The first few post cards I ever saw were scenes of Paris in winter. I recall a sun-drenched afternoon in my grammar school courtyard in Sadec, deep in the Mekong Delta where school children lined up to see real post cards from Paris mounted inside a glass box. An old man was showing them for money. He stood next to them, narrating the scenes.
When it was my turn, I looked into the box and saw snow in the Jardin Des Tuileries and children in winter jackets and scarves playing by a frozen pond and the steely Eiffel Tower standing somberly against a gray sky. I saw snow drifting over the Seine and blanketing the Pont de Mirabeau.
"Paris is beautiful in winter," the old man said in a nostalgic voice. "A fabled city of lights."
I remember staring as long as I was allowed to, and when I looked up again at the tropical world in which I was born, it too seemed just as strange as the world of Europe. And wasn't it then that my imagination fired up, and I too began to travel?
That was, of course, before the Vietnam War ended, before crossing the borders was possible, and before I grew up an American and a globetrotting journalist in the post-Cold War era, one known now as the age of mass movement and global information communication.
And when I began my journalism career in the early 90s, I would send post cards to my parents wherever I go.
For years in America my mother collected them, and she garnered an impressive collection. Two shoe boxes bulging with cards sent by friends and relatives from Angkor Wat, Cairo, London, Paris, Hanoi, Anchorage, Mexico City and so on, sit on top of her refrigerator. When my mother started her third box, however, the cards barely trickled in.
"People travel more, people write less," she once said in her succinct yet plaintive way, knowing full well it was not entirely true. People, if anything, write more frequently than ever before, it's just that they don't do so with postcards.
Indeed, on my parents' computer, email messages from far-flung friends, acquaintances and relatives appear on the regular basis. Those younger and more computer-savvy send theirs equipped jpg and PDF file attachments. One cousin kept a blog while traveling in Europe, keeping us updated with to-the-minute details of his fabulous lunch in the Loire Valley and his bicycle accident in which he scraped his knee.
An aunt attending a wedding in Hanoi sent the entire clan in three continents the wedding photos on-line the next day. A friend mounted segment of a wedding on YouTube from China even before it ended.
It is often a strange, often wondrous high-tech world we live in. The modern-day traveler's adventures can be experienced almost simultaneously, and vicariously, by those he'd supposedly left far behind. At the click of the button, and in the comfort of your own study, you, too, can travel. With cell phones, laptops, digital cameras, and Blackberries, we all have become each other's multimedia -- an intimate sphere of reporters constantly in touch regardless of geography. No wonder science writer Dan Gilmore, borrowing that famous line from Andy Warhol, wryly quipped that, "in the future, everyone will be famous to about 150 people."
If the postcard once played an essential role in helping the traveler stay in touch with those he left back home, it is today an antiquated relic, more or less going the way letter writing has gone. These days the only postcard that has any real currency is the one that is not sent from some far away place but the kind that reminds you to "Save the Date' for some important event, or more likely to hawk some product or another.
Yet looking at my mother's postcards collection before we put it away in storage when my parents sold their five-bedroom home and moved into a condo, the romantic in me can't help but feel a certain pang of nostalgia, an existential pain for all things poetic lost. It would seem that with speed technology and easy access, the first few casualties of correspondence may be depth and style, but the very last may very well be poetry. The language written on emails, after all, is of convenience, whereas the post card once had the power to entice.
Here's one of a few I kept for myself instead of consigning them into storage. It is from Bangkok
with the image of the golden Wat Prakeo shining under the tropical sun.
Dear mother and father,
I am suffering from jet lag but otherwise happy to be in Thailand. Oh to be back in Asia once more: The moment you get out of the airport, the familiar steamy, humid air swallows you up, and thin, squatting tuk-tuk [three wheel car] drivers sitting on the curbs with cigarettes dangling from their lips regard you with a kind of lazy expectation. It's raining hard outside my hotel now, and the feeling is exactly like those lazy siestas back home in Saigon when we kids cuddled up in the blanket and slept unworried sleep. God, but this rain reminds me of home!
I remember this postcard very well, because it was one of the last few cards I sent. I had, in any case, come back long before the card reached my parents, and we had laughed about it when it came. A year or so after that, Internet cafes began to spring up in Bangkok and around the world, and soon after that some new hotels came with WiFi connections -- and I, like so many of mother's friends and relatives, moved onto speedier medium without a second thought. I text images back to friends from wherever I go and Skype when necessary. And the postcard -- once window to some exotic world to entice many a sedentary soul -- fell into to the realm of collectible items, and quaintness.
Andrew Lam is editor with New America Media and the author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. His next book, a short story collection, Birds of Paradise Lost, is due out in March 2013.