Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Saipan: What I like about you

Fairly often someone contacts me about the possibility of moving to Saipan, and wants to know about the good and bad of living here. Here’s my list of the good things.

  1. It’s a tropical island. The weather is beautiful. The lows in the dead of winter are in the 80’s and maybe the upper 70’s. The water has incredible colors, and the island is small enough that you’re almost always within sight of the ocean. The vegetation is lush. Life is simple. It’s the sort of place people dream of retiring to. And we get to live here. Sometimes I’ll become acutely aware of the incredible beauty around me, and just laugh with glee.
  2. The sense of community. More than anything else, relationships matter here. There is a strong sense of family and of community. Everyone knows everyone, and I think that results in an element of safety that doesn’t exist in many parts of the world. Sure, there is still crime, but my kids can be out playing in the neighborhood without me thinking about it. They can wander off in the grocery store, and I don’t panic. People look out for each other. There is no anonymity, so people tend to behave better and are accountable to a larger degree than in a large impersonal community. It’s not quite Mayberry, but it’s a rare day that I walk into a store and don’t stop to talk to a few people I know.
  3. Diversity. Saipan is a mish-mash of people, cultures, languages, foods, and foibles. Because of the influx of contract workers over the years, there is such a broad mix of people, that almost everyone is a minority. Besides the indigenous Chamorro and Carolinian ethnicities, there are sizable populations of Filipino’s, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Thais, and Bangladeshis. There is a smattering of Indian and Nepalese, a few displaced Europeans, some white people, and a few African-Americans. On most days, there are two Jamaicans on the island. If you don’t like ethnic diversity, if you think you’re right and everyone else has something to learn from you, this isn’t the place for you. If you’re from America, you’ll experience what it’s like to be a minority, and it’ll make you a better person.
  4. A Great Place for Kids. All that toxic stuff that influences the minds of children and youth is a far away. It’s still accessible, but it doesn’t infuse the society and the culture. TV is not ubiquitous. Most people have no idea what last week’s episode of America’s favorite sitcom was all about (or even what the favorite one is). The cultural icons don’t permeate our lives here. Kid’s grow up without many of the mental and emotional toxins of Western society.
  5. Friends. If I lived in America, my friends would be limited to people in my professional or in my social class. Here, those boundaries don’t really exist. My friends are from all walks of life, ages, ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Over the years, they’ve included park rangers, coast guard officers, teachers, lawyers, business people, government officials and cabinet members, houseworkers, gardeners, and people flipping switches at the utility.
  6. You can do anything. For some reason, Saipan is a place of self-discovery. If you have an idea, all you have to do is pursue it. If you’ve ever dreamt of being something, in Saipan it’s likely possible. I arrived as an eye surgeon and Mara as a health information specialist. I don’t think I ever thought of doing much else besides that. But, in the fifteen years that we’ve been here, we have done all of the following just by virtue of will, effort, necessity or just simple desire. We opened an eye clinic and became business owners. We founded a non-profit school to educate our children. We have served as substitute teachers, school administrators, principals and PE coaches. I’ve become a newspaper columnist and published a book. I’m becoming a stand-up comic. I’ve acted in a community play and sang in a chorus. I’ve played co-ed soccer, and I’ve tried out for the CNMI Men’s National Team. Mara opened a lei business, imported flowers from Asia and became a part of the tourism industry. And this sort of pursuit of the diverse facets of the soul is fairly typical in Saipan. If you’ve ever had an interest in something, Saipan is the place to explore it. You’ll discover interest here you never knew you had.
  7. Travel. Most people live and die without a passport. My kids have a gazillion entry stamps in theirs. In our years here, we’ve traveled to China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Singapore, Bali, Papua New Guinea, and the islands of Micronesia.
  8. Casual Atmosphere. You’ll never see a suit on the island. Sometimes you’ll see a tie. You’ll find people in t-shirts and shorts at all occasions – weddings, funerals, at work, in meetings of any kind, in fancy restaurants. A corollary to the casual nature of the island is that there is very little emphasis on material possessions. There is no such thing as keeping up with the Jones’. It doesn’t much matter what you drive, where you live, or what the tags on your clothes say. The symbols of materialism take a back seat here.
  9. Family first. This is a double-edged sword, but it has changed me for the better. Family is more important than work. It’s not a struggle to live your life under that premise here on Saipan. In America, you may want to, but the minute you try to take off work because your kids are sick, or because your sister needs help moving, or because you want to go fishing with your brother, you’ll not be taken seriously as a member of the workforce. Your career will head into a skid. Here, it’s the norm for people to miss work for any of these reasons, and it’s actually encouraged. Why not? We say that work is not the most important thing in the world, but why not live in a way that shows we mean it? That’s the way things are here, and I think it’s a more sane way of living. Of course, things do suffer in the workplace, which can be frustrating as an employer or a co-worker, but you just try to plan for it.
All of these combine to make Saipan home.


The Saipan Blogger アンジェロ・ビラゴメズ said...

10. Hot Asian women are all over the place. In the bars. At the beach. In the grocery store. The apartment next door. Church. If you've got Yellow Fever, Saipan is the place to be.

Right, Brad?

Walt F.J. Goodridge, The Passion Prophet said...

Great post! Wow! It didn't kill me to comment!

Anonymous said...

Hi David,
You were looking for your best of this blog...I vote this one. Made me want to move here all over again.



David Hughes said...

Your comments hit the mark. I left Saipan in 1990 and very few days go by when I don't let my mind linger back to those days and smile.

When I came to the commonwealth in the mid-80s as editor of the Variety my initial reaction was that I had a lot to teach these folks. Well, I LEARNED a lot from the fine people there.

My will has a clause in that when I die, part of my ashes will be scattered in the lagoon at sunset.

I tear up just thinking about my life there and why I left.

Dave Hughes

Marianas Eye said...


Where are you now, and why did you leave?


Jeff said...

Well said, doc. Being on the water is right up there with Angelo's inclusion of Asian chicks. When I hop on a dive boat, all the other BS fades away.

James said...

I love this post. You have simplified elegantly what liking on Saipan is about.

Tamara said...

My new favorite.

Marianas Eye said...


I miss diving sometimes. I dove like crazy the first year I was here, but working at the hospital, I was acutely aware of the "one diving death per month" that took place at that time, an with kids on the way, I hung up my regulator.


Jeff said...

The only dive that worries me is the Grotto. I tend to shun that place for the reasons you just described. There are ways to manage the risk in other ways that I'm comfortable with, such as avoiding anything resembling dodgy conditions, not diving especially deep and no strained efforts to make a shore dive out of what should be a boat dive. Diving with people you trust helps as well.

Anonymous said...

awesome post....

Melissa said...

Doc, Great post. I needed it after the day I had... of course, I firmly believe that it is virtually impossible to be in a crappy mood while watching a beautiful Saipan sunset, so I vote to add that to the list.

Sean said...

This has to be one of my all-time favorites of your posts. Elegant and captured perfectly why we're still here 10 years on. I can't imagine the day we leave. . .

Anonymous said...

Wow. I still live in Saipan, and I don't think I'll ever leave because of this! =P

JIAN said...

Hello Dave, nice to read your posts. I am expecting to have my first visit to the island next month and am considering moving there. I have searched on the internet for peoples' comments on what it is like living in Saipan. Your post is unique in that you addressed the non-material side of the living that cannot be found elsewhere that I have looked. Thank you for your great post!


Jackie said...

I'm so glad I've seen this! I'm moving to Saipan in August to teach for two years, and I'm thrilled to see a positive post about it! :) Thanks!

Christine said...

I am also thinking of moving there in August to teach. It would be nice to know a person or two... email me if you see this message. riley 2 gilbert @yahoo.com (no spaces).

insolidarity said...

Jackie and Christine,
I live and teach here in Saipan. I brought both my teen daughter and my mother with me- and my dog. So I have a unique circumstances (settling in and meeting folks, etc.). If you'd like some advice before or after you arrive (on housing, shipping, shopping, etc) contact me at :taunyadeboer@gmail.com