TURNS OF PHRASE: You never know where your missives will lead
FOUR decades ago, we looked forward to a man who came to our house on most days around the same time, except weekends. He used to ride a bicycle with a bell attached to it. He was the friendly postman.
Nowadays, with all the Internet gizmos, we hardly get anything interesting from the postman (the bicycle has made way for the louder and faster motorcycle) except official letters, unwanted mail or bills. A sad development indeed.
As I am currently living in the countryside, I am stepping back in time as the postman here still cycles and he is the regular guy in the neighbourhood, who everyone knows by name. His bag, plumped with letters, is green.
When I was in my teens, the Internet was unheard of. The only way to live life outside the familiar was through books, movies and letters. Books and movies still entertain us now but letters from pen-friends belong to the dinosaur age.
I had a friend whose sister had put an advertisement in a European music magazine in the 1970s and she received hundreds of letters from curious Westerners who wanted to know what was happening in this part of the world. Needless to say she had to sift through the letters to select the pen-pals she would keep. So, her sister brought the rest of the letters to school and distributed to all who would like to have a Western pen-pal. I chose an Irish one.
We corresponded for years, exchanging information about nasi lemak, coconut trees, lamb stew, river dance and leprechauns. A letter would take seven to 10 days to arrive. Then the letter would be read and re-read. Usually it would be written on very thin writing paper if sealed in an envelope or on an aerogramme.
Letter writers were usually stamp collectors as well, so I would carefully cut around the stamps and soak them. For special occasions, like birthdays, we would send little gifts. I remember sending a small pewter plate to my pen-pal. Sometimes the gifts would go missing and we would accuse the postman of stealing them.
The topics in the letters were varied and innocent, ranging from things that happened in the classroom, in town and in the family. The most exciting part, perhaps, was when photos were exchanged.
There were also miscommunications. Once, when my pen-pal saw a beautiful rainbow, he casually wrote and asked whether I had seen a rainbow in Malaysia. Mortified, I explained to him in great detail how a rainbow is formed and Malaysia being in the tropics has plenty of rain and sunshine. He was talking about the aesthetic and I the scientific.
He sent me a lock of hair (which I still have today) and I sent him mine, which he said would make a fine paintbrush. He was merely stating a fact about the strength of black Asian hair but I thought he was totally like the romantic Hollywood film star. Through it all, letters that were much awaited for forged a great friendship.
So lately, I decided to find out whether the art of writing letters to pen-pals still exists. I looked through a family magazine and was surprised that there was a whole page dedicated to making friends, not so much friends overseas but within Ireland itself. What caught my eye was the way such advertisements are worded these days.
Now there are short forms everywhere: WLTM (Would Like to Meet), SD (Social Drinker), GSOH (Good Sense of Humour) and ALA (All Letters Answered), to name a few. Most of the advertisements are very amusing and appear sincere enough. The age of people seeking pen-pals could be anything from 20 to 80.
One advertisement read: "Single soft-spoken man in his 60s seeks sincere lady for companionship with a view to marriage. Lives a quiet life. Has car. Can go for rides."
I could not help but suppress a smile at the mention of the car and going for rides, which to me is not exactly like owning a private jet and going for flights. I later found out that because most of these people live in the country, having a car and going for rides is seen as a treat and a getaway from the mundane.
However, pen-pal advertisements in a local newspaper are completely different. With the exception of a few, most of the people in the advertisements are seeking a fun time, and for floozy relationships with no strings attached.
The long and short of letter writing is that it is very rewarding. As we celebrate our wedding anniversary this month, I know that it was not by coincidence that I married the same pen-pal from Ireland so many years ago.
By Dr Koh Soo Ling