We’re not in Kansas anymore.
Or Idaho, or even Hawaii. Even though “Saipan is where America’s day begins,” there are shockers here having nothing to do with the island’s sweet people, perfect weather and gorgeous beaches. Here is a random selection.
1. Saipan is not America…
Saipan has voluntarily and enthusiastically associated with the USA as a “commonwealth in political union with the US.” The residents drive on the right side of the road, use dollars, speak English (mostly), vote in some US elections (not presidential elections) and are US citizens.
But Saipan has its own culture; a glorious mix of Chamorro, Carolinian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Pacific Islands, German, Spanish and American with many other influences thrown in. Many things you might take for granted in the states are just not how things are done here. The differences range from the trivial to the extreme, and will make you laugh, cry, grind your teeth, or get back on an airplane, depending.
2. Packaging with no English text.
Let’s start with the trivial. Often, images on packaging are enough. A can or bottle of translucent liquid with a picture of a coconut on the label is probably coconut water, my favorite. But other times the pictures are remarkably unhelpful. A vague chip form–is it animal or vegetable? Vegetable or fruit? Perhaps not actually a food…a sponge? Little gadgets are often a mystery. Is this a personal care item? Or is it for household repairs? A toy, even?
On the other hand, packaging with English text can be quite entertaining (when it’s not mystifying or horrifying), see the “Washing Ball” text (look closely).
3. Food, with or without packaging.
The Japan Snacks aisle at our local grocery features, among a thousand other items, Tara Snacks, which are (and I’m not kidding) layers of “cheese and codfish.” And no, you don’t want any, guess how I know.
You can buy cans of Chrysalis in every market. Yes, chrysalis, as in “quiescent insect pupa, especially of a butterfly or moth.” To eat.
On the other hand, I could eat Wasabi Peas all day long. And the sushi, the noodles, the bananas, the fresher than fresh fish, the oh-my-gosh-how-have-I-never-eaten-this-before Chicken Kelaguin! I won’t be going hungry any time soon.
4. Food again–and the price thereof.
I recently paid $8.99 for a pint of sour cream, almost on purpose. At the other end of the spectrum, a giant mound of fresh bean sprouts can be had for a dollar. As can a clump of green onions, a thick rope of long beans, or a bag of the best tomatoes anywhere.
And then there’s the age-old question: $14 for a slab of yummy prime rib? Or $17 for this lovely fish head? In this neck of the jungle, not as many people would go for the steak as you might think!
5. Black or white, you’re a tiny minority.
We got a taste of this in Hawaii, but here it’s absolute. Brown in its splendid chocolate rainbow of shades dominates. Long, thick, shining black hair, dark eyes…you get the feeling this is how human beings are meant to look. My distant ancestors trudged over mountains and through blizzards to live in frozen northern wastes (why??) and had to abandon beautiful cocoa skin in favor of maximum absorption of Vitamin D. I have melanin, sure I do. In little dots. A spatter of spots. A flurry of freckles. Ah, well. Maybe in Heaven I’ll be brown.
6. First, pay the cashier.
Need car insurance? It’s cheap here: as of this writing about $180 for a year. But first, go get a Traffic Clearance (But I’ve only been here two weeks! No matter!). The clearance (an official assurance that you haven’t broken any traffic laws) costs only $2. BUT, you must pay the $2 at the cashier’s window and bring your receipt to the traffic clearance office before making further progress. Need a driver’s license? Car registration? Utilities? Any official service at all? Go find and pay the right cashier first, get your receipt, then see the man and fill out your forms. I’ve never before lived in a place that does it like this, but perhaps I need to get out more.
7. We’re out of stock.
We love Fresca. We can buy it here, once every few months. Need sour cream (even at $8.99 a pint) for a recipe? Don’t count on it. Butter? Maybe next week. Need a truck? Could be a while. Wanting a sofa for your new place? Boy, that’s a tall order, unless the one on the left is what you had in mind.
A water dispenser to dispense the 5-gallon jugs of purchased water you can drink? If the two or three places that carry them are out, you might think about fetching one from Guam. Or, you can of course just wait for the next boat. (Ordering from Amazon is a whole ‘nother adventure…)
One time a government office we had to deal with ran out of ink for their the printer, FOR SEVERAL DAYS. Which meant we could not do our business FOR SEVERAL DAYS.
But on the other hand, there is always plenty of fresh local food. And so far, the best carrots in the world, imported from Korea, have never been out of stock. (You’ll perhaps be disappointed to learn that we eventually found a brown corduroy sofa, and so did not need to dramatically revise our decorating style to…uh…bohemian casino?)
8. Betel nut
The tree is gorgeous. The chewing habit is disgusting. Think of chewing tobacco, but then imagine not just baseball players and grimy old codgers gnashing a nasty chaw, but also beautiful 16 year old girls, mouths brimming with rusty brown slop, spitting it in any convenient corner. Picture a trim and polished police officer, sporting a shiny badge and crisply pressed uniform, stepping out of his spotless cruiser and letting loose a stream of betel nut juice on the pavement. Completely aside from the reasons why people use it, and the horrible possible effects on one’s health and appearance, it’s just really gross. And yes, I am judging it. Not all things that groups of people do are equally wonderful. I can give you a list of especially egregious examples if you need one.
Signage prohibiting the chewing and spitting of betel nut is ubiquitous on the island (Saipan doesn’t like it, officially!), but judging by the abundant supply of little $1 baggies of the wrapped nuts on every market and gas station counter, and by the stains of brown spit splats on the ground everywhere, the problem is not going away anytime soon.
Well that’s an admittedly random list of things that have impressed me one way or another since moving here. There are many more to tell you about another time.
What is the oddest/best/worst thing about where you live?? I would love for you to tell me.