Friday, May 26, 2006

High-Tech Visas

Along a totally different track, recently NPR broadcast an article which directly pertains to my current job:

Critics: High-Tech Visas Cheat U.S. Workers

If you'd like an idea of the sorts of issues we tackle everyday at the visa window, particularly here in Japan, please listen to the story. Though what the article doesn't tell you is how hard it is to revoke a petition for a job, even when the salary being offered the visa applicant is below the prevailing wage (we've seen it as low as half of Department of Labor standards). The onus is on us to prove fraud on the part of the business in these cases; since the petition has already been cleared by DHS, the applicant only has to prove she has the necessary skills and is willing to take the job, and then we're legally obligated to issue. We're trying to find ways to rectify the situation; in the case where the foreign worker was ready to take a salary at half the prevailing wage, Heather convinced him to let her put his case on hold so she could do more research into the company. Though of course, this wait time hurts the applicant more than the company -- as does the smirch of a 'refusal' in his visa record if we do get the petition revoked. It's frustrating. We see some companies essentially stocking their workforce with foreign 'trainees' being paid as little as $8/hour (justified due to 'trainee' status); for example, if you are buying dental implants in the California region, odds are they were made by low-paid Japanese trainees. It's criminal -- but legal.

And it's sad to see that we'd rather get worked up over illegal immigrants picking fruit. At least their willingness to work for pennies is keeping the price of apples down; have you seen the price of dental implants lately?


Part of my HHE arrived today -- the part that I packed out of DC; the large shipment from Hawaii is still being pawed through by the Japanese border patrol. This smaller shipment contained CDs, books, clothes, some kitchen goods... and my new computer. After wiping the dust off of the desk by my bed, I carefully placed the iMac on its center, hooked up all the wires, and stepped back to consider it for a bit. It looked very friendly. Just pushing the power button would cause a whole range of pathways to the outside world to magically present themselves: IM, video chat, skype... I left it looking hopeful and glossy while I arranged my closet and got out food for lunch. The whistle of the tea kettle was the only sound in the apartment since the lone mover bowed his way out the door. I turned off the stove, and everything was quiet again.

I find I'm feeling more contemplative lately than not; certainly not in the mood to deal with the trauma of moving between extensive outside contact and abject immediate solitude. Both of those situations require different coping mechanisms, and today I'm opting to deal with the solitude and fold up inside of myself. Once you get used to being mostly alone, it becomes harder to venture outside of your own inner confines. Sometimes it's difficult not to resent intrusions, no matter how much you long for them.

On the plus side, my inner life is getting much richer (I'm reading more, thinking more, nesting down in my own head), though perhaps to the detriment of my outside relations. I suspect this will change come summer, when more people my own age are set to arrive. Maybe by then I'll have turned on the iMac.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Literary Diversion

Finally, the Sam Houston biography is behind me, and at the suggestion of a friend, I have moved on to the Flannery O'Connor novel Wise Blood. What a pleasure to read something so beautifully written and compelling after struggling through the book club assignment!

This novel has gotten me thinking about the South, about how much I love it and love identifying myself as being from it (however disingenuous such a claim is coming from a nomadic Navy brat turned FS officer born in California). The South is a place heavy with secrets, a place desperately using the excuse of tradition to cover its shameful past like a fig leaf. There is a strong drive in the South to re-appropriate symbols towards this end: the Confederate flag, the Southern belle, the poor illiterate who seems to possess some other-worldly religious knowledge... The latter is a character often seen in novels, and a particular favorite of mine. These sorts of identities, though ultimately false, are seductive; hence my own desire to shape myself as a Southerner (though I prefer to do so following the Atticus Finch model). I suspect awareness of the darkness hidden beneath a thin veneer of assumed propriety and inscrutability is what fuels the quality of Southern authors. The South struggles with itself.

Japan actually reminds me a lot of the American South. This country, too – at the West's encouragement! – has been allowed to use tradition and some notion of congenital 'Japaneseness' to excuse itself from detailed reflection on its past. We love to see Japan as the enigmatic 'Other', so different and unknowable (yet still something an enlightened Westerner could slip into, like Tom Cruise putting on samurai armor), and Japan is only too happy to oblige. We want geisha and cherry blossoms and sliding paper screens hiding mysterious ceremonies, when the reality is electrical lines and cramped apartments and drunken business men passed out on trains. Picking and choosing from the past to create 'traditions' allows for reinvention not only of the past, but also of the present; these 'traditions' merely reflect how a society wants to imagine itself today.

I can see my friend Esther shaking her head as she reads this; questions of identity, about its construction and creation, absorbed a great deal of my attention during grad school, and she and I spent many hours discussing the notion of Self and Other over coffee at the British Library... I'm not sure why the topic fascinates me so. Perhaps it has something to do with wanting to know my own self better. Though whether or not it's the case that all interest is inherently interest in one's own self, I couldn't say.

In other news, I attended the Ambassador's book club in Tokyo. In Japanese there is a proverb: Iwanu ga hana -- literally, 'To not say is a flower' Following this advice, I only spoke twice during the dinner and subsequent book discussion; which is to say, I spoke twice during dinner, and not at all during the discussion. I spent a lot of time looking at the Ambassador's tie, which was pink with stripes and lines of little blue dolphins on it, running in alternating diagonal rows. I was quite sure that I'd seen the same tie for sale in Osaka Station, next to one I'd bought for a friend in Peru (though the one I bought was red with little baboons and bananas on it -- it made me wish I wore ties). But Heather assured me that the Ambassador only dons Versace neckwear...

Our next book is Team of Rivals, a biography of Lincoln. If you've already read it, don't tell me how it ends!

Monday, May 08, 2006

All the Best of Japanese Culture

My friend Selim came to visit from Korea. I took him to the 100 yen store, where he bought a rubber mallet. "Oh!" he said, "I've been looking for one of these." I thought it was best not to ask any questions. Here he is enjoying his mallet:

You can find anything at the 100 yen store. Truly.

Sunday, May 07, 2006


Wednesday was the beginning of a 3 day holiday here: 'Constitution Day' May 3rd, 'Children's Day' May 5th, and "As long as Wednesday and Friday are holidays, wouldn't it be nice to declare Thursday a holiday, too?" May 4th (this is actually mandated by national law; you gotta love Japan). Traditionally, this is the absolute busiest travel time for the Japanese, as everyone takes advantage of the extended vacation to push their way through rib-crushingly jam-packed tourist attractions and historical sites. Not wanting to miss out on the fun, I decided to travel back to my Japanese hometown in Okayama Prefecture.

Truthfully, I was rather terrified about going back. Sometimes to be in Japan is to be in some strange limbo, in-between past and present, with memory and certainty running together in a way that is not always comfortable. The 3 hour bus ride to Tsuyama from the Osaka Station is one I had done many times when I was living here before, and it was always an emotional time for me: returning from dropping someone off at the airport, coming back myself from a trip to see my family in Guam, and -- particularly memorably -- boarding for the reverse course, watching Tsuyama grow smaller and smaller, and sobbing uncontrollably as I left that old life 'forever'. To return felt so strange and disconnected from anything I'm doing now. Travelling through the countryside at dusk, memories started coming back to me -- slowly at first, then faster and more vividly, till I felt as if I was being battered. Suddenly I was 21 again, then back to 27, now 23, shuttling back and forth in an uneasy arc across time. I wanted to ask the driver to pull over and let me off, so I could run and hide my face somewhere until the forcefulness of it passed. Instead, I plugged in my iPod, and willed myself to calm down.

In Japanese, there are two words for 'to return': modoru, which is a more generic verb for 'to go back', and kaeru, which means specifically 'to return to one's place of origin'. When I walked back into my Japanese parents' sushi bar, they smiled and said,

"Ah, Katie. Kaettekita."

"Ah, Katie. You've come home."

Monday, May 01, 2006

無茶 in Wakayama

One of the advantages of being at a small post is increased opportunites for experiencing more diplomatic situations and customs -- seeing more of how the Foreign Service actually works. In that spirit, the Consul General graciously invited me to accompany him on a courtesy call to Wakayama prefecture.

Courtesy calls were something unfamiliar to me, but the basic structure is this:

1. we show up in the official (i.e., large and armor-plated) consulate vehicle.

2. as we enter the city hall / prefectural hall, the staff claps and bows. The CG takes this all in stride; I scuttle along behind, rather embarrassed. Has anyone noticed that my suit is a size too big, or that the worn-through white spots on the heels of my boots need to be colored in with black marker - again?

3. the governor / mayor / important local someone greets us and has us come into his conference room where we ceremonially exchange business cards; the CG engages in pleasant small talk; I sit dumbly next to him, nodding politely, and praying that I will not be asked any direct questions, especially as the CG keeps telling people I'm fluent. I try to blanche a bit each time he says this, lest anyone think it's true. I don't have to try very hard.

4. the secretary brings in tea and a Japanese sweet. I am very thirsty, but no one else is drinking. The tea is just sitting there, getting cold... the sweet is languishing on the plate. Being brave, I venture a hand towards the cup, but then think better of it and pull back. Finally, the governor drinks from his cup, then the CG from his, and then I feel confident enough to sip mine. This is, of course, a mistake; the tea goes down the wrong way, and I am immediately overtaken by a horrible coughing fit, which I struggle to suppress. I vow to never drink tea again. The sweet can just keep languishing.

5. after 10 or 15 minutes, we rise to depart. Despite having contributed nothing more than a bad suit and spasmatic wheezing, I am presented with a gift -- though of course, not a gift as large as the one given the CG. In return, we give them wine. Bowing bowing pleasantries pleasantries more clappping as we beat a hasty retreat. Or at least, I'm hasty; the CG is purposeful. That's why he's the CG, and I'm the lackey carrying the gifts.

6. back in the hulking goliath that is the consulate car, the CG explains that this sort of thing needs to be done occasionally to make sure that when things like ship visits happen, we already have an open relationship established with the officials who'll be involved. I nod. He takes off his jacket, so I take off mine. See, everyone is relaxed and comfortable here behind these bullet-proof windows, being chauffeured about by some poor FSN who surely has better things to do with his time... I'm -- yet again -- questioning my choice of careers...

After I got over my initial discomfort, however, the CG and I had a nice talk during the one and 1/2 hour drive back to the consulate. I respect him a lot more now than I did; not that I didn't before, but now he seems more human to me, and as such I'm more impressed with how he handles himself. We made two more stops before going home, which I won't go into. But suffice it to say that I'm pretty sure the CG has gotten the idea that I'm far from fluent... as has Governor Kimura.

That night, I wrote down the visit in my list of extracurricular activities I was told to keep for when EER (evaluation) time comes around. Then I hung up a quilt my mom made for me before I left for DC. The wooden slat I found to support it was about 2 feet too long, so I sawed it off with the bread knife provided in the welcome kit. I won't tell if you won't.