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Our Pen Pal Asia (Guest Interview)

Khalifa Khaliq is fostering intercultural awareness through the formation of an international pen pal program known as Our Pen Pal in Asia. It is directed toward inner city black youth in the States and allows them to correspond with Khaliq, an African American, and his students in Japan. This is not the average pen pal program since Khaliq chose to enlighten his community with an Afrocentric approach. Using his passion for and expertise in East Asian culture as an English instructor for the past 14 years, Khaliq aims to create a cross-cultural bridge between the countries that will broaden the students’ horizons and inspire them to greatness.

Describe the process of how the pen pal program came into being?

A good friend of mine gave me the idea of starting a pen pal exchange. So one day I did it. I started contacting schools in Chicago and Atlanta. They were open to the idea but the Japanese students initially weren’t because of how busy they are, particularly the high school students who have to prepare for college. So I decided that the American students can write to me because I have all of this experience from my long-term teaching career in East Asia. I concentrated on the urban black schools. In fact, a girl in Atlanta told me she never wrote anyone outside of her city before. Not only do I send letters but I send them Japanese memorabilia that they can use. It’s a lot of fun and I like doing it.

What do you like about your work?

I like being with the children. When I was a child growing up in urban Chicago, I always played with kids that were younger than me. I had all the kids on my block supporting me when we were playing a favorite neighborhood game rolling the car tires. Everyone accepted me as a leader and looked up to me. When I came to Asia I realized I like having that connection with them. I also like the fact that I get to research about blacks in Asia because that interested me in college. When I came to Japan I discovered the Japan African American Association (JAFA) and started writing for its newsletter. Then I started a study group called Blacks in Asia.

What do you find most challenging about your position?

Trying to get the Japanese students interested in the pen pal program was hard at first. Knowing that I was usually more qualified than my manager at certain schools where I worked was quite difficult to encounter as well. But you have to be flexible and adapt to certain things in a foreign country. Each country has its pros/cons.

How does your work relate to the community?

Not only do I want to educate them [black youth] on Asian culture (Japanese), but I also want them to know that Asia is their history too. This pen pal program is a good way for me to do that. Black history is a world community. Many people don’t know that there were blacks in America before Columbus [arrived]. As a teacher, too, I want to educate my own students as well. I wanted to do something that would help the black community.

How would you improve your contribution to the community?

I wanna be independent here in Asia. I have so much experience that I could start my own school. Bruce Lee was one of my biggest heroes who never gave up and always believed in himself. He has inspired me to do what I am doing. It’s my philosophy to show the world the true history of blacks in Asia, especially blacks in China in that I spent time living there. For instance, Shaolin Temple was the first kungfu school in China and a black monk pioneered it.

Describe a hurdle or failure you faced that deepened your commitment to your community.

I was always waiting for financial security before starting the blacks in Asia study group, building my website (currently under construction), and launching the pen pal program. It was putting me off and I needed something to push me out of the nest. I read Deeprak Chopra’s book (The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success) and it discussed how people who wait for money to pursue their dreams will be waiting forever. Then I really started to enjoy the Afrocentric part of my life.

Where do you envision yourself in the near future?

I would like to visit Thailand or the Philippines and start a school with the indigenous black groups that I learned about in my research. I would like to start a school and teach them. I also thought about starting a school in China or Taiwan and making trips to Southeast Asia and videotaping the black groups there. Ultimately, creating a black National Geographic media outlet and sending the media products from it to schools in America as part of the pen pal exchange is my dream along with publishing my book They Came before Marco Polo, a compilation of my extensive research on the history of blacks in Asia.

This article was originally published on Catalysta's website, a platform devoted to showcasing ordinary people doing extraordinary things through their paying-it-forward feats.


Profile photo of Charles McKinney

Travel is not just what I do but it is who I am. When I first traveled abroad in high school as a foreign exchange student, little did I know that it would serve as the threshold of a lifetime interest in globetrotting. Now nearly 10 years later, I have lived in four countries and plan to do much more traveling in years to come. The world of teaching English has given me incredible opportunity to engage in cultural anthropology and I certainly can't get enough of the language learning process as a polyglot in the making.My personal website is currently under construction but I also maintain a micro-blog on facebook that enables me to share my insights and experiences with my ever-growing following. All in all, I am most proud to be known as a global citizen, a reference I accept with humility and honor. Blogging is rad! Many thanks (muchas gracias, feichang ganxie, grazie un millon, fala menogu) to KFTW for allowing me this platform to connect with the world and vice versa. St. Augustine said it best: “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page."

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