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?"


"[. . .]"