Review of A Wedding in Samar by John Halloran (Philippines 1962-64)
A Wedding in Samar
by John Halloran (Philippines 1962–64)
Reviewer Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 1971–73)
A WEDDING IN SAMAR IS A MEMOIR by the late John Halloran published posthumously by a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, John Durand, who is the owner of Puzzlebox Press. Apparently Halloran started to write a novel while in-country, then became disillusioned with his own writing and gave up. Years later, when he was 63, he went back to his notes, and presumably his memory, and turned it into a memoir. I don’t know how good his novel would have been. But his memoir is excellent.
Here is the Philippine’s Samar Island, just south of Luzon, and less than 20 years from the end of World War Two and the beginning of full independence. Here is the Peace Corps only a couple of years in existence, depositing young Americans into Third World countries and not always sure what they expected them to do other than a lot. Halloran gives us a wonderful description of his life, and that of the Philippine people, that is astute and surprisingly objective. His style is easy to read and his prose flows freely, pulling the reader along effortlessly.
Under the glare of an electric floodlight, dockworkers hustled to tote freight from the pier to the bowels of the Neptuno, which slowly filled with an orderly array of brown cartons and silver tins of kerosene destined for Samar. The bare, agile feet of the workers were at home on the wood decks and bamboo ladders that descended into the hold.
Neither overly embellished nor oversimplified, the writing deposits us into that place and time allowing us to see what he saw and feel, what he felt. I couldn’t help but make comparisons to my own experience in Micronesia. For example, there’s the use of “where are you going?” as a greeting. This was common in much of Micronesia before the missionaries decided to translate “good day” into the local language and teach the people to use that as much as possible. Halloran quickly figures out that the question is not intended to elicit any detail, it’s only a greeting. “Over there,” will suffice as a response.
There were other interesting aspects of his life as a member of the third group of PCVs to go to the Philippines. He was Catholic, and that helped him immensely to become accepted by the people as he attended church and other religious events frequently. The people seemed genuinely glad to have him in their midst, inviting him to party after party with copious amounts of alcohol. Actually, it seems half or more of the book describes some party or festival he’s attending. If there is a negative to this book it’s that the description of the incessant parties becomes a bit tedious. It’s near non-stop and made me wonder what job he was doing.
Eventually, his work in a nearby school is described. However, it is not a regular teaching position. It seems he really has no set job. Wisely, he keeps himself busy volunteering at different institutions, but he has no actual firm assignment which I found strange. A PCV without a clearly defined job to do, in my experience, doesn’t last long or at the least, doesn’t maintain the favor of the people.
Halloran shares a nipa thatched house with another PCV and they hire a local to cook for them. Their cook’s family more or less becomes their family. But they also form strong bonds with some of the teachers they work with and with the mayor, some priests, and other people. Their sex life seems pretty much non-existent, though they are often encouraged to go to Cebu City, two islands and two days travel to the west, to “enjoy.” What I found strange is that both Halloran and his roommate were Catholics committed to the concept of saving sex for marriage. Through my high school, college, and Peace Corps years I don’t remember any male acquaintances of mine, though there must have been some, who were saving it for marriage.
Halloran makes a concerted effort to learn the local dialect, called Waray-waray. It appears though that he never attains any level of fluency. This is because there is already so much English spoken by any Filipino who has gone to school. In fact, he talks about speaking “Filipino English” most of the time.
Halloran, who was older than most PCVs being in his early 30s, makes some really profound observations the few times that he steps out of his objectivity. He realizes that as close as he may get with the people, there is a level within them that he will never reach. He also quite quickly realizes that tangible results for PCVs will be few, while the interaction with the people, and its affect on both him and them, is perhaps the most important aspect of his tour. And he also realizes that he will eventually go back to his home, lifestyle, and culture in the States, while the people will remain in Samar.
Looking at the title, one would expect Halloran to marry the pretty schoolteacher and bring a Filipina wife back with him. But it was not to be. His roommate marries the other pretty schoolteacher, but the wedding is in Manila after Halloran has left. Halloran explains that the “wedding” is a metaphor for the marriage of two cultures, Philippine and American. And indeed, through his book, we get a good look at early ’60s Philippine culture through the eyes of a quite keen American observer. I recommend this to anybody who wants to know what it’s like to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in that place and that time. This would especially apply to Mark Fullmer, contributor to the PeaceCorpsWorldWide blog Peace Corps in the Twenty-first Century, who is there in Samar right now.
Reviewer Reilly Ridgell is the author of the widely used textbook Pacific Nations and Territories, in print continuously since 1983, and co-author of its elementary level version Pacific Neighbors. He also wrote Bending to the Trade Winds, Stories of the Peace Corps Experience in Micronesia and his novel, Green Pearl Odyssey, was released in early 2010. He is currently a dean at Guam Community College.
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I was in Philippines Group III with John. I didn’t know him very well until these memoirs were published. I remember him as an older, quiet guy who seemed thoughtful and had a wicked dry sense of humor. When I read his memoir all I could say was wow! I wish I would have made more effort to know this guy. He lived in a remote corner of Samar, and I in Leyte, maybe two days ride on horrendous roads. Knowing him probably wasn’t in the cards. As the reviewer says, he really captures what the experience was like for most of us. Reading his love affair with the Philippines evoked many good memories. I am grateful that a fellow volunteer, John Durand, convinced this decent, gentle soul to finally publish his memoir.
What a difference a decade (or two) can make, especially when one is talking about sex! Based on what is in the review John Halloran grew up in the 50s, the reviewer who found Halloran’s ideas about pre-marital sex odd, in the 60s, early 70s. If there was ever a period of change in American sex lives it was during that period. I’m guessing something like 70% of my college graduating class (1955) were virgins, but probably only 30% in 1970. (It may well be 5% now!) It was not at all unusual for men who matured in the 50s, especially Catholic men, to feel that ‘waiting’ was the right thing to do, even if their libidos shouted “Let’s do it!” Remember, in the early days of the Peace Corps the offical position was “Don’t do it or home you will come.”
Lawrence H. Fuchs was the first Country Director in the Philippines and wrote “Those Peculiar Americans” published in 1967 by Meredith Press. The book is a fascinating document as it describes the psychological framework prevalent among early Peace Corps staff in which Volunteer responses, behavior and attitudes were evaluated.
The book provides an excellent description of the first programs in the Philippines. No Volunteer had a structured job. They were all assigned as “educational aids.” This was done because of concerns on the part of the HC government that Volunteers would replace HC professionals. The memoir should be reviewed in that context
It is apparent that Volunteers from one time and one place are rarely knowledgeable about what other Volunteers did or are doing. Each of us attempts to “claim” the Peace Corps “experience” and brand it with our own service and observations. This blog and others, the many activities of the 50th Anniversary, and the proposed enhanced Intranet network for serving Volunteers and their staff, may help to alleviate this problem. Too little, too late?