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Joleen Ngoriakl: When the Motherland Calls, A Reflection

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One of the last pictures of my nephew Siakang.

In the past couple of months, I have made one drastic change in my life — I’ve moved back home to Palau. I gave away stuff, let go of my son’s baby clothes, gears, and toys, packed, re-packed, and packed again four check-in luggage and three carry-on bags, gave away more stuff, and got my not-so-happy-about-moving toddler into his jogging stroller and off we went. Once we got over the airport hustle and twenty-four plus hours of traveling, we were finally home and welcomed by the moist and heavy island air. I’ve been resisting the urge to grab my albuterol inhaler a few times because my lungs should know better. After all, I was born and raised on this land, my motherland. Speaking of motherland, I can’t help notice a few things that I feel needs attention. First is the shocking overnight growth of Koror as the business center. The landscape is dominated by foreigners. Economists might say that growth is good for society, but seeing my hometown filled with flashy signs in foreign languages unreadable to the local populace along with a growing disparity in wealth and poverty, is quite sobering.


I know I sound exclusivist by saying this, but if Palau should grow, exhausting its finite natural resources, then the people of Palau should benefit the most from the process.


Driving up and down Koror, I try to spot locally owned businesses with little success. My heart jumps a little when I walked into Surangel’s. In a way, the locally owned store that has been around since I can remember, gives me a sense of security. Security in that it’s not just familiar, but that it gives me hope seeing that successful growth can be driven by locals. From the friendly faces that greet us at the registers up to management, it’s all Palauan. I know I sound exclusivist by saying this, but if Palau should grow, exhausting its finite natural resources, then the people of Palau should benefit the most from the process. Instead, we see so many foreigners owning businesses around Koror.

Sure, business licenses may have Palauan “front” persons printed on them, but we know that they’re not running the show. We need to be the ones printed on business licenses and run the show behind the scenes. We need to be the ones reaping the benefits of our depleting natural resources. We need to give jobs to our people within the auspices of labor and wage laws but we can’t do that if we import visions like we import our goods. By importing visions I mean selling our names and land rights to foreign business owners while we stand by and watch them bring their visions to life — growing their bank accounts in the process. It is kind of sad yet hopeful when you consider the small mom and pop stores all over Koror. They’re owned by Bangladeshis who literally started with nothing. That’s the power of vision. While it’s sad because I wish Palauans would be the ones to run these small stores, it’s hopeful to see that a person with so little can become a prosperous business owner.

This scenario is puzzling. On one hand we see poverty and on the other we see foreigners entering the business world with little to nothing. Could it be that there are barriers to entry on top of a shortage of vision? Could it be that locals lack connections to the outer world in terms of cheap goods to sell? Or could it be a sociological issue where behaviors and attitudes hold us back as a people and a nation; where we’re too good for certain jobs and sectors?

Who knows, maybe I’ll change my perspective into a more accepting and lax one the longer I’m here, which is exactly what I’m afraid of. I’m afraid because I don’t want to lose the detached perspective that I have from my years of living away. While it may be right that those living abroad just don’t get it (trust me, you have to live here and get into the everyday grind to get the full picture), I personally believe in a process of thinking and knowing the world that includes both immersion and detachment; where one ought to immerse in the community they serve and have the ability to step away in order to engage in reflection. By doing so, we are able serve diligently the people, land, and ocean that is our motherland and be able to detach in reflection where we can sort of zoom out our lens and keep our eyes on the bigger picture.

The “bigger picture” involves both time and space. By time, we have to develop and “grow” now as a nation while at the same time, keeping our next generations in mind by conserving our natural resources — thus, developing and growing now with our future in mind. This is the textbook definition of sustainability. Sustainability involves much more than conservation alone. It involves investing in renewable energy such as wind, solar, and hydro so that someday our entire island or at least 80% can be fueled by clean energy (it has been achieved by much bigger developing countries); it involves discouraging more cars by building and investing in a walkable city that is people-friendly instead of car-friendly (where there aresafer and accessible walkways and sidewalks for people to walk or push their 2-year old toddlers, yeah it’s a struggle); it involves policies that incentivize one-car households and telecommuting (we cannot telecommute — work from home — when internet is slow and inaccessible in cost). All of these things and more are ways of thinking, living, and planning our infrastructure with sustainability in mind so that our future generations can survive.


All the lights flashing in foreign languages in front of their foreign-owned businesses are other people’s visions coming to life in our country at our expense.


As I had mentioned, the “bigger picture” involves space as well. By space, we have to grow with globalization in mind. This means that the countries of the world are more connected today than they were even just a decade ago. Internet, social media, communication technologies, and additional flight options have connected us with the world. Even our economy’s health is tied to the rest of the world. This is our chance to foster our own visionaries by arming them with access to technology, and thus, access to other places around the world while remaining in our context. I’m saying this because moving back home, I feel like my wings have been clipped because I can no longer jump on the internet and research nor can I listen to NPR and TED Talks. These were the things that I once had access to and with them, I was able to learn and keep up with publications, technology trends, world events, and also connect and network with so many wonderful people. Now I have to tame my hunger for knowledge because it’s simply not practical to jump on the internet anytime a light bulb goes off. Maybe this is why when I look around, I see a shortage of vision because it’s difficult to be innovative in an environment that’s not innovator-friendly. All the lights flashing in foreign languages in front of their foreign-owned businesses are other people’s visions coming to life in our country at our expense. The roads are crowded with permanent tourists turned business owners who are wearing down our infrastructure; while it’s okay to have foreign business partners, something is quite amiss when foreigners make up the majority of our business landscape.

While growing in space beyond Palau is good and will keep opening new doors for us, unfortunately, this also means that our borders have become even more porous and illegal drugs are finding their way into the hands of our school-aged children. If this seems like a paranoid statement, consider my teen nephew who took his own life not too long ago while high on “ice” (a.k.a. meth). The word is, his friends were into this stuff and even selling them on behalf of their “maf” (I guess this is the petty dealer who supplies them). If that’s not gross enough, consider ladies and girls who are now using, and sadly, that means bodies have and will be sold in exchange for a hit; making this an issue of gender inequality.

This ice pandemic has become so widespread that you never know who’s using. It is scary to even talk about it but we have to. As a researcher, I hate to jump into conclusions without sound data but in this context, in this small island that I know and love and understand, when the same story is told over and over, data can take the backseat. In a way I feel like a conscientious reporter telling stories in hopes that it gets to the right ears — our collective ears as one people capable of affecting change when working together.


While we can play armchair psychologists and sociologists and blame the families and even the village, we simply have no time to practice our diagnostic skills.


Our officials are doing their best to deal with this “ice” problem, but with our porous borders and in-house corruption, something like this is not easy to stop. While we can play armchair psychologists and sociologists and blame the families and even the village, we simply have no time to practice our diagnostic skills. That’s why we have to cut straight through by looking at policy and the power structure. What I’m saying is, we have to do what the Americans did in the 1920s where they combated corruption and mafia-run streets by employing a robust taskforce. That or we can look onto China for inspiration. Their Corruption Bureau was set up to clean house and that’s what it does. Even the highest officials tremble when they are put under the Corruption Bureau’s radar. We need this. We need to encourage the clean and dedicated government officials and arm them with an army of serious bad-asses who can clean house. I’m thinking of our U.S. military combat veterans who have seen actual war and relentless violence in the dessert. We desperately need people who don’t give a jack about relatives, friends, and family ties when it comes to crime. They exist, we just have to put our heads together to draw them out and give them this special job, but first we need our leaders to make this a priority.

This combined effort of clean officials who know the context because they have worked here for years, a new set of eyes and skills from our own combat vets, as well as new policies and changes backed up by our O.E.K. and President is badly needed in order to stop this ever growing epidemic. By doing so, education and youth programs can have more kids who would otherwise be out running drugs for petty “mafs” and with inspired kids comes innovation and a brighter future. We need kids to be excited about STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) but before we even entertain that, we need a cleaner environment free from “ice” and small-time dealers (a harsher prison reform is another topic for another day). Only then can we progress and grow as a nation by having more resources to invest in STEM and other areas like public health instead of playing whack-a-mole with corrupted individuals.

This is the call of our motherland, or at least I think so. It’s calling us to execute a number of things all at once: grow sustainably with locals benefiting from this growth; encourage visions through accessible (in cost) technology and communications; and to put a stop to the ice pandemic that is crippling our people. Yes there are other things that need attention, but the way I see it, we’re like the body: we can’t get into a strict strength training regiment if we don’t get rid of the virus that’s making us weak. In this case, a trio of viruses: the foreign-run business sector; the shortage of vision; and the widespread use of ice.

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