Opinion: Forgotten penpalling hobby brings teenagers across oceans together


Pictured above are the contents of one of Kalyani’s letters to her international penpal Hana. Sending letters across the ocean takes more than a month, but for junior Kalyani Rao, that connection is worth it. “Adding handmade touches to my letters like pressed flowers and stickers makes me really happy,” Rao said. “I love art and I love writing, so penpalling combines both of those really nicely.”

Christi’s Perspective: Meeting a lifelong friend through letters

When the nearly worldwide quarantine began in March of 2020 due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, my life, along with millions of others, went from a busy, normal life, to weeks on end filled with anxiety and boredom.

Some people filled their hours indoors with TV watching, reading or baking, while others started to do at-home workouts or learn other new skills. I tried many different things to pass the time, but one of the most fulfilling hobbies I adopted was the practice of penpalling.

Penpalling is the act of writing letters to people you either know already or strangers who live far away from you. The art of writing letters is something that was second nature for most people for hundreds of years, but, with the technological revolution, the beauty of writing letters was largely forgotten. 

I have always had an appreciation for handwritten letters and notes. I cherish every note written to me because it takes more work than simply pulling out your phone and texting something – it takes sitting down, contemplating and then putting in the effort to write what you’re thinking before either delivering or mailing it. This process can often be tedious – even for myself – but the benefits far outweigh the amount of work. 

In those hours of loneliness during quarantine, I discovered that my love for letters wasn’t all that strange. There were thousands of accounts on Instagram, Pinterest and other platforms dedicated solely to penpalling. Some of these accounts were people taking pictures of the letters they sent and received, while others were accounts helped you to find a penpal.

I decided to post on my Instagram story, asking if anyone wanted to be my penpal, and many of my friends from my previous home in Washington state responded, which sparked an excitement I hadn’t had for most of the quarantine. I also scrolled through several “penpal wanted” accounts, searching for someone to write to that was from the other side of the world. I reached out to a few people my age from Italy, England and Germany who spoke English, and then had to do the hard part – wait and hope.

While searching for a foreign penpal, I wrote dozens of letters to my old friends, rekindling friendships that I had thought were a part of the past. I spent hours making beautiful envelopes, that I hoped would cheer others up during the height of the pandemic. I even wrote a birthday card to a lady in a nursing home for her birthday.

Through letters, messages and video calls over the last nearly two years, Elisa and I have become dear friends. Despite the 5,348 miles between us and the differences in our cultures, nationalities, religions and lives, we have been able to find so much commonality.

— Christi Norris

One day, after taking some letters to the mailbox to send to Washington, I came home to a message on Instagram from one of the Italian girls I had messaged. Her name was Elisa, and we hit it off right away. We were both fairly new to having penpals, and decided to embrace it together. 

After several months and a few letters back and forth, Elisa and I realized we had a lot in common. When I stopped being in quarantine, it became difficult for me to maintain writing letters, but Elisa and I decided to just keep messaging on Instagram. 

Through letters, messages and video calls over the last nearly two years, Elisa and I have become dear friends. Despite the 5,348 miles between us and the differences in our cultures, nationalities, religions and lives, we have been able to find so much commonality. Being able to talk to someone, literally on the other side of the world, who had similar feelings, challenges and interests to me became a great comfort amidst uncertainty in America and the rest of the world. We realized that we both are dealing with the same pandemic, the same stress about school, the future, similar struggles with friends and other things. And, that realization, for me, at least, brings me a little extra hope and happiness in the midst of my moments of anxiety. 

Often, I feel that through the news, social media and other mediums, that we as humans are so extremely divided and are becoming more so by the day. Major news outlets publish stories of violence, division, illnesses and political unrest that can paint a picture of our world as being a place where our differences are what define us. But, having a penpal showed me that these differences are not a challenge as I once thought they were. Sure, there are still things that divide us in life, but talking to someone who outwardly seems very different from me has truly opened my eyes to something I thought I already knew.

As humans, if we focus on our similarities instead of our differences, we can make friends with anyone.