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An IM conversation a couple of days ago called to mind a high school experience. When I was in French class, somehow I got hooked up with a pen pal. Pen pals, for those of you perhaps too young to be familiar with the term, were two people separated by a large geographical distance who kept in contact by writing letters to each other. (We used pens or pencils, not computers to write, hence the term.) You could be pen pals with someone you knew who had moved away, but there were also programs to hook you up with someone you didn’t know. Usually this someone lived in another country and the idea of becoming pen pals was to foster an exchange that led to learning about the cultural differences in the other person’s country.

My high school pen pal was a guy about my age who was from an African country, I forget which one, but have this vague feeling that it was Ghana. We exchanged maybe three letters and that was the end of that. See, the trouble with having a pen pal, especially one overseas, was that it was a lot of work. I couldn’t use regular notebook paper for my letters; I had to have special light-weight airmail paper and envelopes. Then I had to write the letter, and I couldn’t make it too short or it simply wouldn’t be worth the hassle. Then I had to take the letter to the post office to get the proper postage. I assume that the bother on my pen pal’s end was the same as mine.

What brought all this back on Monday was my IM chat with Manoj, a college student in India that I met through this blog. I was checking my email when Manoj plinked me with a message. Back and forth we conversed without effort. He touched on his grandmother’s arranged marriage, the caste system in India, and what he’d had for breakfast in the course of our chat. I talked about my grandparents and what I was busy with that day. We were engaged in a cultural exchange in real time – even though the time here was 10:30 a.m. and it was after 9 p.m. there. During our conversation, which lasted a little less than an hour, I learned more about Manoj’s culture than I did within the two or three letters I had received from my pen pal in Africa. How cool is that?

We’ve come to a space in time where the concept of being a pen pal has been taken to its ideal extreme, only we had to ditch the pens to do it.