Even The Smallest Crab Has Teeth: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories: Volume Four, Asia & The Pacific
Jane Albritton (India 1967–69), Editor
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03)
Even The Smallest Crab Has Teeth: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories: Volume Four, Asia & The Pacific is the last of a series of four handsome anthologies celebrating and recording Peace Corps’ accomplishments and contributions to the world through its first half century of life.
In this final edition, Albritton reserved for herself the daunting task of collecting stories from the most diverse of the four regions: Asia and The Pacific. The wide scope of the book reveals the well-trodden truth that no two Volunteer experiences are alike. Albritton writes,
How is it possible to collect stories from countries that fit into a scalene triangle set on a map and marked at its angles by Afghanistan, China, and Samoa and then declare them representative of something called Asia and the Pacific? . . . The 54 individual stories in this volume speak for themselves as they recount the personal experiences of Volunteers in the field. But as I have read and reread them over the past four years . . . I have become aware of three constellations . . . language, memories of war, and freedom to operate outside the norms of an established cultural universe . . . the view from Asia and the Pacific is uniquely conditioned by particular kinds of philosophical/religious drift, conflict, and cultural flexibility.
Again, I will mention some of these essays by name, but it would be wrong to think these “best in show’ in a collection that takes us through five decades, and to such diverse places as China, Vanuatu, Bangladesh, and Korea. They’re simply the ones that happened to catch my eye.
In “Of Love and Language,” Reilly Ridgell escapes deck passage on a freighter in Micronesia when a pretty, young Lagoon Chuukese girl tells him, “Ua tonguk,” (“I love you”), and invites him to her cabin. Thoughts of getting lucky turn into a confusing, and chaste, night at sea. Later, he sheepishly comes to understand that the phrase really means, “Boy, do I feel sorry for you!” Kristine Alaniz recounts her own discovery of the facets of language in “Sloslo Nomo,” when a ubiquitous phrase for “Take it easy” in Vanuatu reveals the diversity of its applications. Carrying a load of sand for a building project up a muddy slope, Alaniz falls for the sixth time as an 80 lb. grandmother passes her with, “…a huge bag of cement balanced on her head . . . She looked at me and smiled . . . “Sloslo nomo!” Translation: “get off your ass and start walking, girl.”
Frightened and seemingly abandoned on the roadside in Haryana in 1971, Walter James Murray discovers a previously disagreeable aspect of the culture suddenly to his liking in “An Indian Bus Journey.” He writes, “My plight attracted the attention of a policeman . . . he took my hand in his . . . Holding hands with another man was something I was not accustomed to . . . I inwardly hoped he wouldn’t take his hand away because the warmth and touch and intimacy gave me the sense of security I needed.” Karen Boyle in “Living in the Land of the Morning Calm” finds herself being marched through tiny Korean hamlets in 1968 as her local counterparts bellow, “Here are the American Peace Corps. They use contraceptives!”
Lori Englemann Robinson in “Chasing Gulls, Chasing Dreams,” quickly realizes that Kiribati isn’t quite the beach paradise she imagined it would be. “Hanging a hammock under a coconut tree?” she offers. “Well, that was just asking for a nut on the noggin! The beaches and lagoons? They serve more as latrines.” It’s no surprise when she happily takes a bus ride with gory shark parts on her lap. Service-hardened Usha Alexander takes sadistic pleasure watching a dugong attack a Westerner holiday-maker in “At the Foot of Mount Yasur,” while Frank Light discovers who the bandit-bogeymen his Afghan friends are always warning him about are in “‘Back to School” when one of them finally tells him, “Mr. Light, they are us.”
Karen Batchelor is humiliated in Korea in “Return to the Land of the Morning Calm” when a counterpart is given credit for her work. Later, she comes to see the value of “group think” in a rapidly advancing society. James C. Stewart, part of 1962’s Philippines Four, discovers that the Agency for International Development has helped outfit Volunteers for rural service by buying them each, “a 96-piece set of expensive glassware and eight place settings of fine Noritake china,” in “Visits With the Veterans.” Richard G. Peterson is welcomed to Samoa by a pig eating his footwear in “Stop, Pig! Drop the Flip-Flop!”, while Karen Dunne in Fiji attaches herself to a wise elder, eventually breaking gender roles to become a rather fearsome spear fisher in “The Fijian Father.”
The passage of time through these stories shows how the Peace Corps has changed. While service in the early years meant living and working with other Volunteers, as Maggie Eccles and Lynne LaFroth do in a pre-Soviet-invasion Afghanistan in “Taking Out Smallpox,” Lela Lantz — almost forty years later — must make-do by herself in a house full of standing water in Bangladesh in “The River At My Door.” The names of countries have changed, others no longer exist, or exist in different ways. Truk has become Chuuk, Timor gained independence, East Pakistan has fallen out of the lexicon entirely, India closed itself to Volunteers, and China opened.
Still, reading these stories, it’s clear that Peace Corps service is the same as it ever was, and that the benefit has mostly been to the individuals we called friends, and to ourselves. Whether that came in the form of hiring a prostitute as a language tutor, as Michael Schmicker did in Thailand in “The Mosquito Bar,” or as Jane Albritton’s own experience of her painful culture shock being recognized in the eyes of a Hindu mystic in “Durga Sadhu,” the lessons we’ve learned have been sublime. I was recently asked if I’ve ever really come home from the village I left nine years ago, and the answer is no. Reading these stories, I recognize my own experience. The problem is, occasionally the tears start flowing.
I hope Albritton’s mad endeavor with this series reaches people who weren’t in the Peace Corps, but ultimately, these books are for us. Which is right and good, because some of the stories within would certainly be lost in translation: the rage we felt at being stared at, such as covered by China PCV Lisa McCallum in “Foreigner! Forever,” or the tragedies we all witnessed, such as seeing a friend die of an unnamed disease, as Havard Bauer does in Kiribati in “Handsin’s Story.”
And some of them certainly are only for us, for we were the ones who went there and earned them. I’ll close with one such passage, from “Snapshots from the Graveyard of Empires,” wherein John D. Tobias writes of trout fishing in Afghanistan:
Ben, Kathy, Betsy and I decided to head for the mountains for a camping weekend during training . . . The Peace Corps camping equipment consisted of a small dome tent requiring an advanced degree for assembly. We had the usual pots and pans, freeze-dried meals, and a four-piece Eagle Claw fiberglass fishing rod, with a Mitchell 300 reel. I envisioned a virgin stream where the trout jumped out of the water
We hitched a ride on a lorry that dropped us off high in the Hindu Kush . . . set up camp next to the Panshir River, near a village called Gulbahar . . . It was an idyllic site for camping, but we drew curious onlookers, then a few more, and finally the whole village. Ben had a bit of a temper. He was irritated by the scrutiny and yelled, “burro…Burro…BURRO! (go, get away)” each time louder and louder . . .
I took a walk along the river with my Eagle Claw rod. This looked like gold medal wild trout water. I tied on a silver #2 Mepps spinner and made a couple casts. On the third cast, I had a jolting strike, but missed the fish. An old Afghan man came and stood beside me. He smiled and asked what I was doing. I said I was fishing. I asked what he was doing. He said he was fishing, too. Must have a Popeil Pocket Fisherman, I surmised.
He challenged me to a fishing contest, Amrika versus Afwanistan, the first ever fishing Olympics. Five casts only . . . the most fish in five casts would be the winner. I went first and caught, to my surprise, a nice 12-inch brown trout. It was my only fish.
“Your turn. Get your pole and fire away,” I said confidently.
He pulled a stick of dynamite from his coat, lit it, and “cast” it into the river. The ground shook as the water erupted with a Kaboom!
Jane Albritton served in an applied nutrition program in India from 1967–69.
Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s third novel, Mule, was released last month to praise from Vanity Fair, Gawker, The San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and two young children. His website is: http://TonyDSouza.com .