Twelve Hours Apart but Never Alone: The Story of Pen Pals in a Pandemic
By: Raven Witherspoon
Each day there is a brief window of time, a small overlap in waking hours, when I catch a glimpse of the other side of the world.
If you told me in January that I would soon regularly converse with someone in Hebei, China I would have laughed. I hadn’t taken a Chinese class in more than six years and I had never participated in a language exchange. I had no idea that a course at my local Northern Virginia Community College would expand my world so meaningfully.
I fell in love with Mandarin when I began learning it in middle school. Though it was challenging, I was enamored with the class and crestfallen when circumstances forced me to end my studies prematurely. My high school did not offer upper level Chinese and the classes never fit into my college schedule. Tired of waiting, this semester I enrolled in a community college Chinese course in addition to a full schedule at my home school.
This class reignited my fascination with Chinese history and culture. I was paired with two pen pals with whom I completed assignments and practiced conversation.Our arrangement was enriching, but my most impactful interactions with a Chinese student came about by pure chance. One of my pen pals mentioned his friend wanted to speak with an American student but was unable to find a partner. I offered to text him and we struck up a friendship beyond the classroom, completely independent of assignments.
Correspondence was difficult at first. We struggled to find time to talk since I was often beginning my day as he was heading to bed. Fortunately, I am a night owl, so we fell into a routine of texting around 9 P.M. and saying goodnight sometime before 2 A.M. Our dissimilar sleep habits were one of our earliest discovered cultural differences, and something we still laugh about. After weeks of urging me to sleep earlier, he explained that Chinese parents are very conscious of the health benefits of sleep and often remind their children to sleep before midnight. We have a running joke that he is like the mature parent though I am three years older.
Our conversations began with similar lighthearted exchanges, just getting to know each other. We spoke about our classes, our families, and our interests. Sometimes we shared seemingly mundane facets of our day: a candy we loved as a child, the biscuits we baked that morning, etc. One day when I was stressed he asked if I liked pandas and proceeded to send me funny panda videos for the rest of the afternoon. He mentioned the rarity of wildlife in his province and how little he had traveled, so I began sending videos of scenic farmland and fauna from travels with my family. In this way we began trading bits and pieces of our lives.
“Have you seen this show? I don’t know if it’s available in your country.” “I found it! I love season one so far.” “Do you know how to play Chinese Chess?” “No, but I can find the rules and we can play online together.” We spoke about popular music, sending our favorite songs back and forth until one day he asked me to sing for him. I was hesitant, but then he agreed to send a voice recording of his favorite ancient Chinese poem if I sang a verse of the popular song “可不可以”. We came to know each other by these small gestures, and funnily enough, we have never sent pictures of ourselves. I think we both appreciate learning the subtleties of a person – their musical tastes, their free-time joys – that can’t be seen in a selfie.
Slowly we ventured into new territory. As he shared his passion for history, I was struck by the depth of our mutual desire to learn from it. We both marveled at the juxtaposition of our nations: while his history extends for millennia, my country has existed for less than three hundred years. As a native Virginian, I was stunned when he sent pictures of a book he was reading and I noticed my state’s capitol building—it was about the Civil War. In one of my favorite conversations, weeks later, I shared Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.” I explained the context of American white supremacy after the war, and how it still impacts my life as the child of an interracial couple. He listened intently, and shared with me his knowledge of the Chinese Civil War, including the poem “Nostalgia” by Yu Guangzhong.
As our conversations grew more nuanced and personal, we broached topics that we had not discussed even with friends in our own country. He shared with me the academic pressure he has felt since childhood, the ever-present mandate to perform well on standardized tests and their power to define so much of his life. In turn, I expressed frustration with my country’s growing wealth gap and the lack of federally directed help for those in need. In this tentative but vulnerable way, we have spent hours comparing Chinese and American life.
Unsurprisingly, we have not had to look farther than current events to note the differences. We understand that our relationship is unique; it is being forged in the fire of an international pandemic that ravaged his home and is accelerating in mine. As a result, we have spoken at length about the relationship between China and America, the trade war, and the woeful state of diplomacy.
However, despite the rising tensions between our countries, our conversations are always tender.
He always asks about the COVID-19 cases in my state and if my family is well-supplied. I have cheered as schools reopen in his province and he has mourned as the death toll rises while Americans protest protective measures. These moments have humanized us to each other, and modeled on a small scale the potential for deeply impactful relationships across borders.
It is because of these interactions that we also speak of great hope, of the power of cross-cultural connection and of leaders who prioritize the wellbeing of all people above their own political power. Together we dream of a brighter future for both countries and the ways we can make those dreams a reality.
This language exchange has encouraged me to apply for the Schwarzman Scholars Program, an international leadership program at Tsinghua University that will equip me to continue building powerful intercultural relationships. Ultimately I hope that this journey will culminate not only in a lifelong friendship, but also in a lifelong career dedicated to uniting amid differences rather than dividing across borders.
Raven Witherspoon is a rising senior at Virginia Commonwealth University where she is majoring in Physics with minors in International Social Justice, Political Science, and Mathematics. She began learning Chinese in sixth grade but circumstances ended her studies in high school. Raven was overjoyed to renew her Chinese studies as a junior in college at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA). The opportunity to participate in a penpal program between students at NOVA and Xingtai Polytechnical College in Hebei, China has been among Raven’s most meaningful Chinese language experiences.