Wednesday, April 26, 2006

City Lights and Good Fortune

It's quite late here; I've been sitting on my couch, looking out over Nishinomiya and Kobe through my balcony windows. My apartment occupies the third floor of one of the compound buildings, and my nighttime view is a cityscape that stretches from here to the mountains. This includes five, unevenly spaced skyscrapers whose roofs are decorated with red warning lights; they pulse steadily, slightly out of time with one another. Watching them from the living room with the lights off, the effect is reminiscent of fireflies. I spend a lot of time in the evenings, sitting in my night clothes, drinking tea and watching the strange fusion of the organic and inorganic in their blinking. I'd like to be reading or studying, but I don't have the stamina. I understand the value of the work I'm doing, but it does not make it any easier to cope with the constant stress of forced interaction.

This past weekend I took a long walk through the town two stations over, closer to the mountains. It was such a relief to be out by myself exploring, to be able to control my intake of outside stimuli and just think and reflect on things... I found a path which led up the side of a mountain to the city's shrine.

To describe the atmosphere at a 'hidden' or hard to reach shrine is difficult: I find it different from that of Buddhist temples, different from mere gardens... At heart, Shinto is all about separating the polluted from the sacred, and these shrines are sacred spaces in the truest sense. They exist solely to perpetuate the sense of the sacred. They feel pure.

In Japanese there is a verb ochitsukeru -- it literally means 'to fall and stick', but translates as 'to calm down' or 'to steady oneself'. Lately, I have not felt very steady. This job -- with its constant stream of people and constant talking with no real conversational progression -- wears me down over the course of the day, so that at night I feel exposed and vulnerable and very very tired. It's as if my skin is being sloughed off with every visa I adjudicate; it leaves me raw and exposed and completely drained. To be at the shrine, even for only an afternoon, was such a blessing. Just to be quiet, to ochitsukeru... I think it was the first time I was able to achieve that in the month I've been here.

I bought a fortune (omikuji) at the shrine. It predicted kichi -- good fortune. I am hopeful that things will improve as I get more used to the demands of the job, as I make more time for the sacred and learn how to recover from this sense of over-exposure... I know that this work has value, and it's what my country needs me to do. Perhaps there is a certain sacredness in service and sacrifice. Even if it is only consular work.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Osaka! The Quick Quick Quick Version...

Any attempt to succinctly yet thoroughly explain the ins and outs of this consulate is bound to meet with failure. So I'll just ramble on for a bit and see how much I can impart.

My own section -- the consular section -- currently consists of three junior officers (myself and two others), an NIV chief, an ACS [American Citizen Services] officer, and a consular chief. The consular chief is the titular head of the section, and the NIV chief is in charge of the 3 junior officers. Right now, one of the JOs is on a rotation in the political section (so he could get at least some in-cone experience before going on a SECOND consular tour), so there are only 2 of us doing full time visa adjudication.

In this consulate there are also the Consul General (the CG; i.e., the boss), a political officer, a management officer, a public affairs officer, and a communicator (who handles any classified information we may or may not receive). We also share the building with two non-State officers. It's a small group, with all the social complexities and stresses little 'in-bred' communities contain. One officer suggested we might make a good reality TV show ('Survivor!: ConGen Osaka); I'm prone to agree. Our personality mix is not horrible, but not necessarily ideal. Everyone is very self-contained and self-sustaining. The married male officers all have Japanese spouses, which makes for an interesting dynamic on the compound (and perhaps proves my point about dating in the FS...)

To put it rather bluntly, currently the place is in a bit of systemic disrepair. The 1995 Kobe Earthquake triggered a chain of events which (apparently) still directly contributes to problems now, fully eleven years later. And the hour commute each way is a stress which only compounds things. But the CG seems sincere in his desire to improve the place, and the turn over of personnel this summer will bring in new blood, and hopefully new drive for improvement and change. I'm doing my part: I'm taking on updating arrival procedures as a project. My thought is that setting a good tone from the start will encourage incoming officers to care about making things better. I hope this is something I can do. Projects have a way of spiralling out of control as ideas become more grandiose; I want to keep things simple and achievable.

One endemic problem I've seen here is that attempts at improving things in the past have all come to naught as soon as the officer championing the cause left post. For anyone undertaking similar improvement projects, I would say first and foremost to designate a position (rather than a person) to be in charge of upkeep and maintenance of your changes. Have it written into that position's work requirements, and be specific about how often you think things should be reviewed and updated. To me, this is crucial. People tend towards entropy, and will continue along the same path for as long as possible until forced to change. Make sure your changes are structural in nature; you can't count on someone else to care enough about your project to carry it on without being forced to once you're gone.

In other news, cherry blossom season is only just winding down here. Unseasonably chill weather seems to have helped sustain the blossoms, and they've been at or near peak for a full three weeks -- an almost unheard of occurence. I was able to go to Nagoya to visit an old friend from my JET days, and had a 'hanami' (flower viewing) party there.


It was strange to have it all feel so normal: being in Japan, spending the weekend with a British friend, sitting beneath the flowers sipping beer and eating obento. Sometimes it feels like I never left. I can't decide if that's a good thing or not.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Radio Silence

My apologies for the long delay in posting -- I still don't have internet access at home, and don't particularly want to get in the habit of blogging at work (especially as my computer movements are being tracked!). However, to give you a brief idea of what I'm doing, I submit the following excerpt from an unclassified Consular Affairs cable:

----------------------------
UNCLAS STATE 035306
FOR ELOS AND CONSULAR MANAGERS FROM CA A/S MAURA HARTY

SUBJECT: PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT IN THE CONSULAR SECTION

- Visa work is challenging and the decisions you make
every day affect the well being of our country. In
addition, it is what the Department needs you to do. Your
commitment and performance is what public service is all
about. ...

- I realize that visa work may not be what attracted many
of you to the Foreign Service, but it is the crucible that
forges new and untested officers into strong officers.
Visa adjudication helps new officers learn how to handle
ambiguity, sharpens their decision-making skills, provides
opportunities to cultivate emotional self-control, and
teaches officers to become adept at reading people. All of
these skills are critical to a successful career in the
Foreign Service. I encourage you to make a deliberate
effort to cultivate them.
----------------------------

This is difficult, draining work, but not necessarily unpleasant. There are only 3 JO consular officers here at ConGen Osaka, and at the peak of the summer season we will be handling around 400 visa applications a day between us. Currently, I'm still moving very slowly (about 50 to 75 a day), but am searching for ways to improve my processing time while still treating the applicants like people. That's the hardest part of this job so far... There's a lot to memorize, and a lot of bureaucratic mess to deal with, and you can forget sometimes that the person standing in front of your window is even more clueless about the process than you are. Balancing efficiency with kindness and attentiveness is difficult, but I feel like if I ever let that balance slip, I risk becoming just another rubber-stamping, jaded bureaucrat. Cynicism is the enemy every bit as much as any intending immigrant or terrorist.

I'll talk more later, when I'm not in the office.

Have a great Foreign Service day!