I have friends from all over the world! But how?

I was cleaning my room over the weekends when I notice a pile of neatly arranged letters in one of my cabinet drawers. They are letters coming from different continents and I started to receive them when I was still 14 years old.

I have been keeping these letters for more than 10 years. These letters came from my penfriends from Thailand, Brunei, Korea, Brazil, Germany, Mauritius and Tanzania. And I am proud to say that once in my life, I was able to gain friends from all over the world with just these letters.

If you have heard of International Youth Service (IYS), you could understand what I am relating here.

For those who are not familiar, IYS is a company established in Turku, Finland in 1952. The company maintains a database of young adults aged 10 to 20 years old. Teen-agers who want to have penfriends from other countries are the target customers of IYS.

A form, which requires you to enter your personal information (such as name, age, birthdate, hobbies and address) and your penfriend preference (age, country and gender), serves as your main gateway to avail of the service of IYS. For a minimum fee of $1.10, IYS will match your preference to a potential penfriend from their database.  The process of matching the right penfriend is fast because of the database. What lengthens the process is the sending of the matched penfriends through snail mail.

The good thing about IYS is the presence of after sales service. In case, the penfriend they gave you does not reply, IYS would be providing you another potential penfriend. You just have to inform them (again through snail mail) about the non-response of your requested penfriend.

So how did IYS reach me? When I was in second year high school, our Asian History subject required us to have penfriends from other Asian countries. The idea of the project was for us to learn the history, culture and traditions of another Asian country through letter writing. It was my friend and companion, Sheryl, who introduced me to IYS. She showed and explained to me the concept of IYS and I easily bought the idea. At that time, I was still an active Philatelist (aka stamp collector). Hence, having someone to exchange letters abroad encouraged me more to engage in this penfriend activity.

I initially requested and paid for a possible penfriend from Thailand. I chose Thailand because it was the country assigned to our section for the Asian Festival. The Asian Festival is a traditional activity of the second year Koolasas or Scholasticans from Marikina, during my time. And I am now giving myself a reminisce of my high school life!

Atcharee Bulyalert from Chiangmai, Thailand was my first foreign penfriend. We are of the same age and we exchanged letters until I was in college. Unfortunately, we no longer write letters to each other today. I am now regretting our lost communication and friendship. I’ve been searching her name in different social networking sites, but everything went unsuccessful. How I wish I could still reconnect with her. She sent me post cards of Thailand and related to me interesting events in their country.

Atcharee was the first person who taught me that tourism is one of the life savers of a drowning economy. It was the period of the Asian Financial Crisis when we were exchanging letters. It is normally not easy for anyone to admit that your own country is suffering economically. Atcharee could have written to me other topics.  But she was positively different.  She chose to relate to me the truth about their economic depression and their government’s efforts of strengthening the tourism industry. She introduced to me their famous tourism marketing program, Amazing Thailand. Though honestly, it took me until college to fully understand the concept of using the tourism industry as a pump priming activity for a drenching economy.

My other memorable penfriend was Azlinawaty Binti Jaini or Azlina from Brunei. She was a Muslim and I was initially blinded by the idea of their conservative culture. But I was surprised to learn that we shared the same love for Backstreet Boys, Boyzone, 911 and those other American boy bands. Most of our letter conversations emerged from our favorite western artists. Though she was a Muslim, I was somehow shocked the first time she sent me a Christmas card. A Muslim giving me Christmas wishes! I don’t see anything wrong about it. In fact I appreciate it because it makes me feel that they also value the feasts and celebrations of other religions. It’s just that I initially thought that they are forbidden to do such things. Similar to Atcharee, I lost communication with Azlina. I’ve been searching for her on social networking sites but I got no positive results.

How could I also forget my Korean penfriends! Unfortunately again, I don’t anymore communicate with them. If that time, I was able to forecast the Korean invasion in the Philippines, then I might have a different story to be told. Hehehehehehe! Though seriously, generosity is something I cannot forget from my Korean penfriends. One of them even gave me a fancy silver necklace that I have worn in my entire high school life. Another Korean penfriend also gave me Korean stamps after telling her that I am a keen collector.

My original intention was to write about IYS. But as you could see, I related much of my penfriend experiences. Too talkative of me!

The real reason why I am actually writing these things is to express my sadness over the closure of IYS. Upon search in the internet, I learned that IYS closed operations last June 30, 2008. In the company’s last statement, they pointed out the lack of enough young people who are interested in penfriendship. The internet and other technology tools have led to a situation where exchanging letters through snail mail became old fashioned and unpopular.

Honestly, I feel that exchanging letters is not an old fashion thing. I still exchange letters with one of my classmates back in college, who now enjoys life in Australia. Although today we use email instead of snail mail. But not everyone is sharing the same perceptions and feelings with me. We have twitter, chat and those other tools that will make communication fast and convenient. The emergence of social networking sites also makes its easier and free for people to search for other possible friends abroad.

I am regretting the opportunity for other teenagers to experience having friends from other countries with the practice of preparing letters with your own handwriting. The excitement and happiness I felt whenever I receive mails and going to the post office on weekends form my fondest, unadulterated, growing up memories. I would also like to believe that my writing skills were practiced and sharpened through these letters.

To the people who made IYS possible, thank you for the opportunity and thank you for becoming a part of my growing up years. To my lost penfriends, I hope you are enjoying life more than I do. I wish that one day our paths would cross again and when that day comes, I hope you will still remember me. It’s Diane here, your  Filipino penfriend!