Sunday, March 7, 2010

True Measure of Values

First appeared in Steven's Window, a favorite column in The Weekender of The National daily newspaper of Papua New Guinea. Date: Friday 05th March 2010, p.5.

In his autobiography: The Measure of a Man, Sydney Poitier, the living legend, epitomizing the black presence in Hollywood, talks about his incredible journey from the tomato fields on Cat Island in the Bahamas to the limelight of Hollywood. Poitier recalls his simple childhood on island home: “On that tiny spit of land they call Cat Island, life was indeed very simple, and decidedly preindustrial. Our cultural “authenticity” extended to having neither plumbing nor electricity, and we didn’t have much in the way of schooling or jobs, either. In a word, we were poor, but poverty there was very different from poverty in a modern place characterized by concrete. It’s not romanticizing the past to state that poverty on Cat Island didn’t preclude gorgeous beaches and a climate like heaven, cocoa plum trees and sea grapes and cassava growing in the forest, and bananas growing wild.”

Sydney Poitier went on to be the first black actor to win the Academic Award for best actor for his outstanding performance in Lilies of the Field in 1963. His landmark films include The Defiant Ones, A Patch of Blue, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and To Sir With Love. Among his many other accolades, Poitier has been awarded the Screen Actor’s Guild’s highest honor, the Life Achievement Award, for an outstanding career and humanitarian accomplishment.

It is always refreshing to read about the life of a successful person to learn about how he or she became successful. The need to reflect on life’s unpredictable journey is the reason for Poitier to write the book. In his own words Poitier describes his reason for writing the book:

“More recently I decided to write about life. Just life itself. What I’ve learnt by living more than seventy years of it. What I absorbed through my early experiences in a certain time and place, and what I absorbed, certainly without knowing it, through the blood of my parents, and through the blood of their parents before them.

“I felt compelled to write about certain values, such as integrity and commitment, faith and forgiveness, about the virtues of simplicity, about the difference between “amusing ourselves to death” and finding meaningful pleasures—even joy. But I have no wish to play the pontificating fool, pretending that I’ve suddenly come with the answers to all life’s questions. Quite the contrary. I began this book as an exploration, an exercise in self-questioning. In other words, I wanted to find out, as I looked back at a long and complicated life, with many twists and turns, how well I’ve done at measuring up to the values I espouse, the standards I myself have set.”

Sydney Poitier remains true to his values, principles, and the standards he had set himself to live with. His humbleness and forthrightness as he would in his film roles is also the image one gains from reading the autobiography. The Poitier we follow in this book is someone who went from dishwasher in New York, on to Broadway, and to Hollywood. Sounds a simple straight forward journey, but no, as we find out from Poitier as he recounts his experiences.

What struck me about the book is the association I made to Poitier, acting as the black teacher in a whites only school in England. “Now admittedly, the young teacher I portrayed,” writes Poitier, “was the epitome of virtue. Elegant and well-spoken, intelligent and kind, he was also courageous and steadfast as he stood up to abuse and maintained his commitment to the students under his charge.” That image stayed with me for a long time. The first time I saw the film it inspired me to think of it as a real life experience.

As fate would have it I found myself in exact imitation of the film To Sir With Love when I became the first Papua New Guinean professor of English in an American university between August 2007 and May 2008. It was also the time I acquired Poitier’s autobiography. Reading the book gave me the courage to go through the experience with ease even though the challenge to remain unaffected by the high standard of education in the United States was always a constant heart beat. The experience I gained from teaching English to a class of predominantly white American students for 10 months would remain with me for a long time. The value of such uncommon experiences is that we tend to gain more positive outlook on life by veering into life’s vault to find the inspiration to reinvent ourselves.

Now, at least two years after that experience and teaching back here at the University of Papua New Guinea I reflect on that experiences as a measure of the potential professional Papua New Guineans have in the international market place. We are capable of working as professionals in our chosen fields in different parts of the world, earning respectable salaries for rendering our professional skills and intellectual labor. I was earning US three grants a fortnight, which is equivalent to about nine to ten grants a fortnight in our local currency. With that kind of salary I was able to remit money home and even afford to fly my family over to the United States for a two months holiday.

That seems more like the movies than real life experience. The salaries I receive as a national academic at UPNG is meager. In real monetary terms my fortnightly salary after tax is peanuts to say the least. Such punishing salaries force professional people on the international market scene to leave when an opportunity presents itself. I am no different to the next national academic with similar qualifications and exposure.

The sad truth about this outdated system of salaries is that many of our bright minds are poorly compensated or rewarded for their loyalty to their country and people. Our system of reward for loyalty falls short of a true measure. A sizeable number of professional Papua New Guineans are already marketing their intellectual labor at the international market.

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