It the first day of work on Saipan, my new boss, Chief Justice Miguel Demapan of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Supreme Court, told me to enjoy my time here but to watch out for falling coconuts. "More people die from coconuts to the head than shark attacks," he warned, adding that his own mother had been victimizednot fatallyby gravity's interaction with tropical flora.
A metaphor? That which is above you can injure? The beautiful is also hard? The delicious can be deadly? I didn't know then, and I don't know now, but if it was a little strange to be discussing the perils of fruit with the Northern Mariana Islands' highest judge, it was still nice to have someone take a fatherly interest in my wellbeing so far from home.
I came to Saipan like countless others have come to Saipanrunning away from somewhere else. Picture New York City last November, when the weather was cold and so was my heart. I'd been laid off from my job at a big law firm, and set free by my boyfriend, who left me for his secretary. Still reeling from the combination, I typed the words "job lawyer tropical" into Google, and discovered a listing for a judicial clerkship on Saipan at the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).
Let me explain what a judicial clerkship is, for those who have managed to avoid law school: in order for a judge to render decisions, young lawyers called clerks toil behind the scenes, finding and then putting into words legal authority for whatever decision the judge has come upon. Judicial clerkships tend to last for one or two years. Usually, a judicial clerk will work for one particular judge, writing that judge's decisions, speeches, correspondence, todo lists, and sometimes even diary entries. In legal communities, it is thought of as perfectly soundand really quite prestigiousfor the most inexperienced lawyers in the land to be, essentially, deciding cases, in order that judges can spend more time attending conferences that sneaky clerks have scheduled for their judges to get them out of town.
NO, REALLY, WE WANT YOU TO WORK FOR US
Saipan, I discovered on the Internet, is a Pacific island quite near Guam. It was the Guinness Book of World Records' 1994 recipient of the Most Equable Climate award. Saipan is also within spitting distance of the island from which the nuclear bombs Fat Man and Little Boy were launched. I learned on various web sites that Saipan is full of garment factories, coral reefs, and Japanese tourists, and on one web site in particular (SaipanSucks.com is its unfortunate title) I learned more than I'd ever wanted to know about smallisland government corruption.
My circumstances being what they wereheartbreakinga nontaxing year on a warm island sounded awfully nice. I sent off my resume, and not much later I got a phone call from someone claiming to be an Associate Justice from Saipan.
For almost an hour, I spoke with the judge about things like my writing ability (high, I bragged), my interest in assisting this emerging judiciary develop a body of jurisprudence (also high, I lied), whether I could be happy living on a tiny island for a year (sure, I guessed), and if I'd be willing to stay for more than one year (probably not, I admitted).
The judge asked me whether I could fly out to Chicago to meet him for an inperson interview later in the month (I would), said he'd be in touch, and that was the last I heard from him. People, especially my loving parents, began speaking about the Saipan clerkship like they talk about some of my other good ideas that haven't quite worked outas one more example of why I am infectiously imaginative, but cannot be taken very seriously as an adult and am therefore likely to end up homeless. I applied for other jobs and dated inappropriate men with drinking problems, thinking all the while that I really had to get out of New York.
In December, out of the blue I got an email telling me the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the CNMI wanted me to be his clerk. The email came from the Chief Justice's present clerk, who, when pressed, admitted that someone else had originally been picked for the position, but it had been discovered that this other person was facing some trouble which would be costing her license to practice law. I was a very desirable second choice, the clerk assured me.
The job paid well, though unspeakably less than greedy New York City lawyers expect for flipping on a computer in the morning ($40,000 a year, very nearly taxfree, with a $600 a month housing allowance), and the court would pay for my plane ticket and the cost of shipping all my things from New York. The hours, I was assured, were reasonable, the workmates affable, the climate desirable, and the food not intolerable. The person on the phone told me that the Supreme Court's clerks all come from very good law schools and after clerking have plenty of career options, from staying on Saipanwhere the Attorney General's office absorbs all who want to be absorbedto going back to the mainland, where I could explain over and over that I hadn't misspelled Spain on my resume. Would I come?
WELCOME, AND WOULD YOU LIKE SOME FRUITBAT SOUP?
In the beginning of February, after a 30hour flight, I arrived on Saipan jetlagged but happy. I discovered I hadn't accidentally commissioned myself to be a hostess in a karaoke bar (which was in some ways a disappointing discovery), and began learning from the island's highest judges about perilous coconuts and fruitbat soup.
Fruitbat soup is worth an aside because it arises from one of those anecdotes that helpfully explicates the peculiarities of everyday living on Saipan. I was at a barbeque not long after my arrival, when I was still thinking about judges on Saipan as being a lot like judges back in New York City. A former Chief Justice whose name I think I ought to keep to myself got to talking about things you miss when you're away from home. Food, naturally, was what we talked about.
The former Chief Justice told me that the food he most missed when he lived on the U.S. mainland was fruitbat soup, which consists of one fruit bat boiled, fur and all, then ripped apart by hand and eaten. The fur is not swallowed, as this would be disgusting. Instead, the fur is chewed until the nice musky taste has been sucked out of it, and then the tasteless fur is spit out onto the ground or, if you're somewhere classy, into a can.
One night, said the judge, as he and an American companion were driving along a dark, lonely stretch of highway in Kansas, he smelled the most delicious smell; it smelled just like his beloved and much pinedfor Micronesian dish. This former Chief Justice got out of the car on that stretch of Kansas highway, sniffed the air, and got back into the car, where he said to his companion, "Doesn't that smell wonderful?" To which the companion replied, "What, the skunk?"
Fruitbat consumption, incidentally, is strictly illegal now, as so many fruit bats have been boiled and eaten that it is not legally permitted to wrest the few that remain from trees and into pots of boiling water. This is thought by certain former Chief Justices to be a terrible shame, for a variety of reasons.
Me, I was just missing a decent veggie burger. The former Chief Justice thought this craving to be terribly exotic.
TROPICAL REALITY, OR SURREALITY
Eight months into the job, I am now forced to admit that clerking here isn't always so amusing. The work part of this job is astonishingly normal, in that it involves hours and hours in front of the computer, in a windowless, overly airconditioned office. I research and write for a boss I like and respect; I listen to NPR and check email with an obsessive vigor that would serve well if applied to productive tasks; I have good friends in my coclerks, who also ended up in Saipan quite by accident. And overall, the law issues we encounter are largely the same as those clerks come across in the U.S. (contract disputes and divorces and that sort of thing).
But there are also legal things we deal with here that you'd never in a million years expect to come across in any mainland courtroom. For example, consider Article XII of the CNMI Constitution, which limits land ownership on the islands to persons of Northern Marianas descent. This is a racebased provision that would strike most learned individuals as patently impossible, but for the Northern Mariana Islands' Commonwealth relationship with the U.S., only some parts of the U.S. Constitution apply. (The Fourteenth Amendment actually does apply, so it's not clear how Article XII is permitted to stand, though in a world where the U.S. Supreme Court can uphold "In God We Trust" I suppose anything is possible, constitutionwise.) In any case, this is the sort of interesting local jurisprudence a clerk deals with in Saipan.
The life part of clerking on Saipan is a lot like living in a foreign country that accidentally uses U.S. dollars. Eightyfive percent of the people who live on Saipan speak a first language other than English. Saipan looks like one of those ads you see on the subway, with the turquoise ocean and big hills covered with lush jungle (the jungle is filled with World War II detritus, which you don't see on the ads). Scuba diving after work is an easy, cheap, beautiful thing to do when it isn't typhoon season, when it gets a little hairier due to currents that might just pull you out to the Philippines. There are governmentsponsored cockfights taking place all the time in a big stadium right near my apartment.
America's commonwealth relationship with the Northern Mariana Islands (of which Saipan is the most populous), means that U.S. citizens can work in Saipan without any restrictions (the commonwealth relationship is akin to that between the U.S. and Puerto Rico, where certain aspects of the territory are governed by U.S. law, and others remain under local control). Of the 60,000 or so people living on Saipan, around 1,500 are U.S. mainlanders working as teachers, lawyers, doctors, scuba instructors, biologists, radiostation managers, bartenders, tennis pros, and pretty much every other conceivable position.
The other Saipan residents are an incredibly diverse mix of Chamorros and Carolinians (Saipan's native residents), other Micronesians, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Thai, Canadians, Russians, Bangladeshis, and others. These groups live together in a harmonious state of nearly total social segregation, with just a bit of overlap.
Which brings me to the downsides of island life. The one bookstore on the island is really more a gift shop than a purveyor of literature. Stray dogs and cats are everywhere, in numbers too great for the most devoted animal savior to do anything about. Spam is a most beloved local delicacy (this is not a downside to persons in favor of Spam sushi, but is quite a downside to vegetarians who are not prepared to find Spam mixed into potato salads and pastas). And again, the ethnic segregation can be astonishing. Also, and this is not de minimus (please excuse the pun): Saipan is small, very very small. Incredibly small. But it's only an hour or so from Guam, which one comes to see as something of a big city, what with its shopping malls and roads with actual names.
Overall, this clerking life on Saipan is a good tropical interlude, as much a break from the reality back in New York City as it is its own brand of real life. And at times on Saipan, we even have a notably surreal life, especially after a coconut to the head.