Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Summary of Some Random Thoughts on Culture - By Tony Pellegrino

(Condensed from Saipan Tribune)

We are at a turning point in our culture. As we are pushed and pulled into the larger arena of ties with the United States, it is vital we approach the concept of “culture” with an unbiased and open mind. Many fear that our “culture” will be lost. Many claim we have already lost it and have replaced it with a hybrid. It is time to define exactly what our culture. Is it helping or hindering us in our time of need?

Living in Saipan, we are bombarded by various cultures brought here by various peoples who come to work and live. However no one has defined the culture we fear losing. So let’s discuss it a bit in the hope that it will open up a dialogue for better understanding.

Over the past years we have invited foreigners to visit us as tourists. This type of activity doesn’t affect our “culture” very much because we know that in a few days they will leave. We try to be polite extending our hospitality and show them our “culture” in the hope they will be impressed.

Also over the past years we have invited foreigners to work for us. This type of activity has affected our culture very much because they tend to remain for long periods. In fact, they have remained and even intermarried with our citizens thereby fostering their culture on our own. In addition, we also invite foreigners to invest in our islands and to reap economic benefits at our expense. This group of foreigners also has a lasting impact on our culture.

But the most serious impact continues to come from the United States. We requested becoming citizens and continue to accept huge sums of money from it. Yet we worry about the U.S.’s impact on us. But the irony of all this worry is that we scramble to send our children to schools in the U.S. Some of us even buy homes and go to either work or retire there. We eagerly buy products from the U.S. But at the same time we wish to reject its values and culture.

In a book by Thomas Sowell entitled Race and Culture, he explains that “real culture” such as “music and art” comes only after prosperity and leisure time sets in. But it is another facet of culture that we sometimes overlook which make a major impact on any country. To quote: “the focus here will be primarily on those aspects of culture which provide the material requirements of life itself—the specific skill, general work habits, saving propensities, and attitudes towards education and entrepreneurship—in short what economists call “human capital.” This one point—human capital—when fully understood determines how and when the CNMI will become economically strong again.

How does our “human capital culture” influence the economy? Have we defined it into writing thereby showing our specific skills, our general work habits, our saving of money and resource habits, and our attitudes towards education and entrepreneurship? How do we compare to other peoples?

Some people believe that technology is the sole determinant of economic progress. One only has to look at all the rusting machinery and decaying Western factories given to third world countries along with massive international aid programs. Mr. Sowell explains: “They are a monument to the fallacy of believing that technology transfer is simple a matter of access, rather than a cultural receptivity as well….Differences of work habits, savings propensities, organizational skills, personal hygiene, attitudes, and self-discipline all influence end results, both economic and social.”

We have a commonality with Malaysia, Fiji and India and many African countries in that most of their college graduates aspire to work for the government. This seems the same in the CNMI in that most people want to work for the government. Mr. Sowell explains: “Government employment remains a prime objective and a prime source of inter-group conflict in underdeveloped countries around the world….Formal education, especially among peoples for whom it is rare or recent, often creates feelings of entitlement to rewards and exemption from many kinds of work.”

We see every day how some foreigners come to our islands and begin at a lower socioeconomic level than many of us and eventually rise above us due to their skills, work habits, or other economic performance differences. Thus since foreigners can succeed, so can we locals.

Almost daily I hear about our young educated minds leaving the islands because they cannot find a job. My question is why are we allowing this to happen? Why aren’t we making an effort to retain them? The few that remain are forced to seek employment in government. What is wrong with our system or worse with our thinking to let this happen?

Could one of the reasons that these young people are leaving or refusing to come back is that our islands have little to offer them after spending four years in a modern college in or near an exciting city with many attractions? Could it be that they do not wish to continue the customs as practiced by their ancestors? Could it be that they sense a feeling of sterility here with little hope for advancement?

We continue to believe that this is our land and outsiders are destroying our culture. But what we forget is that daily we must work to maintain our position and that can only be done through cultivating our “human capital.” However we have been lulled into the belief that because “this is our land,” we should have entitlement rights.

Mr. Sowell writes a stinging commentary that I feel fits us so well and has caused us most of the dilemma that we find ourselves in. “Indigenous political leaders, well aware of such counterproductive economic consequences of their pressures against middlemen, nevertheless have every incentive to push such policies, which reap immediate political gains, whatever their long-run economic damage to the community or the nation.” For “middlemen” I substitute the word “local workforce.” In other words we have been duped into accepting low wage workers at the expense of motivating and training our local people into developing our “human capital culture.”

By no means am I trying to suggest what our culture beliefs should be. Nor am I trying to suggest that our culture is not as good as others. But I am suggesting that no matter what we think of ourselves and loudly proclaim ourselves to be, we will never become economically strong until we fully develop our “human capital culture.” When we have almost 22,000 guest workers and thousands of local people out of work, have we really developed our “human capital?”

We will always remain dominated by someone else as we have been since the Spaniards landed here. For years we have been passed around from country to country. But for once, with the help of the United States, we can become almost self-sufficient and proud again. As the Bible tells us: “With all thy Wisdom, get understanding.” When will we?

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