Saturday, May 12, 2012

Crossing continents with ink & paper

It took only a short conversation about penpal-writing to prompt me to rummage through closets to get out the shoe boxes containing old letters from penpals. Reminiscing galore followed; I'll admit I spent too much time poring over those handwritten reminders of pre-internet days, delighting in pages and pages of stories from penpals I had corresponded with for several years.

Reading every letter of the dozens I had saved among a couple of hundred (maybe) beckoned, but I got my camera and quickly took snapshots instead. Remembering that I had written two pieces about my penpal experiences for two publications, I made a mental note to dig them up wherever they were. That was a week ago.

Today, I finally found one of them.

Below is "Put it in writing," the article I wrote for The Evening Paper in 1996, for which I was a feature writer for some time.

* * * * * * * * * *

There is no experience like foreign travel -- soaking up the local culture of some exotic country by interacting with the people, exploring the sights and sounds, discovering wonders that make that country truly unique. However, penetrating cultural barriers with the pen is a different experience altogether, for here, one gains much more than cultural enrichment.

The letters used to come by the bundle. In those days, they meant more stamps and postcards to add to a collection, and were always opened with joyful anticipation. But above all, of course, these letters meant the latest news from special people whom I'd never met but who, like me, were busy with their lives half a world away.

At first, each letter was a passport to a foreign country, bringing up close the panorama of a city, and allowing me to discover little by little the facts about the culture. These revelations were provided by friends who served as my "eyes," and though some of the facts could very well have been obtained from any encyclopedia, because the letter-writers were immersed in the culture, these accounts were more real, more human.

I was afforded many an interesting peek into another's culture. Before starting a correspondence with Vanessa from the West Indies, I hardly saw Trinidad & Tobago on the world map, but after a few letters, these little islands right above Venezuela became the object of my curiosity. They started acquiring a character of their own, what with Vanessa's stories of creole, pet agoutis ("a rodent with long brown fibrous hair, a protruding pink snout and which grunts like a pig"), maxi taxis (a cross between a bus and a taxi), her experiences with people from neighboring islands, and life in general as a student in the only girls' college in the whole of the West Indies.

The greeting cards bearing paintings of early 20th century Trinidadian society made her country all the more enticing. Even the stamps portrayed the islands as a tropical paradise where luxuriant flora abound. But of course, it was our exchange of stories and insights about everyday life that transformed the correspondence from mere cultural barter into a friendship.

Even a country with as rich a culture as France became increasingly fascinating with Frederic's letters, but not because he raved about fashion houses or Continental wining and dining or other typical Parisian indulgences. Frederic is not from Paris but from a small town in the southern region of Dordogne, and based on his accounts, his hometown resembles more closely the countryside than an urban setting.

Over a period of six years, he has sent about 30 postcards, more snapshots, a dozen brochures about his country, and four cassette tapes of music by contemporary French artists. Then there are the experiences he has related in his letters -- quite rich and exhaustive since he travels around the country a lot and takes notice of everything -- painting a nice picture of France outside of Paris.

The postcards and other materials depicting scenic sights and marvelous man-made structures do a good job of showing a panoramic view of his country, yet it's the letters that make the correspondence a real cultural exchange. Along with facts about his country and its culture, Frederic writes about experiences in school (then later, at work), dealings with people, trips to other parts of the country as well as abroad -- in a way that reflects a non-cosmopolitan disposition. His ideas, therefore, provide a fresh perspective on the simplest matters, something no Parisian sophisticate could probably do.

Of course, in return I have tried to be as extensive in "promoting" the Philippines, whether by writing about the family-oriented quality of our society or life during Spanish colonial times. Research was often necessary lest my French pal learn the wrong things, so that after several years of giving him the lowdown on anything local, I ended up discovering just how rich Philippine culture actually is.

Friendships made through the mail somehow change the way one regards international events. One acquires a perspective that is more global, so that those events cease to be abstract, isolated occurrences across the world.

Yugoslavia still had all six republics intact when Zinka and I started our cross-continental correspondence. Ours were meaty discussions (though light in tone) about virtually anything under the sun, which zeroed in quite often on relationships, the outdoors and academic life. She was an independent girl, outspoken and held somewhat unorthodox ideas, which made her letters all the more interesting. The regularity of our correspondence, however, was broken by the Bosnian-Croatian war which broke out about three years into our letter-writing. Naturally, CNN's reports on the latest developments on the situation were always anticipated with much anxiety. Even though Slovenia was a good distance from where the fighting took place, her safety was still my concern. Needless to say, no longer was this war merely the latest of a series of global events to hit the headlines; it took on a more human dimension because of Zinka.

When she did write again months later, it was evident that she was considerably affected by the "ethnic cleansing"her countrymen were engaged in. Just another demonstration that no kind of armed conflict prompted by purely human motives can ever be justified.

The fall of communism, on the other hand, was good news not only for those finally liberated from life behind the Iron Curtain. It held a special significance for me, too, even though I had no plans whatsoever of jetting off to Eastern Europe. My German pal Anja lived minutes away from the Brandenburg Gate which separated East and West Berlin, and though it was generally peaceful, the German Democratic Republic imposed many restrictions on the people. She lived on the west side of the border, fortunately, but to get out of West Berlin -- which was surrounded by the wall -- and reach other parts of West Germany, one had to cross the border twice.

The destruction of the Berlin Wall was indeed a landmark event, and thanks to Anja, I have a tangible reminder of that turning point in world history.

"There are so many people there to sell the wall pieces but now you can be sure that the pink piece was taken out of the wall on February 18th near the Brandenburg Gate," she wrote on the letter accompanying the piece of concrete.

Not every correspondence is this exciting, or fulfilling, though. Getting better acquainted with Brazilian life through Katia seemed okay in the first couple of letters, but it became boring after that. Though Japanese culture appeals to me, it was obvious that Ryoko and I didn't have enough in common to make our letter-writing last. Then I was extremely excited by the prospect of making a friend in Iceland, but for some reason, Sigrun never sent a second reply. And I thought an Algerian guy was the answer to my understanding African culture, but when he wrote in his second letter that he worked on a vessel that was scheduled to dock at Philippine ports, I wrote to tell him I had too many penpals already to pursue our correspondence. Fortunately, he took the news with no hard feelings.

Much as penpal-writing enriches one's knowledge, it is also through this that one comes to realize his ignorance about many things:

It was around the time Filipino women became prominent because of the remarkable "exodus" of those who took jobs abroad as domestic helpers. It came to a point where "Filipina" in some countries became synonymous with "maid" and this was getting heated reactions back home. Perhaps it seemed to a lot of people that housekeeping was the Filipina's forte, but what was bothersome was the other extreme -- that some deemed the extent of the Filipina's capabilities as limited to domestic chores.

When rumors of the new Oxford dictionary carrying the definition of maid as "Filipina" came out, my scorn for what I regarded back then as a national insult went in a letter to my Trinidadian friend. "Don't worry, they're just ignorant, small-minded people," Vanessa reassured me, referring to those who tended to conjure images of a maid at the mere mention of the word "Filipina."

Now I realize that among those small-minded people was myself, for I failed to get past the petty elements surrounding the matter.

After all, there is nothing shameful about being a maid, household helper, domestic helper or whatever one calls a person tasked with keeping a home in tiptop shape. This kind of work requires training, perseverance, a keen eye for detail and a tremendous sense of responsibility, for, to a certain extent, the well-being and stability of entire families depend on how well the job is done. This could've been a perfect opportunity to share with Vanessa such ideas that go beyond cultural barriers and can be applied to anywhere in the world, had I held them then. But only after the issue died down did I fully understand that the work of a domestic helper is a profession as well, an occupation that carries with it the same dignity that any piece of clean and honest work has.

There certainly are things in international correspondence that one cannot possibly get anywhere else. Sure, sending letters abroad by air mail regularly costs money, and writing can be quite a task for some. However, the opportunities for growth and learning about life, about others, about oneself -- and for imparting this knowledge to others -- are immense, something no amount of globe-trotting can ever provide.

* * * * * * * * * *

The 16-year-old, slightly yellowing, crumpled-at-the-edges page with the original piece

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