Poems and Stories from the Peace Corps
by Robert F. Nicholas (the Philippines 1968-70)
$9.99 (paperback); $1.99 (ebook) from Barnes and Noble
Reviewed by P. David Searles (Staff 1971-76)
Every American who has been to the Philippines will be captivated by the title of this book: ‘Hey Joe.‘ My guess is that this phrase is among the most remembered aspects of living in the country, especially for those who lived in the barrios. All Filipinos – young, old, male, female, educated or not – used ‘Hey Joe’ to greet any and all Americans at every turn. Once, needing to pass through a raucous demonstration to enter the American Embassy, dozens of Filipinos stopped what they were doing to hail me with ‘Hey Joe’ dozens of times, all with good humor and affection. For Americans in the Philippines ‘Hey Joe’ is a perfect illustration of the meaning of ‘ubiquitous.’
Robert Nicholas uses both prose and poetry to tell the story of his two years in a remote rural setting as a Peace Corps Volunteer assigned to bring new methods of teaching mathematics to students and faculty at the regional high school. One of the fascinating parts of the story is his passage from receiving greetings of ‘Hey Joe’ in the early days at his site to later being greeted as ‘Bob’ (from colleagues and friends) and ‘Mr. Nicholas’ (from students). For him, this was a crucial first step in what became a productive and satisfying stay in the country.
One of the most satisfying elements of his PCV experience is the fact that, unlike many of the other education volunteers in the Philippines, his job was a real one: He had the requisite skills, and the school system where he worked truly wanted him there. (The problem of the ‘teacher-aide’ jobs, which the first PC/P Country Director later called ‘non-jobs,’ is amply covered in Answering Kennedy’s Call, which I reviewed earlier in this space). Nicholas had majored in math in college and was specifically trained in the new methods of math pedagogy. The school to which he was assigned had a long history of its graduates failing math in college. His fellow teachers responded well to him and were eager to learn what he had to offer. It is a textbook example of proper volunteer placement; I’m sure there are thousands of RPCVs who are envious. Some years later he heard from his former school principal that her students now went on to college and did well in math.
The author enhances his stories and poems through the use of words from the local dialect sprinkled liberally throughout the book. For many of us these words bring back the distinct pleasures and challenges of living in the Philippines. Reading about Nicholas’ barkada is so much more satisfying than reading about his group of friends. And learning about his fancy new shirt made from piña fiber is far more interesting than learning about that shirt made from pineapple fiber. For those with no knowledge of the various Filipino dialects there is a fine glossary in the back.
Nicholas’s use of poetry is effective, even for someone like me who is definitely ‘poetry challenged.’ Almost everyone who has lived in the Philippines has experienced an earthquake at least once. Here is how the author tells of his experience with one:
Sleeping waking floor is shaking
mosquito netting clinging
slipping bed as earth is quaking
pens rolling light bulb swinging
Books are tipping candles tumbling
desk is walking over floor
world is rumbling hands are fumbling
concrete slab is trembling more
Get out get out Louie shouting . . .
Not only does this poem describe in a memorable fashion what it is like to wake to an earthquake, it also describes Nicholas’s living quarters and possessions, and introduces his friend Louie. Even the unevenness of the margins adds to the weird sensations one feels in an earthquake. Whenever Nicholas goes into the poetic mode the reader must relax and let the words and rhythm tell their story without the aid of punctuation, capital letters, and connecting phrases. It takes some doing, but it is worth the effort.
For me the best parts of the book are those in which he describes the many unique features of the Filipino culture, some of which are readily brought to mind, others almost forgotten and needing his telling to bring them back. Rice at every meal in the company of some pretty strange items on the plate, including the occasional dog; personal hygiene matters best left unmentioned; heat and humidity unlike anything we knew; holding hands with another man for long moments; hordes of children laughing, dancing and following you everywhere; the happiness amidst what we initially took to be desperate poverty; the damnable practice of ‘surprise numbers at social events; a tropical paradise everywhere one looked; the instantaneous welcome given strangers, especially Americans; and, of course, the joy one finds in discovering commonalities even among people of different cultures. All of this makes for a grand adventure, which Nicholas summarizes by saying “I arrived on the shores of Romblon with one set of beliefs and they were being uprooted and challenged. I was changing – for the better.”
Near the very end of the book Nicholas writes again about Culture Shock. He describes it as a two-edged sword – one that must be faced both coming and going. The shock of entering another culture does not come as a surprise, although it is often tougher and more difficult to deal with than anticipated. What is a surprise is finding one has to deal with it all over again on returning home. After extolling the pleasures of small-town life in the Philippines where personal relationships are so very important, the author complains that he finds himself back in America “in a third floor walk-up in a small town where everyone was a stranger and most preferred to keep it that way.” Every RPCV I have met makes the same comment: Coming home can be tough, too.
Hey Joe is a remarkably upbeat book for the Peace Corps genre given the tendency for Peace Corps memoirs to dwell upon the admittedly real hardships that come with Peace Corps service. The author does spend a few lines on illnesses, loneliness, and misadventures; but for the most part his story is one of success, accomplishment, and the gift of “a lifetime of warm memories.” Perhaps it has a future as a recruiting tool?
P. David Searles served as the Country Director for the Peace Corps in the Philippines from 1971 to 1974, and spent the next two years at Peace Corps headquarters as Regional Director for NANEAP and as Deputy Director of the agency under John Dellenback. His career has included periods in international business, government service and education. Following the end of his business career in 1990 David earned a Ph. D. from the University of Kentucky (1993), and published two books: A College for Appalachia (1995) and The Peace Corps Experience (1997), both published by The University Press of Kentucky.