Review — BREATHING THE SAME AIR by Gerry Christmas (Thailand, Western Samoa)

 


breathing-same-airBreathing the Same Air: A Peace Corps Romance

Gerry Christmas (Thailand 1973–76; Western Samoa 1976–78)
Lulu
April 2015
366 pages
$22.95 (paperback), $8.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by James Jouppi (Thailand 1971–73)

FOR HIS INTRODUCTION, Gerry Christmas uses an eighteen page “Peace Corps Termination Report” dated April 16, 1976. The body of his memoir consists of sixty-nine letters — he calls them “Epistles” — written after his three-year Thailand Peace Corps tour was complete. While these Epistles, at times, are very “newsy,” they also express, sometimes in intimate detail, his feelings about his girlfriend Aied, and, in more general terms, his evolving philosophies about true love between American men and “nice” Thai women.

He wrote the first five Epistles while preparing for another Peace Corps tour of duty, this time in Western Samoa, and these were sent to people he’d known in Thailand. Thirty-five more were sent from Western Samoa, mostly to his parents in Arizona, and many of these make reference to how much he missed his girlfriend Aied in Thailand. Six were then sent from Arizona, after he returned from Samoa. Three of these went to Americans who were helping him send English language books to Thailand; two were sent to Aied; and one was sent to Terry, a Peace Corps friend who’d remained in Thailand while Gerry was in Samoa. The last twenty-two Epistles were written after Gerry returned to Thailand for three more years of teaching English at Chan Karen Teachers’ College in Bangkok, and these were mostly sent to his parents.

While reading Gerry’s memoir, I came to the conclusion that he’d been an activist Volunteer and one who’d also done a lot of thinking about how interpersonal relationships and politics were evolving and were often intertwined with each other. Each Epistle describes events unfolding before him, and each is spiced with erudite opinions.

  • For example, early on, in Epistle Four, he writes a twelve-page political and economic history of the United States, beginning with the American Revolution right up to 1976 when he wrote it, which comes off like a Cliff’s Notes History of America, or even the world, as he compares the evolution of the American system with that of China and Russia.
  • In Epistle Nine, he gives his take on what happens to Volunteers who decide to extend their Peace Corps tours in Samoa; a much worse fate, according to Gerry, than the fate of those who decide to extend their tours in Thailand.
  • Epistle Thirty-five includes the transcript of a letter Gerry sent to The Washington Star rebutting an article by former ACTION Director Michael Balzano that (although I never read it) apparently made a case for dissolving the Peace Corps completely because it was no longer wanted overseas. Gerry’s rebuttal, a transcript of which he includes, appeared as a feature article in The Washington Star entitled “The Peace Corps: Beauty and the Beast.”
  • Epistle Fifty-four describes the problems Gerry, and other male Peace Corps Volunteers, were having with “nice Thai women.”
  • In Epistle Sixty-four, he explains how, against all odds, he coached a spunky teachers’ college sophomore, who wasn’t even one of his students, to victory in a poetry reading contest over entrants from Thommasat and Chula, the most prestigious universities in Bangkok.

While the final Epistle — Epistle Sixty-nine — might lead the reader to believe that Gerry lost Aied forever, in 1982, when she left to join the insurgents in the jungle, he divulges in his epilogue that “decades would pass before events would conspire to bring [them] together again,” and that, “once reunited, [he] learned the brutal truth: that she had never lied to [him], that she had never deceived [him], that she had always loved [him].”

While their reunification seems to have been more romantic than platonic, that remains an unknown, because the particulars are not covered in this memoir. I did, however, take liberty of looking at Gerry’s LinkedIn page, and it indicates that he continued to be employed as a TEFL instructor in Thailand, in 1983, and then had stops, as a TEFL instructor, in China and Japan before returning to America as a Job Corps teacher and finally as an ESL teacher in public schools, a position from which he retired in 2010, after which he moved back to Thailand.

Reviewer Jim Jouppi  has this disclosure: I served as a Peace Corps civil engineer in Nakohn Panome Province of Thailand from 1971 until 1973 when all the districts where I had projects were designated “red”  — that is areas were there “had been and continue to be some insurgent activity” according to the PC country director.

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