A Culture of One

The following is an inaugural article of a new Tia Belau op-ed column  “Ak kora di melekoi (I’m just saying)… by Gaafar Uherbelau —- 

It was about three years ago at the Belau National Hospital when I heard a woman complain about the cost of her daughter’s medical bill, which she had no choice but to pay. A few minutes later, at a nearby store, the same lady with daughter in hand came in while I was paying for gas. The little girl went to the fridge and got a can of juice and pulled on her mom’s shirt for her approval. She scolded the little girl and told her it was too expensive and that she’d already spent her money paying for her hospital bill. She then turned to the cashier and asked for two packs of cigarettes.

It seems to me that this lady’s priorities are somehow reversed. She is treating her daughter’s medical expense as a “want” that could’ve and should’ve been avoided and is viewing her cigarettes as absolute needs that require mandatory purchasing.

In his book entitled “The Tipping Point”, author Malcolm Gladwell talks about a study conducted by two New York City psychologists on the “bystander problem”. In their findings they reveal that when one individual sees an accident or notices a critical situation, they would immediately react to solve the problem or assist in the situation. However, when those same situations are presented to groups of people, their willingness to react decreased dramatically. They concluded that the more witnesses there are to these situations, the less likely the witnesses react. This is because they either assume that someone else will react or that since no one is reacting then the situation is really not a situation at all.

I see this “bystander problem” more apparent nowadays in Palau, especially within Koror and its hamlets where a lot of different people are situated. An example of this is evident in places where underage kids publicly consume alcohol and tobacco without reprimand from adults who witness them. This is where the bystander problem kicks into effect causing the adults to assume that someone else will scold the kids. This wouldn’t have been the case twenty or thirty years ago.

These, in my opinion, are example of how our priorities and attitudes as individuals have changed in unison with globalization and the so called westernization of our lifestyles. Although it’s plainly obvious that our health indicators are deteriorating, yet we continue to neglect the truth, favoring what we want over our basic daily needs. And although this attitude is not held by all Palauans, it is apparent that some aspects of it are socially contagious. This change in attitude has created a great disparity between our traditional culture and our current day lifestyle. Unfortunately, I think this clash between the old and the new creates for us scenarios that encourage us to become more democratically self-centered and less cohesive as Palauans.

Maybe we need to take a step back not as a whole nation, not as a people but individually and take a long, hard look at the realities we face in our lives today. Maybe we can try and identify what we can change in our individual lives that could help improve the lives of others and ultimately our nation. Maybe we all have the same intentions but never practice them because we assume that “society” thinks otherwise.

I believe that if our traditions, culture and lifestyles cannot keep us healthy, happy, accepting and generous, then we need them to change. I do not believe that we are defined by our culture. I do believe however that it is our individual choices and beliefs that define the Palauan culture. After all, what is Palauan culture but Palauan? I’m just saying…

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