By: James A. Wolter
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Publication Date: November 7, 2023
Reviewed by: Barbara Bamberger Scott
Review Date: August 22, 2023
When author James A. Wolter took the bold step to join the Peace Corps in Malaya in the early 1960s, he little imagined the adventures that awaited or the romantic tide that would overwhelm and transform his life, and now those experiences have been bundled together into his new book, Finding Miss Fong.
Wolter, who frankly considered his younger self to be good at flirting with females but unprepared to make a lifelong commitment, looked forward to work as a teacher in Malaya. After some preliminary preparation with fellow volunteers there, he arrived by bus at the village school where he had been assigned and saw “the most beautiful woman in the world.” Known as Miss Fong, her first name was Moke Chee, a teacher who had worked and studied in England. She sported a wedding ring, though he was told, and she would later confirm, that she wore it to keep annoying men at bay. But he was not annoying, and the two of them established a friendly relationship. He was quickly drawn into her circle, meeting her family and friends, and surprisingly soon he knew she was the woman he wanted to marry and live with the rest of his life. However, sealing the bond would not be a simple, straight-forward task – it was not her resistance that stood in their way, but her family and its deep traditions, the complexities the two faced with employment obligations and, most significantly, the many overriding cultural barriers. Wolter’s highly readable, tautly constructed memoir centers on the almost daily challenges he and his potential fiancée faced - mainly the blatant refusal of her parents to offer the slightest hope that such an event as marriage to an outsider, an American, would ever take place.
Wolter, a retired educator, now writer and sculptor, has created a true story that reads like a suspenseful novel. How could a rather naïve young man who tended to avoid serious commitments convince anyone, including himself, of the reality of his wish to marry and settle for life with the woman of his dreams? And as a counterpoint to this idealized love story were his initial struggles with his Malayan teaching assignment – a student of biology, he was also given the task of teaching chemistry – without a microscope – and math, specifically plane geometry about which he knew almost nothing. But, buoyed by strong friendships within the Peace Corps and the ever-tightening bond with his beloved, he continued onward, and this vibrant memoir revealing the positive outcomes of his youthful determination is the result.
Quill says: Wolter’s poignant, passionate love story, Finding Miss Fong, with its skeins of cross-national clashes, culture shock, and a devotion to education, will attract a wide range of readers who will learn much from it and wish to support the author in all further writing endeavors.