By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The Lectern: Facebook -- The new pen pals

When I was a kid, people commonly had "pen pals," young people in other countries -- I now can't even remember how people located them in the first place (can a reader help me out here?) -- with whom one exchanged letters. It was a nice way to learn about other cultures. Kids wrote these letters with pens -- talk about dating ones self! -- hence the name "pen pal." (This is not to be confused with "Pay Pal," though it may be where the originators of Pay Pal got the inspiration for the name).

I now have a fair number of non-U.S. Facebook friends. A number are from China, almost all young people who have participated in a program called China Future Leaders that arranges visits to the United States. I meet with a China Future Leaders group several times a year, and a number of the participants have "friended" me afterwards. (Facebook is gaining traction in China, though it still lags considerably behind China's homegrown social networking site Xiaonei.) This has produced some really nice exchanges, making Facebook a this-millennium version of the old institution of pen pals.

Recently, one of my Chinese Facebook friends, Zhou Si-yu of Renmin University, sent me a wall post asking, "Have you seen the movie 'Kung Fu Panda'? It is very hot recently." I responded with some embarrassment that I had never heard of it -- I guess I am dating myself again -- and he responded that this is a popular Dreamworks cartoon that mixes Chinese and American culture. He went on to explain in another post that the movie "combines the American humor and Chinese Kung Fu. ...Since the movie is made by American Studio -- Dreamworks, it ought to be accepted by the majority of American people. ...It makes people know more about Chinese culture."

In response to a skeptical, if humorous, message from me wondering whether Kung Fu was the best Chinese culture had to offer, Si-yu added that the movie also did a good job explaining Chinese village life.

In another message, I asked Si-yu about his first name, having learned that first names in Chinese generally are devised by parents to express some specific meaning or hope about the child (i.e. they are not like "John" or "Susan"). "Si," he responded, is a Chinese word meaning "thinking about" or "missing," and "yu" is a character with the same pronunciation as his mom's family name. When his mom was pregnant, Si-yu explained, his dad was out of the country, and his name was developed to reflect that his parents were missing each other during this time.

It is interesting that Si-yu is using Facebook to express thoughts that are important to him to foreigners thousands of miles away -- both me and any of my own Facebook friends who reads my wall posts.

All in all, this is, I think, really cool. (BTW, I got an OK from Si-yu to discuss these wall exchanges and messages in this blog.)

Are any U.S. or non-U.S. readers of this blog using social-networking tools to communicate with people and learn more about people across national boundaries?

Post a comment on this blog (registration required) or send an e-mail to and we will post it for you.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jul 08, 2008 at 12:10 PM


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