Postcards from strangers

One of the coolest things about having lots of friends who travel is getting postcards from around the world. Sadly, letter and postcard writing don’t seem to be as common as they used to be. Much of the stuff coming through the mailbox these days is either bills or junk mail. Going to the mailbox has gotten to be a drag.

An organization called Postcrossing is trying to change that. This free group allows members to trade cards with strangers. You log in and request to send a card, and someone’s address is sent to you, along with a unique country-coded number. You pick a card, write a nice message with the code included, and pop it in the mail. Once the recipient gets the card and registers it on the site by using the number, you’re put next in line to get a card from a different stranger. There’s also a forum where people can arrange “private swaps” for particular countries or images.

With more than 100,000 members in 196 countries, the idea is catching on. I’m a member, as is former Gadling blogger Abha Malpani. Earlier this year Postcrossing reached the milestone of two million postcards received and one active member has racked up a thousand just by himself.

Various Postcrossers have created interesting spinoff blogs about their obsession, such as Wild Postcards and A Postcard a Day. Warning: Wild Postcards is occasionally not work safe, as the blogger likes old pin-up cards. Nude women with mom hair. Yipe!

Postcrossing is a great way to get cards from around the world and set up trading exchanges with people you may never meet. Consider it a form of staycation. It’s fun for kids too. My three-year-old son is learning a lot about the world. He specifically wants postcards of cars and trains and about half the cards I get are meant for him!

A Canadian in Beijing: Going Postal at Exam Time

I have been studying constantly since the weekend. Who knew that studying could take up so much time?! Well, I suppose the really good students in this program know, but I have been enjoying my life here and riding the smooth ride of a course that doesn’t quiz or test regularly. This week, however, we have our three big “kaoshi” (tests) and I am suddenly looking down the long road at about eighteen chapters and over 1500 new vocabulary words to memorize (which includes five levels of memorization: the translated meaning, the Chinese pronunciation, the tones, the character recognition, and how to draw it.)

I’m sunk.

And so, I’ve been distracted. I finally put together a care package for my friend yesterday after gathering several cool “Chinese” items together during an extended study break and quick walk to the campus store. (It’s amazing the things we can find time to do when we don’t want to be doing something else!)

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love this language and I love the learning… but I’m finding that using it in life is much more effective for my memory than staring at a page is. That’s why I haven’t been studying regularly throughout the term and that’s why this process of actually “studying” is such an insurmountable task now.

So, while I was at the store for some beverages and some study “energy,” I found lots of things to send my friend and I packaged it all up in a small box with notes on all the items for their use (and/or translation) along with a nice letter.

Later on, for another “study break,” I walked the five minutes to the campus post office to send this package and found myself in the little space alongside of perhaps six to ten people all trying to get their packages sorted out as well. This campus post office is small; we were all cramped in there together in the muggy air of mid-June Beijing.

One group was a father and son team from Iceland who were trying to send about ten large boxes overseas of what appeared to be the son’s belongings. Each box was being rigidly searched and then sealed by the postal attendant. In the end, they spent over 5,000 RMB to send these boxes, which is about $700 Canadian. It was quite a process.

My turn eventually came and I placed my box on the scale only to be barked at about its contents. I explained that it was all “chide dongxi” or “food stuffs” and she immediately broke the seal on my expertly packed box and started taking out the items, one by one. The crunched up newspapers and other stuffing that I’d placed around some of the glass items was spilling over the counter and onto the floor. My letter also fell out but I caught it before it hit the dirty ground.

It didn’t take long for her to get to a drink that is good for when you feel a cold coming on and she said “bu keyi!” in a loud voice, explaining with exasperation that I could not send anything that was liquid. At about that same moment, she also found the Chinese wine and the soup and I became a combination of a foreign idiot (in her eyes and tone of voice) and a potential terrorist preparing to send explosives overseas or something. She nearly threw me out of there, balled up newspapers trailing behind me, having been pitched at my backside.

Of course, that’s not what happened, but she did throw up her hands and forcibly thrust the box back into my chest with flat-out, official rejection. I knew, at least, that it was time for me to go.

I said “okay, okay, I heard you” in my attempt at exasperated Chinese and left the crowded space both defensive and humiliated. I came back to my study zone no closer to comprehensive learning and no closer to having sent my friend a care package. I dropped the package on the floor and decided to deal with it the next day (today) and resumed my boring studying.

So, today came. I looked at the sad box that had been completely rearranged and I removed all the items and lined up all of those that had any liquid in them, quickly realizing that this made up more than half of my care package. So, I resigned to taking another study break (!) and headed to the Lotus Center, a multi-purpose store here in Wudaokou, to buy some other care package items.

When I got back with my bag full of great stuff, I re-labelled and revised the letter (slightly) and put it all back in the box remembering not to seal it this time since I knew that she would once again want to search through everything.

I arrived to an equally crowded room and two equally grouchy attendants. When I saw space on the scale, I placed my box there and waited to be served. She looked at the box and then at me and I said “no liquids!” before she could bark at me again. She said “Oh, you came back!” in a bored and irritated voice and I nodded. She then lifted a few items from my box and seemed satisfied that I wasn’t going to harm humankind with my friendly package of care.

Then she wordlessly disappeared into a side room and emerged with a box that was she was simultaneously assembling as she walked. She pointed at my box and said “Ni bu keyi yong zheige hezi” (You can’t use this box). I said “why?” and I didn’t understand her mumbled answer. All I knew was that I had no choice but to transfer my items over to this official post box, which was just about an inch smaller and forced to me to leave some items behind (the larger one was too large). Oh well, I think my friend will get the best things, anyhow. I had to move to one side to get this re-packing job done and then I returned and jumped the queue to get it sent – finally.

They seemed satisfied with my box, at long last, and then my address form was attached, they sealed the box with their official tape and then noisily dropped it to the floor and kicked it so that it slid into the corner with all the other boxes. Earlier, I had watched one of these attendants placing these boxes in large cloth bags and dragging them to the front stoop.

My money was taken and my change was given without a word. My automatic “xie xie” (thank you) at receiving my change was not responded to.

Well, of course it wasn’t.

This is a language that doesn’t use “thank you” in this kind of situation. My Canadian-ism (i.e. hyper politeness and over-use of the word “thank you”) catches me on it every time. After all, that change is rightfully mine and I don’t need to thank them for giving it to me. At least, that’s the Chinese perspective. When I say it in these situations, the polite response is often “bu yong xie” (or, no need for thank you). Not today, of course.

I was clearly dealing with two people who had failed their “customer service” exam at post office school.

I guess they didn’t study very hard.

Ach-hem.

Back to the books.

Postcrossing: Turn Your Mailbox Into a Surprise Box

Simple ideas are always brilliant, and the idea behind Postcrossing may be the most brilliant yet. Members of Postcrossing follow a simple process:

  1. Request an address from the website.
  2. Mail a postcard to the address.
  3. Wait to receive a postcard in return.
  4. Register the received postcard in the system. This makes you the next person whose address will be given out.

By participating, members can receive postcards from all over the world and transform their mailbox — which usually only sees boring old refinance requests and bills — into a little surprise box. The really proactive members scan or photograph the postcards and upload the images to Flickr. With over half a million postcards already sent, there are currently 30,000+ postcards in transit.
Postcrossing
I just signed up! If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll receive a postcard sent from an underwater mailbox!

[Via Vagabondish]