Connecting with strangers during the pandemic through pen pal app ‘Slowly’
My idea of excitement has gone from hanging out with friends to receiving letters from strangers abroad.
Whenever I tell my mother that I have made over 20 friends from all around the world in the past year, she would shake her head and tell me that I was spouting nonsense.
In all seriousness, I was telling her the truth. Two are from Malaysia, one is from France, two are from the United States, and the list goes on.
If you haven’t already guessed it already, these newly-made friends are my long-distance pen pals.
I have always loved receiving letters and cards from friends and family. However, the only time I’d receive them was on my birthday or other significant celebrations such as primary and secondary school graduations.
When the news first emerged about the existence of COVID-19, I didn’t want to believe that that was reality. In a horrid twist of fate, the number of cases in Singapore rose quickly, causing a nationwide partial lockdown known as the circuit breaker.
Due to limited human interaction, I began to feel disconnected from my circle of friends and family. Being cooped up at home and isolated from the rest of the physical world further worsened my mental state.
But one day, I chanced upon this tweet while scrolling through Twitter.
When I first read the tweet, I was fascinated. The idea of writing letters to pen pals has always intrigued me, but I had never tried doing something like this before.
The time and effort that goes into writing a letter seemed so special to me, so I soon created an account on the app and began writing away.
My first pen pal was called Facade (not his real name), a 22-year-old stranger from Malaysia.
I was surprised to know that we shared similar interests such as movies, storytelling, writing, art, and many more. In my first letter, I wrote to him about how interesting it is that we shared many similar interests and that just like him, I was also a fellow writer.
Unlike other social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram, letters sent through Slowly take time to be delivered, depending on the distance between the sender and recipient. The time taken for letters to reach the recipient ranges from 30 minutes to 60 hours.
With that in mind, writing letters to strangers becomes more meaningful as the immediacy of knowing whether someone has received or responded to the letter was entirely removed from the equation.
When my first letter arrived, the excitement I felt was beyond measure.
I won’t disclose what he wrote as it contains personal information, but his letter gave me a feeling of warmth and comfort. It felt like he was a friend I had already known for a long time.
As we began exchanging letters more frequently, there was growth in our friendship. Eventually, I had developed enough trust with Facade to share personal problems that I had never shared with anyone else.
I confided in him about my struggles with perfectionism and how it had negatively affected me. Through his letters, he gave me advice and encouraged me to stay strong whenever I was struggling with my mental health or facing any hardship in life.
With more and more topics to talk about, the letters started getting very long. They no longer contained just words, sometimes they included photos and virtual stamps.
As someone who prefers to write down my thoughts instead of saying them verbally, I love that pen palling gives me a platform to express myself. It allows me to journal my thoughts and write creatively without any distractions and judgments.
I can reflect on my emotions, formulate each sentence, and find the right words to ensure that the letter is carefully thought out and beautifully written.
Through pen palling, I have also gained more confidence in pursuing photography, after sharing with my pen pals several photos that I had taken.
My pen pals have been kind enough to compliment my photography skills and motivate me to pursue it more seriously.
Although it may not seem like much, their letters have helped me realise my potential as I was once doubtful of my skills and expertise in photography.
Due to the anonymity feature that Slowly has, the friendships I have gained through the app are pure and genuine, with no hidden agenda whatsoever.
This has greatly taught me how to build friendships without any physical factors coming into place.
Without even realising, feelings of loneliness faded away as I found valuable friendships through pen palling.
And I wasn’t the only one feeling this way. Similarly, my close friend, Anggun Nur Dinie, 19, had also turned to Slowly when she felt low and alienated during the circuit breaker.
She said: “Letters from pen pals are always worth the wait as they will always come in lengthy and well thought out.
“Personally, it encourages slow living as it is the weight of an entire thought process having to churn out a beautifully written letter where feelings and emotions come through. It allows me to speak my mind one letter at a time.”
Unlike instant messaging, writing letters takes on more significance in an increasingly digital world. Just one letter can leave a lasting impact on someone, even if the two of you had never met.
She added: “Through their letters, there is a whole lot of kindness, love, and unity behind a simple friendship. It really helped me open my eyes and made me wonder about the rest of the world.”
To this day, I do not know how any of my pen pals look. None of us have ever met each other in person. Yet, we were still able to provide emotional support for one another.
Slowly has brought me happiness and comfort, but more importantly, sent me to various places and broadened my horizons, allowed me to meet people of different backgrounds, and helped me grow as a person.
I believe that it has made me a better human being and a more empathetic friend — for that, I thank you, Slowly.