An atypical penpal story

Shakira Sison

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I knew there was a reason even our written words had to pass through walls and vehicles and hands

Shakira SisonI was given the name on a one-eighth sheet of paper, damp at the edges from its creases being licked before being torn. The assignment was to begin a correspondence with a boy named Ricky Poquita, a 4th-grader just like me whom I believed was as excited as I was to gain a pen pal.

It was a social experiment my progressive Montessori school in Manila wanted to perform on its upper middle-class students and the children of the nearby slums. The objective of the exercise was to let privileged private school children put a face to the poverty that was just outside their window. I’m not sure what the goal was for the other side.

I was a pro at letter-writing after an earlier penpal match had me exchanging letters with one Kirsten McNary of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  There was a volley of letters written on notebook paper and sent via post, but in between Kirsten’s story that she dumped her boyfriend “because he cussed a lot,” to the question I asked my mother (What’s ‘cussing’?) and her response (Tell her girls here don’t have boyfriends until after college!), I lost contact with my American friend due to distance, some of it geographical.

I took to writing Ricky quickly and told him about my family, my dogs, my plants Cutie and Growie, and my nameless, genderless chicken I pretended to put to bed by gently laying my finger on its beak so it would close its eyes. Ricky responded sparingly with equally messy penmanship using a runny pen, telling me about his little brother and their house at “the compound.”

My eldest sister got hold of one of my letters one day and scolded me. She said that I really shouldn’t be telling a kid like him about our house and our car and what we did on weekends, or that I had a nanny. I didn’t understand. I thought I was just getting to know my pen pal, which included everything mundane and excluded any mention of boyfriends and girlfriends we apparently were not allowed to have.

The exchange became scarce until the culmination of the exercise. The 30 children our class had been writing were to be shuttled into our school for a Christmas party. The letter sent to my parents had instructions to prepare a present for the child’s family as a treat, so my mother and I wrapped in green cellophane a pack of spaghetti, pasta sauce, cheese, canned meats, fruit and some toys.


Ricky arrived with the rest of the children from the Apelo Cruz compound. They were dressed in their best clothes, hair still wet with the track marks from their combs. Their necks were white with baby powder just like all of ours were. Soccer balls and basketballs were thrown out into the field and we all began to play. 

Ricky sat on the bleachers of our footfalls-barren soccer field, watching. He mentioned something about his arm being hurt and not being able to play. I wanted him to say something that implied he didn’t mind my company.

I wanted him to tell me a detail of his life I knew from our letters, even if he just read one out loud. But his eyes looked away, forward towards the quick movements of his friends’ legs as they ran and screamed and chased each other. I gave him his present and left to join the others on the field.

He wrote one last letter after that to apologize for not playing with me, and to thank me for the Christmas gift. After our brief speaking encounter, I didn’t really know what else to say. The project was over, important life lessons supposedly learned. We would go on living in our respective compounds.

KEPT LETTER. One letter from Ricky is testament to the friendship made many, many years ago. Image from Kia Sison

A few years later in a more socially-conscious Catholic high school, I joined a Saturday Outreach Program and was excited to learn it also did its work in Apelo Cruz. I fantasized about bumping into Ricky, saying something like, “Hey, now I’m here where you live!”

But when our jeepney arrived at the location and we were swarmed by children waiting for their sandwiches and made-up chalkboard lessons in the heat of the sun, I was pulled aside by one of the nuns for the inappropriateness of my clothing (a T-shirt and leggings, considered “unbecoming of a lady”), and warned about the water and the flies and to keep my possessions in close range, I withdrew. I wished instead to be an onlooker in the bleachers, instead of in the field with a piece of chalk in my hand, a wandering naked snot-faced toddler tugging at my shirt.

Two worlds

Many more Saturdays passed and I got used to the swarm. I hated the feeling of being an outsider carrying possibilities, I feared our words would be misunderstood as promises, ignorant about the reality that nobody else knew the truth better than they did, watching hopeful students like me come in and out of their lives every year.

Here we were with our repetitive grammar school lessons, thinking we were helping. But like clockwork each day, everyone would run off in a rush towards a truck carrying what they called pagpag – leftovers from a fast food burger chain an entrepreneurial soul bought in bulk under the table, chopped up, recooked and scooped into bowls like a porridge and served to the people for loose change. It was a twisted, capitalist joke version of a Third World soup kitchen whose concept unfortunately made sense.

I wanted to get close enough to someone, like a community organizer or a village mother, to ask if anyone had heard of the Poquitas. In my dreams it would be as simple as a high-five and a “What’s Up” and Ricky and I would finally have our Christmas playdate.

But I knew there was a reason even our written words had to pass through walls and vehicles and hands, a reason the Apelo children were brought to our gated private school and not the other way around. It was a reason I learned much later than Ricky immediately did, and so I never asked for him, never wanted to relive my feeling of prideful charity sending a 10-year-old back to his impoverished community with a condescending can of spaghetti sauce.

Instead I waited for the children to eat their pagpag and be back at my side for some schoolwork they may or may not ever use, picked up the naked drooling toddler at my feet, and thanked the Rickys in my head for giving me, at a time when my biggest worries were the cuteness and growth of my pet plants, a basket of intangible presents that would never run out. – 



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