these among young people like you across the globe,” the first lady told an audience composed of Chinese and international students at Peking University.

“We believe that relationships between nations aren’t just about relationships between governments or leaders — they’re about relationships between people, particularly young people.”

She points out also that:

“You don’t need to get on a plane to be a citizen diplomat,” she said. “If you have an Internet connection in your home, school or library, within seconds you can be transported anywhere in the world and meet people on every continent.”

CNN notes that the first lady said she had never considered studying abroad. Yet she omits there that pre-internet “citizen diplomacy” had never been a choice between only study abroad or doing nothing. Apparently, she didn’t do this?

True, I suspect the internet must have largely undermined this among younger people today. But even if she has forgotten ye olden days, us other “older” folks vaguely remember them. Pre-internet, pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, there was something called “pen pals.”

Gather ’round, young people, and I will share a small memory of decades ago. There was once a time teens and young adults wrote letters, usually long-hand, and on paper, to each other in distant lands. Usually they had found each other by registering their name, address and country, and interests, at agencies that facilitated pairing them up so they could get to know each other that way.

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When one of them wrote a letter, he or she would head for the local post office, and mail it. About a week or so later, their “friend” in a foreign country would find their foreign postal service had left it in the mailbox, or had slid it through the letterbox. After opening that letter and reading it, he or she would then compose a letter in response, go to the local foreign post office or postbox, and mail that letter.

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Such exchanges sometimes went on for years. “Pen pals” might also send each other photos (that were taken by cameras, using film; but that is a subject for another recalling ye olden days blog post), cassettes (again, for another post), (printed) books, (printed) newspapers, (printed) magazines, and even remember each other’s birthdays (using paper cards). They might eventually talk on the (landline) telephone, and perhaps, on very rare occasions, have even someday met in person. :-)

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