An Interview with James A. Wolter (Malaysia), author of FINDING MISS FONG

In the news — 


Feathered Quill reviewer Barbara Bamberger Scott
is talking with James A. Wolter (Malaysia 1962-66),
author of Finding Miss Fong.


FQ: How long did it take to write this book? While a memoir at heart, I can imagine that there still must have been a lot of fact-gathering.

WOLTER: Finding Miss Fong has been percolating in my mind for 60 years. Before my best Peace Corps friend, Bob Hoyle, unexpectedly died in October 2021, he told me I had no more time and to get writing. I started writing immediately as if I were talking to Bob directly, and I couldn’t stop. I finished writing my story by August 2022. The stories just flowed. I could see them in my mind. I was 22 years old again and in Malaysia. It was as if I were watching a movie of my life. I didn’t have to do extensive research because I simply, sometimes painfully, was reliving and reporting on what was happening to me and how I reacted. Finding Miss Fong is not a scholarly origin of the Peace Corps in Malaysia; rather, it’s a first-person account of what happened to one volunteer and his emotional experiences and reactions to events and the people he encountered.

FQ: Was it difficult to decide what to include in your book? Given that you share many aspects of your young life with readers, how hard was it to open up? Were there things you were on the fence about, trying to decide whether or not to include?

James A. Wolter (Malaysia 1962-66)

WOLTER: I wrote this book to share my experiences for Bob, my children, my grandchildren and the world. I wanted the book to be an unfiltered view into my actions, thinking and feelings. Reliving some of the incidents was extremely difficult emotionally, but I held nothing back. In fact, the original manuscript went to about 780+ pages, as there were so many unusual and funny stories to tell, but my editor, Katherine Sopranos, did a masterful job in cutting it back to 380+ pages, and she appeased me by saying: “Save it for the movie version.”

FQ: Would you tell our readers a bit about why you decided to join the Peace Corps? What led to that decision, and have you ever thought about how different your life would have been if you had stayed in Chicago?

WOLTER: I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to get out of the life I was living at home: My girlfriend’s mother was forcing me to marry her daughter, as was my mother; and I was being pushed to get a medical degree when I really wanted to be a research geneticist. By joining the Peace Corps, I also was idealistic and thought I could change the world for the better by teaching students biology in Malaysia, and I wanted to help improve the image of America and Americans in developing countries. If I had stayed in Chicago and never joined the Peace Corps, I would have done what my mother and my girlfriend’s mother expected of me. I would have become a physician and would be married to a woman who wasn’t ready for marriage either.

FQ: Would you encourage those about to enter the workforce today to consider joining the Peace Corps?

WOLTER: Absolutely. Regardless of the Peace Corps volunteer’s official assignment, they will encounter problems that have to be resolved and gain deep knowledge about the world that they won’t learn in graduate school and that don’t make the headlines. They will have to identify problems, determine required resources (human, material, financial, knowledge and time), procure and apply resources, track progress and help ensure solutions. Occasionally, I meet with young, recently returned Peace Corps volunteers. They share how they overcame problems while serving that they couldn’t imagine ever facing, and how they rightfully now are ready to handle anything they confront in the United States or the world. They can resolve the problems my generation wasn’t able to resolve. There’s a reason each Returned Peace Corps Volunteer refers to serving as “The toughest job I’ll ever love.”

FQ: Looking back at your time in the Peace Corps, and then looking forward, what is your current impression of the US Peace Corps?

WOLTER: The Peace Corps doesn’t get the publicity that it had in the past, but it’s needed now more than ever. There are more problems around the world as exemplified by the number of migrants all over the world. We need an influx of talented, innovative people who will dedicate two years of their lives to help improve the living conditions of people around the world. The good news is that there are hundreds of thousands of young, gifted Americans who can do the job. When they return to the US, they will be a strong, positive force in solving problems at the grassroots in our country.

FQ: When I read what your bosses did with changing your teaching assignments and giving you teaching jobs you weren’t qualified for, my mind kept going to that thought of being in front of a group with your pants down – a terrifying, “how did I get here” type of experience. Was that what it was like? I’m curious as I can’t imagine being forced into such a position.

WOLTER: I felt completely inadequate to handle the task. I was not so much worried about how I looked—I was much more worried about preparing my students for the Cambridge Exam, which would determine whether they could continue an education or not. Teaching biology was easy because I just used the world around us, and I managed to teach myself geometry. With no materials to teach chemistry, I felt it was the worst teaching that I had done. That was my first job, which only lasted about six weeks, but I kept things pretty much under control. Then, I was transferred to a school and told to provide a supervised study period to five Islamic Studies classes until a religious education teacher would join the school. I felt humiliated, first for what I thought was my being fired from my first teaching job, and then for being told to babysit a religious education class until a teacher arrived. I decided to quit the Peace Corps and had gone into a deep depression, but I ended up finding a way to each my students about Islam and prepare them for the Cambridge Exam.

FQ: You and Moke Chee and/or your children have returned to the settings of your wife’s birth and culture – can you say a bit about those journeys?

WOLTER: Moke Chee and I tried to bring our children, Sheana and Jimmy, to their Grandfather, Grandmother, Nanny, and other family members in Malaysia every two to four years. We wanted our children to know their Chinese heritage, and we wanted Moke Chee’s parents and Nanny to have time to enjoy the children. I’m still in contact with my housemate, and our children and grandchildren maintain contact with their Malaysian cousins.

FQ: Did your work in Malaya influence your decision to become a special needs teacher?

WOLTER: I did not make a conscious effort to become a special education teacher when I returned to the United States. Of all the jobs available to me, including teaching biology, I decided I wanted to teach, but couldn’t go into a regular classroom after my experiences in Malaysia. So, I took a job tutoring students in a hospital. I thought I would be tutoring students with broken legs and the like for a few days until they could return home. What I discovered was that I was teaching adolescents in a long-stay psychiatric hospital. I stayed in that job for a year. About that time, I was recruited by the same school where I was offered a job to teach biology, but this time I would teach students who were gifted, but had emotional problems. It turned out to be the perfect post-Peace Corps job for me. I just stumbled into it, but had I never served in the Peace Corps, I would never have been able to handle the job.


Finding Miss Fong
by James A. Wolter (Malaya 1961-63)
Atmosphere Press
382 pages
November 2023
$ 18.99 (paperback), $27.99 (hard cover), $8.99 (Kindle)

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