Monday, December 31, 2007

Hot Asian Girl on Girly-Man Action

Vanessa and I bought our Japanese teacher a Christmas present: a calendar of her favorite Korean actor Bae Yong Joon -- affectionately known as "Yon-sama" to his Japanese fan-base, primarily 50 year old housewives. I delivered it to her before the start of my last lesson. Sensei let out a slight gasp when she saw the calendar's cover, becoming uncharacteristically subdued. "May... may I open it?" I nodded consent. She reverently turned back the pages, fingering the images in a way that was slightly unwholesome. "Have you seen 'Winter Sonata'?" she asked tremulously, referring to one of his most popular TV dramas. She had paused over an image of Yon-sama wearing a suit with an exaggerated cinched waist, holding his necktie up to his lips. The next page showed him in the same suit, but with a more whimsical look, one hand to his ear, tie removed, straggles of hair pulled over one shoulder. "Actually, I saw it in America," I told her, replacing the term 'actually' in my mind with 'sadly'. Vanessa had protested this calendar purchase as being somehow insulting to females everywhere. "Just look at that! He's a woman!" And looking at it now closer, it was rather difficult to detect any stirrings of testosterone beneath the little glasses and lipstick. The cinched waist was clearly meant to accentuate the androgeny, and was rather effective in achieving that goal.

"Katie, you don't like this type, do you?" "Well..." I hated to insult Sensei -- she had actually been on special Yon-sama tours to Korea, and this calendar certainly wasn't the first Yon-sama product for her to own -- but I really don't think I could have come up with any plausible white lie at that point. "He's a little... girly for my taste. What is it you find so attractive about him?" "Yon-sama just seems so kind, so fair." She was allowing herself a few more moments of idol worship before putting the calendar away. "I think he'd be fair even to an old woman like me."

Wednesday, December 26, 2007


We had a small toy drive for Christmas, and I was surprised to be asked to go along to the orphanage to help with the distribution. After making a presentation of the toys (in which I was alternately addressed as the GSO's "friend" and "wife," I don't think they ever grasped that I was working at the consulate), we stayed to play.

Japanese children are rather brutally honest. Or at least, brutally inquisitive. I patiently explained to one six year old boy with a very well developed mustache that, yes, one could travel from the United States to Japan without stopping anywhere, but not by train. "Say this is the Earth..." I picked up a soccer ball and pointed to a black pentagon. "This is Japan." And to a pentagon on the opposite side. "This is the United States. So you can fly from here to here, direct flight. But you have to fly, because trains don't go across the ocean." "Yeah, but don't you have to change somewhere?" This was clearly of high concern to him; he furrowed his brow in an impressive display of youthful pensiveness. "No, you don't have to change, but it takes a long time. I've done it lots." "Show me again." I picked up the ball again and got closer to him. "See, this is Japan..."

"Older Sister, why do you have blue eyes?" I actually hadn't been expecting this question; the orphanage is run by foreign nuns, and they have regular visits by US soldiers. This couldn't have been the first time he'd seen blue eyes. I started to say that my father also had blue eyes, but then thought that maybe parents weren't a good topic to bring up at an orphanage. So I settled with, "I was born like this." He didn't seem very satisfied. "Why do you have brown eyes?" I asked. He leveled the same at me and shrugged. "Because I'm a normal person."

This sounded so reasonable, yet somehow so damning. It certainly didn't leave much room for argument. I was struggling to formulate a diplomatic response ("I might not be 'normal', but I am a person."..?), when he broke into a huge grin. "Wanna play 'ogre-up-high'? You're it!" Every child within earshot shrieked and raced for the 'up-high' safe zone of the playground slide while he danced away, just out of arm's reach. As the ogre, I chased him about until it was time to go.

I couldn't stop thinking about this interaction for the longest time. I still haven't come up with a good reply.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Ah, the Internet

A friend just wrote to let me know that this blog was quoted on an immigration lawyer's website forum. Part of me is highly amused. I can't wait for my next applicant to show up at the window with a box of chocolates and a sympathetic expression, saying "Now, I understand from speaking with my lawyer that this job is sometimes draining, but I hope I can still get my visa by tomorrow. Why, yes, I've already bought tickets despite extensive warnings on your website not to do so before the visa is in my hands... but weren't those warnings just expressions of your inner frustration? I feel your pain."

While it may be hard to believe, my everyday ups and downs don't actually have any bearing on US law, or on the mechanisms of physically producing visas. And that's as it should be.

Just something to keep in mind, no matter whose blog you're reading.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Three days into my return from Hong Kong, and I'm still hacking. China's oil demand hangs rather (too) palpably in the air; my lungs feel as if I've been sucking on the business end of a hairdryer, and not one of those fancy models with the 'ions' either. I can't imagine what it's like just over the border. Funny that a communist country would display the worst effects of rampant capitalism.

Still, the city itself is fun. I think Vanessa put it best: "It's like one big Chinatown." If Japan and Vietnam had a baby... it would be Hong Kong. The best part? By far, the food. That and, "Vanessa, do you hear that sound?" (cue the muffled click-click-click of tile on tile -- something akin to a nest full of angry bakelite hornets) "That's mah jongg!" I think I was actually a little teary eyed for a bit there. Right up until I tried to sneak a picture of the players. No, they weren't so into that.

In addition to a lot of dim sum, I also ate this:

Blue (non-berry) food might be a first for me.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Facebook is a man-eating jungle waiting to suck out your soul

Wow. I had no idea there was an internet application that could take up more time than a blog.

I've spent the past hour tagging unattractive photos of myself from my sister's page, and trying to get the space under the "In a Relationship with..." drop down box to read "no one -- but I just bought David Lynch's 'Wild at Heart' soundtrack, so that's sure to change at any moment." No joy.

If I don't get Christmas cards sent out this year, it'll all be Mark Zuckerburg's fault.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Managing Up

Yesterday we had a retirement party for our longest serving NIV FSN*: this marked the end of a 32 year, 7 month, and 17 day career. She told me her earliest memory of working at the consulate was fingerprinting Vietnamese refugees in order to register them after the war. She remembers the CG back when he had my job, on his first tour. I was born sometime in between those two events.

"All if it was fun, all of it was enjoyable. Who knows, Katie -- maybe you'll have a 30 year career, too." Hmm. Perhaps. I'm not sure that I want to try and imagine myself at that age. "How do you feel?" I asked her. "Are you sad?" She smiled slyly. "This morning I woke up when it was still dark, got on the train with all the crowd... I'll never have to do that again."

Earlier in the week the DCM happened to come down from the embassy and did a walk-through of the consulate. He asked her how many FSOs she'd trained during her 30 plus years. Dozens, I would think. I have a lot of respect for the FSNs, putting up with all of us while we come and go. It must be hard to always know more than your boss, to have to re-learn management styles every two to three years, and to suffer through all the transitions and upgrades and 'bright ideas'. It makes any sort of FSO managerial role a tricky one. You need to be the one in charge, but you can't be stupid about it. I was thinking about it the morning of the party, while proctoring the FS Written Exam. I remember taking it myself in London, and being so utterly clueless about what the job would entail at the time. I'm still pretty clueless about a lot of it. I tried to picture the test takers working in our office; I tried to picture how the FSNs would feel about having one as a boss. Back at my desk, an email from the management section arrived, reminding me to turn in some forms so that they can get started on planning my transfer.

I hope I'm doing a good job here. And I hope I do a better job next time.

We're hiring to fill an FSN position, if anyone's interested.

*This is the second FSN to quit the NIV section on my watch; probably something I did.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Osaka Perspective

Last Friday while changing money I chatted with the consular cashier. "Where are you going for the long weekend?" he wanted to know. I told him Catherine and I were planning to travel an hour out of Tokyo to Nikkou to visit shrines, sit in an onsen, and look at the autumn leaves. "It's my first time to go north of Tokyo; you must have been there before, though." "Oh no," he paused while opening the safe. "That's so far away for those of us living in Kansai." Surprised, I mulled this over. "Are you going anywhere this weekend?" I asked him. "Sure," he said, now laying out the cash. "I'm going to Korea."

Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Fine Visa Moment

Today I interviewed two slightly older women. Pretty routine P visa, previous issuances... "What do you play?" I asked the one. Guitar. "And you?" Drums. "So are you guys a group? What are you called?" Shonen Knife. Shonen Knife! I could feel myself getting all flush. "Really? You're Shonen Knife?" What do you say? I called Vanessa over to the window. "Um, Vanessa, I'm interviewing Shonen Knife." Or sort of interviewing. More just fawning. They were gracious enough to be mildly embarrassed.

This so made up for Todd getting to interview the hot dog eating contest winner.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Nice Try

"Tomo, I was thinking: when we speak in Japanese, I'm at a disadvantage. When we speak in English, you're at a disadvantage. What we need is some third common language to put us on equal footing. Don't you think that's a good idea?"

"Katie, I'm not learning Arabic."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Halloween, Take Two

You know it's a good Halloween when the pumpkin is too heavy to carry to the car.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Green-Eyed Irrationality

The other day I called my sister to update her on my exciting overseas lifestyle. Turned out she had recently been bitten by a blackwidow, and had decided to just 'ride it out'. She had a week long drama to report about the physiological effects of creeping neurotoxins. This was so much more interesting than anything going on in my life, I really couldn't think of an even halfway equivalent response to the question "So what's up with you?" ("Um, they installed our 10 print scanners this week... That's kinda cool.")

On the email side, a friend of mine wrote to report on her bid list. Her big worry? NOT getting to go to Iraq. This struck a weird pang of envy, since Iraq is one of the places I'm no longer allowed to be stationed... I've been told repeatedly how happy this particular exclusion ought to make me. And yet...

Today I took a step back and considered how ridiculous it is that being bit by a blackwidow while living in a warzone is something I'd apparently cherish. I've got a speech in Nagoya tomorrow; maybe I'll be attacked by a bear or something. That'd be awesome.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


Well, I can report that giving yourself a shot is not as bad as it could be. I'm not saying it's a good time, but it's not going to earn me any hardship points. Actually, much worse than the act itself is the stress of fretting and anticipating and dreading the act. It's hard to parse out what part of the physical reaction surrounding the shots is MS, what part is side effects, and what part is unadulterated "'hold it like a pencil and plunge it into my leg like a dart'? are you insane?"-ness. Disassociation is your friend. That and setting out the syringe before you go to work, so that when you get home at 8 or 9, you don't then have to wait 4 hours for the medicine to reach room temperature while you pretend to do a jigsaw puzzle. That's the longest 4 hours of your young adult life, in case you were wondering.

3 times a week for the rest of my life. Flu-like side effects should be temporary, they tell me. A few months at most.

Two things I hate about this:

1. It's so wasteful. 3 syringes a week plus all the packaging is a lot of plastic; seems like there ought to be some way to recycle it.

2. It's a great invitation to self-pity. One which I fairly readily accepted. I don't want to talk about it, but I REALLY want to talk about it, and so I end up just not talking to anyone at all. About anything.

Anyways, I'm working on #2. As for #1... maybe I'll write some letters.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

It's So Hard Being Japanese

Recently, the Kansai passport renewal office accidentally canceled someone's unexpired US visa in the process of voiding her expired passport. As she was set to travel shortly thereafter, the passport office called the consulate asking if we couldn't issue her a replacement visa a little quicker than routine. Luckily, we were able to accommodate her, and she got her visa in time for her flight. I can't say I thought much of it. These things happen.

The next day, a huge box of fancy ricecrackers appeared on the lunch table. The FSNs explained that the head of the passport office had personally come to the consulate to apologize for his section's grave error, offering the ricecrackers as a hopelessly inadequate token of his profound remorse. He deeply regretted that I'd been unavailable, but had left his card should I wish to call him back in and allow him the honor of scraping and bowing in my actual presence. Deeming the high quality of the ricecrackers to be evidence of his sincere contrition, I told the FSNs that likely wouldn't be necessary.

Five minutes later, another of our FSNs walked in, nervously shifting a package under his arm. Turned out that the head of the passport office also happened to be his wife's uncle, and so had felt compelled to go the FSN's house and personally apologize to him as well. "Ricecrackers?" I asked hopefully. "No, youkan." He held the box out in front of him, embarrassed. "Would you like some? I'm not really such a fan."

I suspect this may obligate us to add the passport office to our list of year end gratuity receivers, but I'll let the FSNs work out that particular social intricacy.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Fuzzy Math

So, now we're going from 2 prints required for a visa application, to 10 prints required for a visa application. I can imagine the conversation that led to this decision: "Hey, if two prints makes us secure, TEN prints will make us FIVE TIMES as secure!" "Yeah, yeah -- that's good! Constituents love security!"

So, does fingerprinting visa applicants make us more secure? Hard to say. 'Security' is one of those words that is used to mean so many things, it ends up meaning nothing. Same with 'terrorism'. You have to work to really pin down what the person is trying to signify. Just how would you go about quantifying security? When is one able to say, "Yes, I am, in fact, secure."? I can say that fingerprinting applicants is an excellent way to catch visa fraud. But I'm not so sure that 10 prints instead of 2 prints will make catching visa fraud 5 times as likely.

Retinal scans, however... that's where the REAL money is. Write your congressmen.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


The heat of the day is like a weight, so I take my adventures in the evening; 9:30 at night, and it still feels like biking through pineapple juice, the air forming a second skin on my body that lifts up and off whenever I coast down a hill. I find myself pedaling up slopes just to turn and rush back down them, molting the summer weather. Sated cicadas rattle the porch in their death throes, droning out an elegy for the season. Convenience store fireworks flare on every corner. My jeans stick to my knees as I pedal and pedal and pedal...

I had been warned about 'short timers disease' setting in -- this is something like the FS version of 'senioritis'. It creeps up on you slowly. It dawns on you that the time you've been here far outweighs the time you have left. Someone mentions a future event, and you realize you'll be gone before it happens. You go to see a place, and wonder if you'll ever get a chance to come back. You start to feel unsettled. You get on your bike and you pedal and pedal and pedal, but you're not really sure where you're going.

I don't want to waste my time on this feeling.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Selfish Thoughts

August 6th. You forget about it sometimes. I didn't think about it at all today until lunch, when the japanese nationalists started to noise bomb the consulate. 'Gosh, they're awfully persistent today,' I was thinking. Then I recalled the date. Of course, of course...

I remember a conversation I had with one of my high school students back in Tsuyama. Japan shouldn't have a military he told me. No country should go ever go to war. I considered this for a while. "Yuuichi, do you know that if Japan is ever attacked, my father will come and fight for you? Do you know that my father would die for your country?' Yuuichi was shocked. "I didn't know." He put down his chopsticks and looked at his half-eaten bentou. "Is it true?"

It is.

But maybe that's a selfish thing to think about on the anniversary of the bomb.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


At the supermarket, I came across Vanessa in the snacks aisle. "Pocky or Pretz..?" she pondered. Then with a resigned sigh, she reached up and tumbled a box of each into her basket. "Oh, why not both?"

I always did like Vanessa.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Grasshopper, You Too Can Be a PD Officer

In addition to my NIV Chiefdom (may it reign in perpetuity), I've also been asked to be the go-to person for the Public Affairs Section.* No real reason, except that the summertime shuffle of personnel left them temporarily a bit short, and being (in theory) a PD coned officer, it is presumed that I will have some intuitive knowledge of the field. This is not, in fact, the case. Luckily, PAS is content for the most part to carry on for these few weeks without my direct involvement. Though I have been asked to make a couple of speeches.

The speeches are for an audience of american high school exchange students and their japanese high school counterparts. The Americans speak almost no Japanese; the Japanese speak almost no English. American high schoolers are trained to loudly and repeatedly offer their opinions even when unsolicited (the less kind might say 'unwanted'); japanese high schoolers are trained to sit like lumps, and to confer with their classmates when confronted with difficult questions such as 'Do you like hamburgers?'. American high schoolers value cynicism; japanese high schoolers value naivety. The japanese organizers of this cultural exchange weekend asked me to give a one hour lecture in 'easy English' to this audience. I talked them into a 15 minute speech, with time at the end for discussion. This translated into a one hour talk and 'workshop' in their official program notes. Well, aim high, I always say.

Having taught in japanese high schools for two years, I know the secret to enlivening a room full of forty silent, sailor-suited Nihonjin (pratfalls); I am less clear on the method of subduing a room full of sixteen year old Americans (cudgels?). Realizing beforehand that the whole thing would pretty much be a wash, I decided to go for the PowerPoint 'True or False?' quiz approach, where the answers were oh-so hilariously contrary to expectation. A sample:

And thus cultural exchange and mutual understanding are advanced. There was also a question and answer session involving chocolate.

I'm considering applying a similar model to my next visa speech. "True or False: It's alright to live with your fiance on a B2 visa, so long as you plan to return to Japan at the end of your four month wait to do the final processing for the IV. False! But here's a Snickers bar..."

*According to Sun Tsu's The Art of War, "If [a commander] sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak." Indeed.

Monday, July 30, 2007


Ah yes, it's my favorite holiday again:

This year, the beef industry tried to make a move on the market. I don't really see this working out for them, though:

Thursday, July 12, 2007

I Just Work Here

During a recent brown bag lunch, one of the mission's summer interns asked the CG how he handled representing and espousing government policies with which he might not necessarily agree. It's a pretty common question, and I suppose we all struggle with it (in fact, when you do visas, you are occasionally required to actually implement government laws with which you might not agree). But sometimes I wonder if the underlying assumption of the question itself is not flawed.

Why is it that we assume only those people employed by the government are responsible for the government's actions? It's a strange idea, really; you wouldn't hold the lowest ranking member of a ship responsible for the actions of its captain. In the strictest sense, I didn't choose to work for George Bush; I chose to work for America. In my capacity as a public employee, I think I'm probably the least culpable for what any administration does. Katie the visa officer is not often solicited for her opinions on policy by the powers that be.

Which brings me to the more important point: while Katie the visa officer is never asked to give input to the government, Katie the private citizen is constantly provided avenues to influence decision making in DC. The United States is a democracy; the administration is not in charge, we are! The question the intern posed to the CG ought to be a question he asks himself. It ought to be a question all Americans ask themselves. I don't wonder how I can allow myself to work for a government administration; I wonder why I allow them to keep working for me.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Plastic Torpedo Tube of Imminent Death

Is it undiplomatic of me to say that I think Japan's medical establishment sucks? Here is an actual question from a form my most recent MRI-giving hospital had me fill out before the doctor would see me:

If your condition is serious, would you like to be informed?
a. yes
b. no
c. not if it's malignant
d. please discuss things with my family instead of with me

How do people who check anything but a. on this questionnaire sleep at night?! Even if there was truly nothing wrong with you, wouldn't you always wonder whether or not the reassurance from your physician that 'you just need a little rest' was the medical equivalent of 'time to arrange your will'? I'm not sure the standard ignorance is bliss equation holds in this particular regard.

With that comforting introduction, I embarked on what was my 5th or 6th MRI; like snowflakes, each one is unique and special. This hospital's MRI tech wanted to cover me up with a blanket, and just before sliding my prone form into the machine, concluded the normal litany of instructions with "Oh, and try not to swallow." What? For 20 minutes? As my mouth filled with gag-inducing saliva and the heat of the blanket began to make my arms go numb and twitchy, I realized I was beginning to panic. Feeling I had to move some part of my body to prevent an embarrassing vomiting and/or bed-wetting scene, I opened my eyes. Very clearly I could see a set of long, parallel scratches on the 'ceiling' above me: claw marks. You know that scene from 'Silence of the Lambs' where the senator's daughter discovers a red-painted fingernail embedded in the side of the pit's rock wall..? Wow. I had to ask for a five minute break before going back in the tube for round two.

Next disease I get, it's gonna be from hard living.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

It's Just Visas...

There's a local coffee chain I go to every so often, just down the street from the consulate. They become really packed during the lunch hour. People get frazzled, particularly the counterstaff. At 12:30 you could always spot the manager sweating behind the register, glasses slightly askew, rumpled hair and uniform conveying a low-level stress that bordered on mild panic. His tension radiated out over the entire store. As a customer, you felt the only proper response to the pressure was to slap money on the counter as you hurriedly uttered your order, then grab the coffee they thrust at you as you were veritably pushed out the door by the other people in line. A rather stressful environment.

But on my last visit, I realized they'd had a change in management. The store is still every bit as packed, but this new manager is unflappable. I watched as he smilingly but firmly told a disappointed customer that they were out of what she wanted, and smoothly suggested something else. Taking orders and making change, this new manager was efficient, yet unrushed. The line might be long, but he's not panicked or harried. And why? Because... it's just coffee. No need for all the drama. The waitstaff is calmer; the customers are more relaxed.

This man is my hero.

So on Friday, when the Consular Chief came to me asking about the backlog, wanting to know when we'd up the numbers... I told him we'd do it when we were ready. And when he said someone had called complaining that there were no open appointments until mid-July, I said perhaps that person should consider applying in Tokyo where they seem to be fully staffed. Because the goal here is not to be martyrs. And because we're working very hard with the resources we have, more than meeting the '100 interviews per officer per day' guidelines of the State Department. Because at summer's end, I'd rather brag about how well we managed ourselves than how back-breakingly high our numbers were. And because you know what: it's just visas. No need for all the drama.

You forget sometimes.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Training Wills

It's amusing seeing all of our reactions to a new consular officer on the line. Everyone has advice to confer, wisdom to impart, opinions to offer... One of the frustrations of this job is feeling you should be an expert when you're not; few things are more humiliating than having to turn and ask an FSN for clarification of some part of the FAM at the window, or being informed by a lawyer (or applicant!) that you've completely overlooked some section of the law. You spend a lot of your time feeling stupid. So when someone new arrives full of questions, how wonderful to suddenly be able to display a certain level of expertise, even if it seldom amounts to more than, "Ah, well to enter remarks in a case, try pushing this button..." (self-assured applause all around).

More than just that, however; anyone who's been on the line for any length of time develops her or his own personal philosophy about consular work: a theory about the 'right' way to speak to applicants; the 'correct' way to adjudicate certain types of cases; the 'proper' way to handle personnel problems. And of course, you'd like for the newcomer to see the inherent sense in your way of doing things. So there's a rush to share your views before other people have a chance to adulterate the person with theirs. It can get tense. Which style will the new officer choose? Whose camp will she or he fall into? Not that any of us really care, of course, you understand... Of course we're all above that. Of course.

I'm not any different in this regard.* Being overly self-certain is a constant problem for me, and I try mightily to qualify my tutorial comments with '...but this is just my opinion'; '...though you'll develop your own way of doing things.'; '...certainly none of this is set in stone.' I'm not sure that it comes across as terribly sincere. Probably because it likely is not terribly sincere. Come sit on my knee, Telemachus, and let Mentor tell you a story about non-immigrant visas. Did you bring a bag big enough to hold all my pearls of wisdom?

*Shocking, I know.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


Summer is the season of high visa demand. It's also the season of State Department officer turn-over. The two together do not make for a particularly good time. Between farewell parties and welcome lunches, staffing gaps and training periods, the pressure of a room full of sweating, overheated applicants feels just that much more intense.

At the end of this month, we'll be short one person in the NIV section; at the end of next month, we'll be short two people in the consular section as a whole. I'm not concerned about getting the interviewing done; we're a capable group, the incoming officer should catch on quickly, and applicant numbers are a bit down anyways. But there are no back-ups. I worry about people getting sick. More specifically, I worry about me getting sick. I've finally come to terms with things enough to want to push ahead with the MS medication, but have already been told it will make me feel as if I have the flu. I don't think it's true that any one person is indispensable, but I'd rather not ask the two other people on the line to put my theory to the test... At the end of last month, an unexpected shortage of hands helped me to achieve my all time high for most number of interviews in a day: 190. I don't want this to become the norm for anyone. But I also don't want to put off the meds any longer. I'm not entirely sure how this is all going to work out.

By a somewhat less than fortuitous coincidence, the staffing gap means that I'm supposed to be 'in charge' of the NIV unit until the new NIV chief arrives in January. I suspect this is going to require many more phone calls to the NIV chief in Tokyo (who I'm sure already cringes every time she sees my name on her caller ID...). This is also requiring I put in a lot of overtime: 11 hours just this past week. Working on the training schedule for the new incoming officer (set to arrive Monday, bless him), I found by about 8:30pm or so the words were running together on the computer screen. Earlier in the work day -- at the second of what will eventually be four goodbye parties -- Sara asked why I looked upset. I was trying very hard not to be upset, much less look it. Holding parties is important to her, and she'd been up late herself preparing for this one; I wanted to honor her efforts (and our departing colleagues) by attending. But the truth was that eating pizza and being asked to make small-talk when I had work to do work to do work to do was making me incredibly tense. Those are the times when I'm the most disappointed in myself: relationships ought to be more important than writing schedules, organizing meeting minutes, adjusting appointment numbers... Yet even knowing that, I can't take my focus off of those trivial things, and it always shows. It makes me feel less than human somehow. At least I know now that quitting the FS to become a professional poker player is not a good option. Maybe 'Enjoy parties' would be a nice 'Area of Improvement' on my next EER.

As things at work are not going to slacken, I try to think less about escaping the current situation than about what I do and don't want to come out of this situation. I don't want to play the martyr. Talking to a friend in Seoul (we're trying to arrange a post-to-post exchange), she mentioned that the summer rush was putting a crimp in their morale. It was a good reminder that -- at every post all over the world without exception -- no one is exempt from overtime, everyone is understaffed, all offices are going through turn-over... My situation isn't unique by any means. I don't want to whine about it; it's unproductive, and moreover it's unwarranted. But I'm surprised at how casually this sort of strain is accepted as the norm, and how little effort is put into trying to improve upon the flawed systems that produce it. My greatest hope is that at least some of what I'm doing will make the job less burdensome for the people who follow me. And maybe even less burdensome for the people around me now.

And I hope those same people won't mind that I'm skipping the final goodbye party to go biking along the river. Part of not being a martyr is knowing your limits.

Monday, June 04, 2007


"Good Morning, first I'd like to take your fingerprints. Would that be alright?"


"If you'll just put your left index finger on the red light..."

"[. . .]"

"Ma'am, your LEFT index finger..."

"Uh, I... I English, no..."

"You don't speak English?"

[Emphatic head shaking]

"Oh, that's too bad. If only you spoke English, we could talk to each other."

"[. . .]"



"I speak Japanese; I'm speaking to you in Japanese."


"Now, can you put your left index finger on the light? And then your right? Okay, thank you. So, a student visa. What's your major?"


"[. . .]"

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Himalayas on $230 a Day

Shortly after my return from APEC, I received an email from Catherine saying how anxious she was to travel somewhere, anywhere... Without thinking too much about it, I replied with the suggestion that we take a trip together sometime. 10 seconds later the phone rang. "Hello..?" "Let's go to Nepal." "Oh, hi Catherine -- I just sent you an email." "I know. Do you want to go to Nepal?" "Nepal? I can't go to Nepal;" (memories of climbing the last 50 feet of Mt. Fuji on my hands and knees, brain batting wildly against my skull...) "I get horrible altitude sickness." "Oh. Then how about Bhutan?" I had some vague sense of Bhutan being in Nepal's general vicinity*, but Catherine's enthusiasm is very persuasive. So, taking advantage of Japan's long string of national holidays, last week we went. Lucky for me, modern medical science has devised an altitude sickness prevention pill.

Since returning, I've tried in vain to write something intelligent about our trip. Every attempt I make comes out sounding hackneyed, though maybe that has something to do with the nature of the place -- being there was like listening to a Loreena McKennitt album: pleasant and moving, but you begin to wonder if you aren't being lulled into a false sense of feeling. Bhutan is careful in its dealings with the outside world. Only 6000 tourists are allowed in a year, and the country's fear of becoming a backpackers' mecca means that you pay dearly for the privilege: minimum $200 a day, more for groups of fewer than four people, with the requirement that you be led by a guide. The restrictions assure that most visitors are well-off retirees traveling in large groups, willing to be bussed to festivals and government-authorized craft shops where they can freely spend their foreign money to Bhutan's best advantage. Our time there was thus carefully circumscribed; the country strives to engineer things so that you have a 'perfect' experience. It's travel without the rough edges. But personally speaking, I like a little chaffing from a place.

Because of this, the times in Bhutan I enjoyed the best were those times I was able to overcome my tourist status to some extent -- when I slipped away from the festival dances to walk idly around a village; when the restaurant was full and we instead ate in the kitchen where the inebriated housekeeper was singing and dancing as she prepared the meal; when a native resident we had met on the plane invited us to sample bhutanese alcohol in the guest room of a home... At those moments, I felt I was making contact. Travel without contact is just a pretty picture show.

Pausing at a bend in the road during a walk through the countryside, children clamored to talk with us. Only one little girl was quiet. Smiling assuredly, warmly, she reached up to put her hand in my hair. The gesture was casual and intimately confident, small fingers smoothing down strands the wind had blown over my shoulder with a level of genuine affection that was disarming: curiosity without guile or defense. So often that sort of action makes you feel like an object, but this was such a human gesture that it managed to be inclusive. It was heart-stopping. I felt so in love with her.

I can understand Bhutan's reticence to fully embrace the foreign element wishing to enter the country; Bhutan wants modernity, but on its own terms. The king -- fourth in a monarchical line elected to power by the country in 1907 -- speaks not of GNP, but rather GNH: 'Gross National Happiness'. Against the wishes of the country, he has decreed that the monarchy will relinquish power in 2008, at which point Bhutan will become a parliamentary democracy. To hear people talk of their discomfort at the change is surprising, more so in that the complaints are reasonable and sincere. Things are working, the country is making progress, and democracy is seen as a sort of Pandora's Box with the potential to ruin it all. But the king is firm, and they have already held practice elections. I hesitate to sing the praises of democratic reform to these people, though I suppose as an American in this line of work it's almost my duty. Instead, I tell them that if handled responsibly -- i.e., coupled with education and involvement -- democracy has great potential for good. Television was only just allowed in Bhutan in 1999; mostly it looks to be the same vacuous entertainment you get in the US. But during our trip one teenage boy stopped Catherine to ask her about a discussion concerning the Iraq War he heard on CNN. His questions were thoughtful and articulate. Maybe democracy will be accepted in the same manner: unimportant to the majority, but allowing a certain few to really make a difference in their way of thinking and acting. Ideally all of us would be philosopher kings.

To describe Bhutan as beautiful is a shocking understatement. It is in some parts actually ethereal. Prayer flags rolling absently in the breeze, strung from tree to tree or hoisted on their own poles, buttressing green and blue vistas of Himalayan landscapes... To face those crisp, inviting mountains without feeling the urge to somehow drink of them, you would have to be soulless. To reach out and take an ice-capped peak, to place it in your mouth and have it melt slowly, sweetly on your tongue... The thinness of the air makes the idea seem almost plausible. It's a notion the labels on bottled water can only tritely hint at.

During some down time, our guide bought me a cut of betel nut from a small general store. There's some really grotesque footage of me dribbling red saliva (which I'm certainly not about to show here).

I'm sure there's more to be said, but I think I've covered enough.

*Bhutan is, in fact, nestled rather snugly between India and Tibet.

Monday, April 16, 2007


Probably the sweetest -- and funniest -- thing anyone's ever said to me after a first kiss.

I'm the happiest I've been in a long time.

Thursday, April 12, 2007


For the past week and a half or so, the MS has been very distracting. Usually I can mostly ignore it, even to the point that recalling I have MS is somewhat of a surprise, but occasionally the symptoms take on the guise of a clingy, demanding child. It's a struggle to focus on what's going on around me, because all I can hear is the white noise racing up and down my nerves, tugging at my sleeve. I want to push this mewling thing away so I can concentrate. Impossible, of course. It adds an extra barrier to outside interaction that is hard to explain -- I feel like I'm viewing the world through a thin layer of oil. Life has taken on a slightly dropsical quality.

One of my favorite manga series revolves around the premise that eating a mermaid's flesh will either make you immortal... or turn you into a disgusting watery ogre. Sometimes I feel like one of those ogres, lurching about, dripping slop everywhere. My body is insisting to me that my back is split open and oozing something cold and gelatinous; it's very clear on this point. I fully realize this is just dysesthetic nonsense, but it's difficult when talking with people to shake the notion that my back is busy vomitting up my insides in the manner of a frightened sea cucumber -- hard to imagine that they can't see it to the same extent that I can feel it. In my mind, I'm walking about hunched over, leaking gel like a broken cold pack. I keep waiting for someone to tell me I've soaked through the back of my shirt, the same way you'd tell a person she has pepper in her teeth.

When I first was diagnosed with MS, I didn't understand how enervating it would be. It takes more energy than you'd think to pretend your face isn't crawling with caterpillars, or to ignore the fact that an icy-numb chest makes it feel like you aren't wearing a shirt. I keep absentmindedly rubbing at the numb and tingly parts of my face and neck, actions only brought to my attention when, at the visa window, applicants subconsciously mimic my movements. It's awkward spending time with people: I've tried explaining the problem now and then, but it makes the other person so uncomfortable (and in all fairness, how do you respond to a comment like, "sorry I'm so distracted; it feels like I have no skin"?). So I generally don't mention it, though watching me twitch for no apparent reason really isn't any better. As a way of avoiding the problem altogether, I've taken to doing most things alone. Which is good, since I was so excessively outgoing before. Lucky for me MS put the brakes on my rampant social activity before it got out of hand.

Sometimes the situation has a certain "Flowers for Algernon" air to it, but mostly I'd say I've gotten pretty complacent about the whole affair -- almost impatient in a way. If I'm going to sink into the muck, I'd rather just dive in head first and get it done with.

Well, anyways, I'm sure it'll be better next week.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Sakura season, and Japan has become a soft pink fantasy land. The whole country is sprawled out beneath the cherry trees. Walking home along the river, I see the neighborhood's resident homeless man; he's drinking a beer and admiring the blossoms, like everyone else. Or so I first think. In reality, he's carrying on as always, and we're the ones in imitation of his daily activities. Maybe part of the fantasy is that it would be pleasant to live like this day in and day out... But he does seem to be enjoying himself. When the breeze shakes loose a flurry of petals, he smiles up at the branches. The brevity of the moment lends it a certain weight and clarity. In Japanese this is called ものがあわれ mono ga aware: the sad transience of things.

This pathos-inducing transience has less to do with hanami's inevitable end, however, than with its inevitable recurrence. The seasons appear and fade, appear and fade in a rhythm that is... comforting? stifling? A little of both. You want to ask where the time goes, but the truth is it doesn't go anywhere. Turn around and it's spring again. Every moment hiding inside every other, like a set of unending russian dolls.

Riding through the countryside, I make attempts at photographing the wild cherry blossoms through the bus windows. No good -- everything's a blur. At the mountainside park, my japanese father asks if I've ever been there before. "Yes, I believe so," I tell him. "I think this is my second time."

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Dude Looks Like a Lady

So, I went to see the famous Takarazuka Revue. It's an all female cast, and the women who play male roles are worshipped as veritable gods by their (also female) fans. There's not much you can say about that, really. Some people I've talked with claim that the 'male' leads are so popular because Japan is missing strong female role models; presumably then, in Takarazuka performances women can finally achieve an equal footing with men. But the fact that the story lines are all rehashed western fairy tales (hyper masculine boy saves hyper feminine girl; marriage ensues...) effectively removes any hint of progressivism from the plays. If the proscribed gender roles themselves don't change, then it doesn't really matter which biological sex fills them. It's the rigidity of the gender roles that form the basis of the inequality problem.

So, the take-away message is: only by assuming a masculine persona can japanese women achieve fame and power. Which I don't suppose is all that much worse than the western message that only by being physically attractive to a man can a woman achieve value. Well, you know... we've all got a long way to go.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


I recently had the chance to visit with my friend Joe. Joe and his wife are pregnant -- which is a fashionable way of saying that Joe's wife is pregnant, and not a way that Joe himself would ever choose to express the concept. I was there when Joe first met his wife. In fact, I think I might remember the event better than he does, as he was quite drunk at the time. I remember that he picked her up and lifted her across the table to sit next to him on the tatami during a party, that he was wearing a white shirt and she a gray skirt, and that while her feet cleared the tabletop, Joe managed to knock over several of the dishes and bottles on the table in her stead. It is hard to connect that image with the one of her 6 month swollen belly, and I wonder, if Joe could have seen the future outcome of that past dinner party meeting, would he still have picked her up to lift her to him? I ask him how impending fatherhood feels. "I can't think of it," he tells me. "When I try to get my head around it, it's just too big." He is rocking back in his chair in my japanese parents' sushi bar -- in our japanese parents' sushi bar, since he was here just as often as I was.

I was present when Joe had his 21st birthday, much of it spent splayed out on the wooden floor of my house in Tsuyama, also drunk, with someone mistakenly pouring whiskey in his eyes in a misbegotten attempt to increase the already dangerous amount in his stomach. The fact that I will soon be present for Joe's 28th birthday is not so remarkable, until you consider that I have no other friend I can claim to have known for so long. We have been friends now for seven years, across three different continents, and bridging two nationalities. When he told me he was leaving JET, I knew that I would leave, too. When he suggested I come to London for my masters, I came. He considers it a great failing that he never taught me to drink; I consider it a failing that I never really felt the need to insist that he stop. I tell people he is a professor in Nagoya; he tells people he knows the american ambassador.

The fact that Joe is pregnant, if we continue using the fashionable term, is not something I can easily get my head around either. He is frightened of the loss of youth and freedom it represents, still wants to be 21 and rocking back in his chair and not having to suddenly make decisions about work and home that have such far ranging repercussions. I think he still wants to be important and special, which truth be told is a huge draw of being a foreigner in Japan, particularly a white male foreigner. But no one is more important and special than a newborn. I promise that I will come and babysit, that I'll make crocheted blankets and clothing, that I will send the child books and toys from all over the world... I want to be upbeat, but the truth is I feel the loss inherent in this change of status every bit as much as he does. He asks several times if I will come to visit before mid-June, the due date. We don't talk about meeting in late June. We don't pretend that he will be able to visit me in DC or in Jordan. I ask if he plans to move back to Britain. He looks at his wife, who is smiling contentedly, hand over her bump. "Yes, probably..." he muses. "Not this year, though. Maybe next... you know, I have to think about the baby."

Monday, March 26, 2007

Wolves and Rabbits

Some days you think, 'Honestly, could Japan be any more pop?' The nonsensical clothing, the plastic food, the bizarrely complicated home exercise machines... It can't all just be gloss and consumerism and polite bowing. It makes you want to poke at it with a stick. A pointy Guitar Wolf shaped stick.

Guitar Wolf: 'Japan Greatest "JET" Rock 'N Roll Band'. And no, that's not a typo. A band so hip they sell their own brand of jeans. A band that references Joan Jett in every song. A band whose music makes the cat claw the furniture. I remember my friend Martin returning from a Guitar Wolf concert during my time in Tsuyama, slightly dazed and full of warning. "It's good you didn't come, Katie; that crowd was rough." He spoke at some length of fistfights and physical fear. Intriguing. Buying tickets through the local convenience store, the sales clerk was appropriately impressed. Hopes of seeing bare-knuckled rock 'n roll-induced scrimmages were raised to near impossible levels. Beneath the surface, you just know Japan is a seething mass of explosive emotion, and Vanessa and I were aiming to be in the blast zone. I was anticipating blood, and a lot of it, too.

We arrived fashionably late, ready to experience Japan's hard-edged social fringe. The venue was a dark and seedy bowling alley basement. So far so good. After my eyes had adjusted to the dim light, I scanned the room looking for potential fistfight participants. The crowd was at least a third gaijin. It's always a bit strange encountering other foreigners in Japan -- like showing up at a party only to discover that someone else is wearing the same dress as you. You go into a weird tapdance in the attempt to simultaneously acknowledge and ignore each other. The gaijin stood primarily on the periphery, looking self-consciously cool. Up on the stage, the opening band was using two giggling coeds dressed in nurses' outfits as props. As they took off their underwear and threw them into the crowd (Headline: 'American Diplomats Attend Concert Stripshow'), Vanessa and I thought perhaps we should use the time to redeem our 500 yen drink tickets.

"I didn't know Guitar Wolf was so popular with the under six set." Vanessa gestured with her beer to direct my gaze. At a table next to the bar were placidly seated three little girls, one of them wearing pigtails and a pink Hello Kitty backpack. They seemed to be in attendance with their grandparents... This was my first hint that, despite the fact that the semi-naked go-go girls -- now changed into high school outfits -- were currently faux-wrestling atop the amp, the crowd was never going to achieve a higher level of angry frenzy than a really robust mosh pit. When the second band came on, the grandparents led their three charges past us toward the edge of the stage. People accepted this unblinkingly.

"Vanessa, where are the flying teeth and manga-esque volleys of guttural Japanese call-outs?" I was disappointed in the extreme. She tried to put a good face on things for me. "Don't be fooled; those toddlers are as tough as nails." Eventually the appearance of Guitar Wolf got some decent crowd surfing going, but we never did see any fighting. One of the mosh pit participants hadn't even bothered to take off his tie.

The next day I woke up stinking of cigarettes and beer, which I think was very good preparation for my scheduled jaunt as the compound's Easter Bunny. Popping my rabbit-y head into the entry way of the apartment where the kids were hunting eggs caused one young girl to release a full-lunged scream far out of proportion to the size of her body. Contrasted with the calm of the Guitar Wolf concert children, it was quite shocking; through the mesh eyes of the mask I could just make out the round pink circle of her open bellowing mouth. Classic. More so on Monday morning when my own encounter with that same rabbit head elicited a slight shriek from me. The costume had gotten soaked in the rain, and I'd forgotten that I'd hung it in the bath to dry. Pulling back the shower curtain to reveal a tall white rabbit is more effective than coffee in getting the heart going in the morning. For a brief moment, I thought I was being visited by a pooka. Briefly, only briefly...

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Number Two Indication You've Been in Japan Too Long...

...this guy starts looking kinda hot.

Isn't sumo weird? Japan -- a country of small, thin, relatively prudish people, trained to believe that no one person should really stand out over any other -- chooses beefy, near-naked men fighting it out for top prize in thrill-inducing bouts of showmanship as its national sport. I'm not complaining! The history of sumo is fascinating. But rather than bore you with a lecture, let me just show you this:

For the record, that's not me screaming. It's my sister.

Friday, March 16, 2007

One Year Down

Today is the one year anniversary of my arrival at post. In the past year, I have adjudicated 13,758 visas. To celebrate, I took the day off and went to the Osaka Aquarium.

It was all very peaceful. Except for the killer snowcrabs.

Number one indication of having spent too much time in Japan: at the aquarium, you realize you've consumed over half of the animals on display. And that whaleshark is looking pretty tasty.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Visa Line Rule One:
If the answer won't influence your decision, don't ask the question.

Visa Line Rule Two:
If an applicant's circumstances haven't changed since her last visa interview, the result of this interview won't change either.

Yesterday I had a DVC with Tokyo regarding E visas -- that is to say, business visas. Being at a consulate often means taking direction from people who are far away and don't always know the particulars of your situation. You can't take it personally; it's the embassy's job.

Tokyo seems concerned with our business visa practices. Maybe they ought to be. Not only am I not especially fond of our current system, but (personally speaking) I couldn't care any less about the intricacies of business visas. If a globally significant japanese company wants to send you to its US branch, odds are you're getting a visa. Does it really matter if it's an H1B or an E2 or a B1? Either way, you're going. You can have a Q visa for all I care. I get no pleasure from the 'Aha! You're asking for an E1, but actually you ought to be applying for an L1A.' moment. In fact, today anyways, I can think of no part of this job which imparts pleasure.

It's strange: if I were doing this work in any other capacity, I would have quit a long time ago. To have a job that is so psychologically draining it makes me turn down sidestreets, leave letters upopened, delete unread emails, and switch off the ringer on my phone all to avoid interacting even with people I consider friends* is ridiculous. To be sent to another country to do one more year of work for which I'm so wildly unsuited reaches sublime levels of absurdity. But it's stupid to consider other options. Refer to Rule One. I don't want to leave the FS -- I just want to push back my chair from the proverbial visa table and declare 'I'm full'.

Myers-Briggs says you can gauge job related stress in the following fashion: 1. Assess your job activities and assign them Myers-Briggs types; 2. See how closely the resulting types fit your own profile; 3. Lack of overlap = stress.

So. Hours of talking everyday: that's an 'E'. Attention to small concrete details, as opposed to big picture policy: that's an 'S'. Making decisions based on objective rules instead of personal relationships: that's a 'T'. Having things constantly thrown at you, with no sense of priority or scheduling: that's a 'P'.

Visa work is ESTP. I'm INTJ. And 'T' is my most borderline category. No wonder I wake up every morning wanting to punch the sun in the face. It's hard facing two more years of this -- two more years of always feeling crowded, edgy, and exhausted. Two more years of never getting to achieve a level of human interaction I would consider normal.

People keep saying it will get better. No it won't. Refer to Rule Two. What a shame that so much of life is just something to be gotten through!

And sir, I'm so sorry, but it looks like you'd be much better off applying for an L instead of an E...

*But please don't quit talking to me! I'm trying, I promise.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Ambassador Hayworth

During my recent turn in the Public Affairs Section (PAS), I was able to spend extended amounts of time with their senior FSN. It's a very different dynamic compared to working with the FSNs in the NIV section; most PAS events happen outside of the consulate, often after official working hours. There's a lot of travel and downtime. It makes things more casual and relaxed.

The senior PAS FSN has been at the consulate for over 30 years, an older japanese man who loves America and is already planning his retirement in Hawaii. He's frank and amusing. Listening to his stories (ranging from working as a waiter in a Tokyo cabaret to becoming a 'houseboy' for a wealthy family in Beverly Hills), it reminded me somehow of being in my japanese parents' sushi bar, chatting over green tea and げそ塩焼き with 60 year old Japanese men who called me お嬢さん ojousan 'little miss'. "Why did you want to go to America?" I asked him. "Well, if I were to speak truthfully..." he paused for dramatic effect, a particular skill of avuncular japanese males. "I went to America because I wanted to date beautiful american women." He leveled a gaze at me that made me raise an eyebrow in bemusement. Apparently, he'd grown up next door to a movie theater -- in his mind, Rita Hayworth was the american everywoman. He expounded upon his extensive success on the California dating front; reportedly, he had a thing for blondes. Leaning back and folding his arms, he recommended I find a nice japanese boyfriend. Everything was lightly stated, humorous, but there's always a mildly insidious underlying tone to these discussions. The implication is that the speaker knows what we western girls are really like after hours...

Later, the POL officer commented on the 'strange turn' the conversation had taken. He seemed almost apologetic. I was puzzled. "But that's every conversation I've ever had with a Japanese guy that age!" I told him. It had never ever occurred to me that semi-lascivious topics wouldn't arise in my absence; I just assumed that all Japanese men over 50 were スケベ sukebe -- that is to say, slightly lecherous. Apparently, this only comes out around younger western women.

Thinking this over later, the connection between the FSN's movie watching and his perceptions of western women struck me as more than just an amusing anecdote. Of course movies would be the main forum for learning about american women for those outside of the US: there aren't extensive writings on american women leaders, especially not ones translated into Japanese; there aren't particularly famous american women athletes; maybe some Japanese would have heard of Condoleezza Rice, a few more of Hillary Clinton... but many more would know of Scarlett Johansson or Angelina Jolie. I'm not saying I look anything like a movie actress*, but it makes sense that I'd be lumped into the same group. In the absence of personal experience, that's the only paradigm japanese men have to work with when dealing with western women: sexually objectified, scopophilia-encouraging flat images on a screen. It's a bit disturbing to think about, really.

So, there you go... all that sexually-charged imagery really does have an effect. Makes me want to write another grad school thesis.

*Though this is less true here, since Japanese have some trouble making fine-grained distinctions between different western facial features and phenotypes...

Monday, February 26, 2007

Multicultural Japan

Though my euphoric high has begun to mellow to a more reasonable 'Ah, won't that be nice...' sort of pleased contentment, I'm still concerned with becoming too focused on where I'm going, as opposed to where I actually am. My one year anniversary of arrival to post (and thus my one year countdown until departure) is just next month; it's easy to forget, but my time here is limited. And there's still a lot I want to see in Japan.

Like the Kobe Lion Dance.

The Lion Dance -- perhaps more correctly a dragon dance, called 獅子舞 shishimai in Japanese -- takes place in Kobe's Chinatown, an area referred to as 南京町 Nankinmachi or 'Nanking Village'*. The dance is considered one of Japan's 'Intangible Cultural Treasures', an official label bestowed by the government. I had thought it was brought with the original chinese immigrants, passed down from generation to generation... Turns out it only just started in 1987. But still, it's one of the area's biggest events. With my 'Must enjoy this post while I can' determination firmly in hand, I woke up early on Sunday morning to catch the train into town.

Part of my interest in the Lion Dance is the government's official recognition of an ostensibly chinese tradition as being a cultural asset of Japan. Japan's homogeneity is a subject widely commented on; I'm a bit of a skeptic on this point. In addition to vast regional differences (try telling people from Osaka that they're just like the people in Tokyo), I think there is actually a fair deal of genetic and ethnic diversity here as well. Even Emperor Akihito recognizes this, and you'd think he'd be in a position to know. So I was curious to see how this particular event would be treated in relation to the 我々日本人 Wareware Nihonjin 'We Japanese...' mindset.

I arrived to crowds of onlookers... carefully roped off with yellow cord. The police had formed blockades and created detailed pathways and routes around the stage, a tiny pagoda in the center of Nankinmachi. And to make sure that no one in the crowd misunderstood EXACTLY where to stand and EXACTLY which way to go, they all had giant signs and bullhorns to make things even clearer. I estimate there were at least 15 policemen in the pagoda square; there were maybe 100 people roped into the official viewing zone. Those of us on the wrong side of the ropeline (maybe an extra 100 people) were repeatedly yelled at for blocking the walkway and storefronts, and asked to 'keep moving'. I'm not sure when I last saw such a ridiculous display of martinetism. Were they expecting riots? I stood quietly with a small group of Japanese tourists, trying to take pictures from afar.

After 10 minutes of blocked views and ear-piercing "TACHITOMARANAI DE!" megaphone-powered aural bludgeonings, I finally wandered off to get some ramen and dumplings...

So it turns out that even multiculturalism is a pretty controlled affair in Japan. I don't guess this should surprise me. Police, at any rate, seem pretty much the same anywhere you go.

*I'm not sure if the is a purposeful reference to the infamous massacre or not. Apparently the Chinese immigration to Kobe began in 1868, so likely no. It still gives me a bit of the creeps whenever I read the name on signs, though.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Who Am I Kidding? メール読もう!


After all that, my number one bid!*

Wow. I wonder if I can learn Arabic? I mean really learn it?

Thanks, Lee. If you hadn't called, I probably wouldn't have checked the email until Monday...

*Well, sort of -- I bid the Con-Pol rotation, and they gave me Pol-Con. But this doesn't seem like the time to split hairs...

Delayed Gratification?

Last night and this morning were again spent in Wakayama, this time to assist with a ship visit. I've just returned after a long train ride, put on the kettle, fed the cat...

We're supposed to know by now. I mull this over while puttering about in the kitchen.

After a bit of waffling, I log on to my email. Nestled in the middle of about 10 new messages, there's one from my CDO entitled 'Congratulations - Your Onward Assignment'. I've been looking at it for a little while now. It looks somehow very cheery, though I'm sure that it's merely a form email. I haven't opened it. The kettle is whistling.

Some part of me enjoys this anticipation. Or at least, I think I'm enjoying it. My heart is beating like mad, which I find sort of ridiculous. It doesn't matter when I open the email, or whether or not I'm happy with the assignment. Either way I'm going there. So there's no reason to be nervous, or even excited, really. It's fun though, like having a crush. You can imagine all the possibilities before the unpleasantries appear.

To Med's credit, in the end they came through and provided me with an explanation. It took searching through chains of emails forwarded to me from the Department by my CDO, but I was finally able to locate a real human being in Med to email. They only want me to go to posts that have access to a neurologist. Naturally I don't feel this restriction is necessary -- since there's no cure, the best a neurologist can do is track progression merely as a matter of interest. I'll just be some specialist's fun case study; a doctor can't exactly help me. But no point in arguing. The nurse in Med sent me a list of posts that met their criteria. Pairing that with the available openings, it left 26 positions. I didn't bother trying to really rank them. I just sent my CDO a list of the six I didn't want to go to, along with the six from my original bidlist that made the cut: positions in Amman, Cairo, New Delhi, and Chennai. Everything else was Spanish-speaking 2 year consular tours. Which I suppose would be fine. It has to be fine, right? I have a friend going to Guadalajara; maybe we'd be near each other.

Deep breaths.

I'm going to make some tea.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Opacity, Thy Name is Med

Med has finally gotten back to me. And here's their helpful remarks:

Abu Dhabi not approved

Amman approved

Baghdad not approved

Cairo approved

Capetown approved

Dublin approved

Harare not approved

Islamabad not approved

London approved

New Delhi approved

Sanaa not approved

Skopje not approved

That's quite literally the full extent of what was forwarded to me by my CDO. No explanation or consultation with me. The list doesn't even reflect my final bid submission, since my CDO has yet to forward anything I've sent to her on to Med in a timely fashion. She has been very good, however, at sending me frantic emails about how I need to get things to Med right away. This forward came with instructions to pick at least 10 more bids as soon as possible, since "I’m afraid some of the pre-approved posts will be gone by the time we get to your equity group."

So, just to be clear on what's happening: because I am currently at a zero differential post, they will consider my bids LAST despite the fact that I'm now incredibly restricted on where I can go. I have asked her AGAIN why this is the case, and what will happen if every post I'm allowed to bid on is already taken. I don't expect an answer. I'm so frustrated. I am not taking medication for this condition. I am not expected to have another attack, only a gradual decline. THERE IS NO TREATMENT ANYONE CAN GIVE ME. What does it matter if I'm in Abu Dhabi or if I'm in London? Not that London was even on my final bidlist... Two more years of consular work at an English speaking post is not going to earn me any appreciable skills. I can think of few things less palatable, actually. Or more worthless for my supposed 'career'.

And the worst part is that it's already past midnight here. I won't even be able to deal clearly with this until tomorrow.

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Hearty Welcome to the Year of the Pig

This weekend we took a roadtrip to Konpira-san, where we ate like absolute fiends. Also, I may or may not have bought one of these hats:

And that's my story!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Wakayama* Part II

My last trip to Wakayama Prefecture having gone so well, the CG kindly saw fit to invite me to go with him for a second visit. Seems that Governor Kimura (now former Governor Kimura) was arrested in a rather unfortunate slush fund scandal, and so the CG had made plans to meet Wakayama's new governor, Governor Nisaka**. Having already experienced this exact courtesy call not even a year earlier, I didn't think much about it. The NIV chief is out this week, the PAO is out this month, and I've been asked to fill both jobs in their absence. Between that, bidding, EER preparation, and MS research, I find my days are pretty packed. The evening before the trip I stayed at work till 7:45 or so trying to get things done. Wakayama was on my to-do list, wedged somewhere between 'follow up on E-visa questions with Tokyo' and 'write report on ABIC visit for PAS'.

Adjudications that morning went to 11:35 exactly; this left me 10 minutes to grab an onigiri and some coffee at the convenience store, put on my jacket, and sprint to the consular car. Gathering up my things to go, I realized I'd made an enormous error: I had completely forgotten my business cards. In Japan, this is something akin to leaving the house clad in nothing but a bathrobe. But, as there wasn't anything I could do about it short of bumming cards off one of the other JOs (an idea briefly considered, but ultimately abandoned), I decided to try and be graceful and cool about the mistake. Sitting next to the CG in the backseat, reading over the visit's schedule, I let him know calmly about my faux pas. He did his best to take it in stride.

"So, no meishi... Well, do you have a pad of paper or something with you? Something for notes?"

Uh, paper? Notes? I looked at him blankly. The only thing I had with me was a purple spiral bound 8 1/2 by 11" notebook I'd been using to keep track of my bids. I pulled this out. It seemed huge, like something a sweatpants-wearing grad student would be toting around. He handed me a printed write up of the notes from the last visit to Wakayama as an example, by which I gathered that I was to be the official notetaker for this courtesy call. I don't even remember there being a notetaker the last time; certainly it wasn't me! But no problem. Well, small problem:

"Do you happen to have a pen I could borrow?" I asked him. At this point I was cursing violently to myself while biting my lips in mortification over my clear lack of preparation. It was terribly tempting to shower him with apologies while cutting off a little finger to prove my remorse, but I thankfully stopped myself. No one cares about intentions. All that matters are results.

The next day, back in the office, I stayed late to write up my notes for him. The reply? "This is great. Run it through spellcheck and send it to PAS and POL." Spellcheck. Right. Well, only the mediocre are always at their best!

Here's a picture from our consulate website:

That's me in the back, grimacing. Next time, I'm bringing along an entire stationery store.

*The name of this prefecture literally translates as 'Harmonious Singing Mountains'. Isn't that nice?

**Kimura wins points for better business cards (made of wood!; I guess that's what slush fund money gets you), but on the whole I found Nisaka much more thoughtful and personable. And, you know, my opinion counts a lot here.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Up, Up, Up

This weekend I went through three books in quick succession: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Painted Veil, and On the Road. Each quite different; all quite quite wonderful.

My final list of 20 bids is due on the 15th. Looking at it on Sunday night, I had a horrible panic attack. Earlier that morning I had awoke to discover that half of my right hand was not just numb, but actually lifeless. A wad of meat and bone that did not move and did not bend and did not respond to entreaties or caresses or starkly terrifying recollections of touching my grandmother's hand just before they buried her. After a few minutes the familiar tingly numbness returned, indolent and unapologetic, but the sense of loss of control -- however brief -- remained. I haven't heard from Med; my CDO has not answered a single question I've asked her; and pushing bids from one rank to another I suddenly felt like I was in a total vacuum. I started emailing friends and pressing for advice. Was I insane to think I could handle Baghdad? Could I really hold it together enough to do a GSO job? Was it worthwhile to even put a list together when I knew Med was going to butcher it anyways? Should I just get out of this career now? It was a long time before I could sleep.

Since Tuesday I've thought I had a touch of the flu. Now I realize the nausea's real cause is stress.

Something about that realization has been immensely calming. Sitting in the corner coffee shop immersed somewhere in the middle of Kerouac's journey from Denver to San Francisco, it occurred to me that I had enjoyed all of the books I've read this weekend, despite their differences. More than enjoyed them, in fact. Had actually felt enhanced and shaped by each one.

And I had this weird sort of mini-epiphany, 'road-to-Damascus' moment. That it doesn't matter where I'm posted; that I had meant it when I said I'd go anywhere; that I really did join because I want to serve, and I want to help, and I want to see for myself what America's policies are doing around the world and take responsibility for it.

And if it's consular work I will do it, and if it's PD work I will do it, and if it's tedious paper-pushing I will do it. And MS is not going to prevent me from handling any of those things.

And if they insist on sending me to The Hague when I'm asking to be sent to Hell, well, I will find something there to enjoy and study and grow from.

Sorry if this is overblown. I haven't been able to eat or drink much since Tuesday, so I'm a bit light-headed. But now I think I'll make myself a sandwich.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Bidding in Thirty Easy Steps

Round one of the bidding is over, meaning that anyone with greater than 25% differential has received their onward assignments. I was somewhat relieved to find that it left my original bidlist relatively unscathed, with the exception of the Iraq jobs (gone), an Abu Dhabi spot (gone, but I wasn't all that enthused about it anyways), and, sadly, my number one choice: a PD tour in Jerusalem including Arabic training (gone gone gone -- not that I hadn't suspected as much would happen). So now on to round two...

For those of you still in the dark about the whole '2nd tour bidding process', I've created the following instructional diagram:

As you can see, I'm currently working on step (3), subsection (q)(5).

I'm required to submit a final bid list by the 15th of this month; though, as I have yet to hear back from Med, this is still all an exercise in wishful thinking. My big fear is that they'll take so long in telling me where I actually can go (as opposed to merely which jobs are open), that by the time I know what my 'real' bid list looks like all the positions will already have been taken. Which leaves me... DC? A permanent jump to the Civil Service? Well, we'll see. Meanwhile, I guess I'll move the Con-Pol rotation in Amman up to my number one spot. And maybe being Staff Assistant in Iraq would be interesting..? "How about Algiers?" I asked Sara over lunch. "I've always like pirates." She snorted. "How about you shoot yourself in the head?" Okay, so maybe not there.

Ah, but you'll be happy to know that no one in round one opted for the positions in Yemen.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Intercultural Relations

Well, the weekend proved more interesting than I had anticipated. I think I may have gone on a date. Maybe. Probably. I'm never very sure about these things. A japanese guy. He happened to be in Osaka on Saturday and called to see if I'd have dinner, ended up staying over that night*, and then we hung out in Kobe till late on Sunday before heading back to our respective towns. Nice. Sort of strange. Nothing I was really expecting.

On the train on the way to Kobe from my apartment in Nishinomiya, we sat on the short bench seat at the rear of the car, nearest to the conductor's cockpit. Only room for the two of us, and his bike propped up against the front of our legs with the train swaying and the car a bit quiet. It was so pleasant to be next to someone on a train without having to pretend to not notice the close proximity -- with being able to actualy enjoy the proximity. I had the duty phone on 'manner mode', and kept pulling it out of my pocket thinking it was ringing. It took me a while to realize that it was just my hand tremoring. I was supposed to act as a judge and give the closing address at a regional high school speech contest that afternoon, and he had offered to wait until I was finished so that we could have dinner again together before he left for home. We talked about the speech contest, about how public speaking made me nervous, about his work and his new apartment... He asked what I was reading; I pulled One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest out of my bag and handed it to him.

Watching him frown at the English description on the back cover ("In this classic novel of the 1960's, Ken Kesey's hero is Randle Patrick McMurphy, a boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel..."), my heart lurched. His English isn't bad, but words like 'boisterous' surely weren't in his vocabulary. I well know the frustration of puzzling in vain over something that seems like it should come so easily; I felt instantly small for having shown him the book. Besides my own shyness, the main barrier to dating is the whole language problem. My spoken Japanese is absymal. I mean, really awful. I don't know if it's MS lesions gumming up the works, or just a matter of disuse, but even English grammar has been coming out a bit garbled lately, not to mention 2nd languages. How stupid of me to have highlighted the problem in so glaring a manner. I tried to explain the plot briefly in Japanese. I used to know the word for 'cuckoo'. "It's a bird you always read about in..." the word I was searching for now was haiku. I could still feel my hands buzzing. Please god, let that have been a bad MS day, and not something more...

Usually people laugh at this problem (seems like western men and asian women don't have any trouble getting over it) and say something about 'The Language of Love'; well, for me the language of love appears to be English. I asked Vanessa what you do when your Japanese isn't quite good enough and his English isn't quite good enough... "That's when you spend most of your time making out," she explained. Oh. I guess that's how western men and asian women work around the problem. I'm not sure if that's really me, though.

Anyways, I don't know. We'll see what happens.

At reception following the speech contest, I had wanted to speak to the high school students who had put in the time to memorize Kennedy's 1963 Civil Rights Address, but ended up instead being accosted by various community heads who wanted to press the hand of the consulate representative. I have no idea why. I won't pretend that I've never been impressed by a title or a big name (you should have seen how excited I was to give a visa interview to the drummer from The Boredoms), but honestly: this is a visa waiver program country; I can't do anything for these people. When I was in Japan before, I drew attention all the time because I'm blonde and boiled-egg pale; now I get it because of some overblown title on my business cards..? It's all pretty silly, really. My closing remarks in simple English ("President Kennedy gave his speech because he wanted two groups to understand each other better, and become better friends...") were not delivered nearly so eloquently as the students' recitations had been.

Some part of me suspects that being annoyed at having people treat you differently because of a title or affiliation is somehow just as big-headed as enjoying it. I need to work out a way to gracefully handle the situation.

At dinner, we ordered a dish that was labeled 鍋「なべ」, or 'winter hotpot', but the Italian interpretation we received was something entirely different. "Damesareta!" I laughed. He smiled. "Yes, damasareta," he corrected me. And I was pleased to discover that I didn't mind.

*He lives somewhat far away, and I have a spare bedroom -- please people, this is a family blog.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Support Network

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