How to Be a Pen Pal

Sophomores Lichen (Jennifer) Dong, Zixin (Harry) Wang, and Guangyu (Tim) Wu talk about their experiences being members of the Pen-Friend club as part of the PEERXNYUSH chapter.

Sophomores Lichen (Jennifer) Dong, Zixin (Harry) Wang, and Guangyu (Tim) Wu talk about their experiences being members of the Pen-Friend club as part of the PEERXNYUSH chapter.

Lichen Dong is the Secretary of PEERXNYUSH, which is a segment of Peer China, a NGO in China, that allows the Pen-friend program to write and directly contact people at a service site in the rural area of China. Dong is also the Director of the Pen-friend program. To hold this program, Dong explains that “we will send an email at the very beginning of the semester and I will include the application form in it, so anyone who sign up this form can join our pen-friend group”. Alongside an email list, there is also a wechat group.

Dong feels that “writing letters is a good way to contact in a very long distance, so we design this idea and we contact the teacher in the site in Yuan Ling No. 6 Middle School in Hunan Province and other coordinators”.

This is one of the ways that NYU Shanghai can come in contact with students in a rural area, and the idea of this program came from Maudie Carey, because she attended the Dean Service Scholars Program last year. They came up with this idea to get students in rural areas to learn English better, so after thinking about what events to hold in fall of 2017, Lichen Dong, Zixin Wang, Guangyu Wu, and other members of PEERXNYUSH thought they should adopt this idea and make it come true.

For this pen-friend program, Zixin Wang explains that they write letters biweekly, and besides letters, “we have to write reflections on google doc about our process, changing our mindset to share with others. We also have a group meeting happening about once every two weeks or three weeks. We have to make our own rules such as not missing the deadline”.

Speaking about his pen-pal, Wang says “she is from a relatively disadvantaged area, but she is interested in learning English, and the outside world, for example the city of Shanghai. We are talking about everything we think is interesting. The first letter is just self-introduction, and we found that she is interested in learning Chinese and English and also interested in city of Shanghai. So, I introduce the city to her, and what I did in university, and gradually build the relationship and then we can talk something deeper”.

Guangyu Wu also says: “we’re writing this letter back and forth. I have a pen-pal, he’s a boy in his middle school era, and we talk about a lot of topics. We’ve been doing this for the second semester, so, first semester, is when we introduce ourselves, talk about some general topics and interests”.

Both Wu and Wang want to talk about something different that is deeper with their pen-pals. For example, Wu wants to know about his pen-pal’s “dreams in the future, what kind of person he wants to become, and what his parents and teachers’ expectations of you. So, the idea is that I want to know what his interests and ambition is, and what kind of environment he is in- topics we’ve been discussing”. Wu began with talking about English study, but later got inspired by some articles, and then wrote about education. Wu wanted to start this long term thinking such as career and life plan, and tries leading his pen-pal into this kind of discussion.

Wu says “although I had experience teaching there for a short time of time, by writing these letters, I got to know about rural China a bit more. Another thing is how to communicate with someone that is not my age, and also has a different cultural background, in a language that is not native to both of us, so that requires us patience and the art of communication to get the message across”.

As for advantages, Wang notes that “ the advantage for myself, it’s been a long time for me to actually handwrite something physical. It’s interesting and intellectually intriguing to write letters for others to share about ideas, because in this age of internet communications, we write instant messages to our friends, to everyone. However, — referring to internet communications– this kind of messaging back and forth lack deeper personal communications”.

Wang also tells of how his pen pal was actually not interested in the city, as she is interested in the mountains, to pick up mushrooms. “We talk about these experiences, because I actually was not interested in big city as well, so we talk about this [attitude] together. I tell her about how to succeed in high school” Wang reflects.

Many people always think they want to volunteer, but they don’t know what life in rural area is like, and their impression in rural area is just like the education is not so good, and students there want to go to university, but they do not have such condition to realize their dream. But, throughout this program, when NYU Shanghai students write letters to students to rural area, they realize what that life is like. Dong gives the example of “my pen-pal will talk about her dream and what she is doing, and this can remove the stereotype that [any of us might] have”.

For students in Yuan Ling middle school, they really want to have the connection with the students in outside world and many of them have not been to city like Shanghai or in East part of China. “We can send pictures and write descriptions of our life, about Shanghai, so they can know. By writing the English letter, they can also practice English, because when they write letters, they can learn how to organize the words, letters, and when we write the letters to send them, they cannot know the exact meaning of the some words so they can look up the dictionary to learn the vocabulary” suggests Dong.

This semester, some students can write in Chinese if they feel that their pen-pals cannot write the whole passage in English. Language does not hinder the pen-friends from expressing themselves and giving those middle school students glimpses of what life in university, life in NYU Shanghai, life in the outside world is like. This way, students in Yuan Ling can express their ideas and concerns in their school life better.

One way that NYU Shanghai and Yuan Ling Middle school has strengthened their relationship with each other is that Yuan Ling Middle School held a county sports meeting, so Dong sent the link in the Wechat group and recommended our NYU Shanghai students to watch the livestream of the sports meeting. Therefore, many people, after watching this, wrote in the outline, and got a clearer impression of Yuan Ling Middle School. “This last year, our final output is the video. Students there shoot one minute video, in playground, outside of the classroom, so we can clearly know, what their school is like. And for us, we make the video, and some people show the music they’re playing in the music room or fitness center, so [Yuan Ling’s Middle School’s students] can also get the impression of our life” explains Dong.

As for improvements for the Pen-friend group, Wang thinks “one semester is too short, not quite enough long overlap between the student’s semester and our semester, because our semester ends in May and their semester ends in July. We can write 3 or 4 letters which is not efficient to build a really strong connection. [For the future] I’d like to make the program a year long program”. Wu also believes that the lack of frequency of letters makes it hard to communicate with the students and due to the physical distance, the correspondence is very slow. From a participant’s point of view, there are ways with physical letters with words, we can do an activity at the middle or end of the program to celebrate or successfully wrap up in a more interesting way. Because Dong is studying outside of Shanghai, she says “I recommend the next president and leadership positions to continue doing this program, and have some updates about this program”. Contact for further information about participating in the program next year.

This article was written by Kai Zheng. Please send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Kai Zheng

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