Saipanda to the Rescue (part 1)

**Note: I published this post around the new year; a bug kept it from your viewing pleasure — until now **

Happy new year! We hope 2012 is your best year yet!

I’m sure you’re wondering by now what Saipan is like. Luckily, you do not need to pick up the family and move to Saipan to find out. Since we’re already here, I can provide you with a nifty-handy-dandy quick guide to living on Saipan.

First, you should meet Saipanda, the local mascot. It is a panda with a rhino horn. “Saipanda” is a play on words in Japanese and, perhaps, Chinese.* An American who lived in Japan wrote (edited for clarity):

In Japanese “rhino” is Sai. Panda, is panda
Saipan-da means “It’s Saipan!”

Saipanda likes ong choy!

* Brett says that Japanese writing must be based on Chinese. It uses some Chinese characters. Other characters look like remnants of Chinese characters, as if a three year old used an eraser to remove part of characters. Here, some of the signs in Chinese make absolutely no sense to Brett and leave her laughing. In the same way, the pun makes even less sense in Chinese.  Sai means west and panda means panda. Perhaps it would be a joke about “go west, young man!”

Small town
CNMI is the smallest autonomous jurisdiction in the United States. It is equivalent to a state in many laws. At the 2010 Census it had approximately 53,000 people. Of those people, 90% live on Saipan. In other words, Saipan is similar to an small, isolated city in the middle of rural America. For comparison’s sake, there are more people in Turlock, CA and Kalamazoo, MI than all of CNMI, and their metropolitan areas have even more. Battle Creek, MI has just about the same population as Saipan.

Green Acres is the Place to be

We live upstairs in a two unit apartment. Our neighbors live downstairs. We have a two bedroom/one bath place. Our front door opens out to a large, enclosed, covered patio.

Our apartment

We live on a family compound — basically a bunch of houses set on a large clearing in the jungle. It’s an operating farm with various trees of tropical fruit and nuts, a bull, a couple of goats, chickens, and a deer. These animals live just outside our window. Currently, 5 dogs live here. It’s not your typical suburban setup: There are no sidewalks or streets, only rocky dirt paths. There is no lawn, just grass from the jungle that gets weedwhacked to keep it back. When it rains (that’s every day right now), it gets really muddy. It can be really dirty here. There are no enclosed yards for any animals except the goats.

Our neighbor


The jungle is never that far away. I can never quite tell where the jungle begins and where it ends in much of the island. Many yards are junglish in nature and quality. So much so that some of the most populated areas look like they were carved out the jungle in places.
Rain Moving In


Words of Art

Boonie is inserted in front of a number of words. Mutts are referred to as boonie dogs (see below). Cats are boonie cats. Boonie means the same things as it does in the mainland – rural area (I live in the boonies).

People from the mainland United States are referred to interchangeably as mainlanders, haoles (how-lees), and Americans. I should note that many people seem to assume only white persons are “American.” Brett has many stories about being asked her ethnicity and then Sprout’s. The general response is, “so his Dad is American, then.”

People born and raised in the islands are referred to by a number of terms. Generically, they are locals or islanders. Depending on the context, local generally refers only to indigenous Chamorro and Carolinian persons.


There are a lot of dogs on Saipan. They are everywhere. The official estimate is 20,000 to 25,000. I think that number likely is low. Regardless of the number, it is safe to say that there are a lot of dogs on this little speck of rock in the Pacific that is the size of San Francisco. Thanks to a lack of spaying and neutering, the population only continues to grow.

Many are descendants of dogs used during WWII by the US military to sniff out Japanese enemies hiding in the jungle, and as guard/sentry dogs. In my experience, the dogs on the island are intelligent, sociable, and instinctive hunters. Most dogs here are not any particular breed but an amalgamation of a variety of dog breeds used during the war. My guess is that there were a lot of hounds (good noses), german shepards (good all-around dogs), and rotweillers (intimidating). Case in point, one of the boonie dogs on the farm will point while hunting for rats and lizards just like the German short-haired pointer we had when I was a kid (“Sheba”).
James, the boonie dog

Dogs are everywhere — on the road lying about, on people’s property, in the jungle, in parking lots in town. Overwhelmingly, including dogs that are “owned” locally, dogs are left to their own devices when it comes to food. They stay outdoors and hunt for rats and whatnot. A lucky few gets table scraps if they happen to have owners. A significant number of dogs here do not have owners and simply roam about in packs looking for food. Many starve to death. This is an accepted part of life here, although they are proceeding slowly on a plan to round up and eradicate any dog not registered.

High-context society

The local culture largely is high context, meaning that the context of a statement means as much, if not more, than the words. Communication is often indirect, relying instead on context, often cultural, to convey a message.  The local native Chamorro culture is high context, as is the Filipino, Chinese, Korean, ethnic groups.In other words, about 95% of the island.

In contrast, modern American culture is considered a low context society. We expect people to be direct and tell us what they really mean. We often call those who use indirect communication passive-aggressive. The difference in communication styles is subtle if you don’t know to expect it but stark for those who have experienced it or havfe someone leading them through it (like Brett does for me), and often leads to miscommunication between the two groups. I think it also leads to a sense of superiority and entitlement I see in some of my fellow mainlanders.

Betel Nut

I will let the sign speak for itself. Most businesses, government offices, and any other place you can imagine has a sign like this.

Betel nut gives a little high when chewed. The locals chew it with a leaf and coral (limestone). The coral serves as an abrasive on the gums to improve absorption of the active ingredient and increase the high. Some will add chewing tobacco to increase the high and because the fiberglass in the chew helps the body absorb the betel nut ‘s active ingredient.

Like tobacco, betel nut chewers need to spit out their chew often. It is a nasty red goo. We can tell who chews because their teeth are red from the betel nut and often worn away by the coral. During our first week, we were shocked by the number of car doors that bizarrely opened while driving. Over time, we realized the car doors were opening so that passengers (or even the drivers) could spit out the betel nut juices without stopping the car. Nasty!


I hope this sheds some light for you on where we now live. I intend to post more when I get time.

Rainbow on Saipan

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