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.