Reviewed by Tino Calabia (Peru1963–65)
“I never looked at the Peace Corps as a two- or three-year excursion into the Valley of Riotous Romance,” writes Gerry Christmas, a Volunteer in the late 1970s. And from Christmas’ epistolary memoir Breathing the Same Air: A Peace Corps Romance, his three-year tour in Thailand followed by two years in Samoa proved neither riotous nor a steamy, bodice-ripping romance.
In 330 pages, 68 letters (49 to his mother and father) trace the on-again, off-again travails of Volunteer Christmas’s love sparked by a woman named Aied in Thailand. Later, 6,200 miles away in Samoa, his heart still pines for her. Through it all, his mounting success teaching English would match his success as a writer, one especially adept in coining metaphors and similes to enliven his memoir.
Like Christmas and thousands of other Volunteers, I, too, was officially sent abroad by the Peace Corps to teach English (Peru, 1963-65). Would that I had achieved even half the success that he did as a Peace Corps teacher — and afterwards — for almost three years, as a Thai government-paid instructor in a teachers’ college. Charming accounts of his students in class, and an inter-school competition that pits his underdog school against more affluent universities warmed the heart of this twice-degreed English major whose ESL efforts were by comparison underwhelming.
The classroom dimension and the dimension of unsullied love are rounded out by the multicultural dimension framed by Christmas’s views. He freely opines about how non-affluent Thais and Samoans manage their lives in sharply contrasting cultures. Indeed, even before the first letter/chapter opens, Christmas inserts his 13-page “Peace Corps Termination Report” covering his initial three years in Thailand. Those years made him a “cultural realist” who “believes that cultures have various strengths and weaknesses . . . best shown in what each culture has contributed to the human race,” concluding further that one culture is no better than another.
More specifically he notes that “ . . . most Thais are extremely unhappy. The oppressive poverty, the sweltering heat, and the linear social scene ultimately drain the body and snap the soul. Youth and beauty are the only treasures here. Once beauty and youth fade, most Thais accept their miserable existence with a fatalism that approaches masochism.”
Christmas closes his “Termination Report” mentioning a woman he would forever remember who led him to “experience true beauty . . .. It was then that I knew that no man could ever hate a country that had given him one of its women to love.”
Though remaining faithfully in love with Aied of Thailand, Christmas tellingly describes Samaria, an intelligent Samoan who was “the most gorgeous woman I’d ever met.” Three months into his service in Samoa, he writes: [the country] “is not a place for a person who has been indoctrinated with time management and the Asian work ethic. This is not to say that Samoans are wrong . . .. All I’m saying is that some personalities demand structure and order, two traits not particularly valued in the South Pacific.”
Interested in cultural differences? Peace Corps teaching? The bittersweet frustrations of seemingly unrequited love? HERE is a memoir for you.
Reviewer Tino Calabia is the author of the novel Roman Proud, Wayward Widower. He works at the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in Washington