The other day in the mail I got some sad news: a lady whom I met in Hong Kong 22 years ago had died. This is a short story on making an acquaintance that lasted a lifetime—something that is rare today.
In 1996 I was living and working in Tokyo, Japan as an English teacher. Due to some bureaucratic reason, I had to go on a short trip to Hong Kong to obtain a Japanese working visa. I had two days free so I took a city tour through Hong Kong. While I was standing in line waiting for the tourist bus, I started chatting with a German woman named Hildegard and her Italian husband, Mateo.
After the tour, we went out for a meal and hung out together the rest of the day. I never saw them again after that but we exchanged mailing addresses.
Over the years Hildegard and I became pen pals. We wrote each other letters about four times a year. Mind you this was before email became popular. We met just before I became engaged to Joerg. I had no idea that a few years later I would be living in Germany.
Through her letters I learned a lot about her life and family. She got to know me on a personal level through detailed letters about the intimacies of my own life. She was a safe person for me to confide in because I never saw her face to face. She wrote back with a sympathetic note letting me know that she understood me.
Even when email and Facebook became popular, Hildegard and I still exchanged letters, in English, mostly because she refused to buy a computer: she didn’t feel the need to master a computer as long as the postman still walked his beat. Her daughter, Patricia, who lives in Italy, contacted me once via Facebook to show pictures of her mother on holiday in Italy. I encouraged her to get a computer as writing letters seemed so outdated. But she was steadfast in her decision.
Christmas cards came and went. This year instead of a letter, I sent her a postcard from Salzburg and the annual Christmas card with my children’s photos. A few years ago her husband Mateo died. I actually never knew how old Hildegard was, the only visual I have of her is standing at the bus stop looking vital and healthy, her face still frozen in time.
When I saw the letter addressed from Patricia in Italy, my heart dropped. I knew Hildegard had died. Probably the only pen pal alive on earth was now gone. In today’s world of distracting phone texts and ostensibly urgent Instagrams, I probably wouldn’t gaze in the eyes of a stranger nor engage in a conversation. It just feels too awkward.
Back in the day, small talk with the guy or gal sitting next to me on plane was common, perhaps even expected, but not any more. Most people shy away from random chitchat with headphones over their ears and eyes glued to a mini screen.
Over the years I’ve met so many people by chance, some of whom even who’ve changed the course of my life (a great story for another time), and became friends through letters, email or Facebook. The art of letter writing has passed. I miss the opportunity of getting to know someone through words, unleashing my soul to an empathic listener, even one that I had only physically seen once.
I even miss the opportunity of chance acquaintances through no work of my own other than just being at the right place. In social media, I have to be careful about what I say or it could be misread. A reader could easily insult me with 140-character tweet, killing the desire to even post anything. My pen pals never had the audacity to tear me down. It was a mutual exchange of empathy.
I love writing letters, spilling out my thoughts on paper. I used to write eight to ten pages, front and back, long scripted letters to friends. The words just flowed. I still pen a few detailed emails to a few friends. I’ve turned to blogging to communicate to a mass group of people.
I admit that I’ve been writing more private messages to friends on Facebook. I don’t really like Facebook messenger or writing longer notes on social media, but it is the only way I can reach those who don’t read emails any longer, especially the younger generation.
To close, I want to dedicate this blog to Hildegard. Thank you, Hildegard, for being a long-term correspondent and a dedicated reader.
Over To You
Have you ever had a pen-pal? What was that relationship like for you?
I’d love to hear from you. Hit the comment button below and tell me what you think.