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April, 2014:

Visa in hand, I resume the journey…

This morning I made another trip to the Chinese embassy’s visa office. The office was going to call me when the visa was ready, but I thought that making the trip up there was the responsible thing to do.

It was raining this morning (it rained pretty much all day today), which made walking in the city a drag. I like to dress formally when I go to the visa office, because I think it makes a better impression. I know that when I deal with a person who is dressed professionally, I tend to treat them with a little more respect.

My visa was ready. The same clerk handled my case again today. The last time I was there, she looked at me with world-weary eyes. This time, when she looked up my information in her computer system, she gave me a bit of a sneer. She dug out my passport from her plastic washbasin of American passports, and instead of handing it to me, she tossed it over to me unceremoniously. She was finally done with me.

I imagined her mentally washing her hands of me. With soap.

Anti-bacterial soap.

So now I am back on track to begin my first tour. I re-arranged my flight (again), re-set the consultation schedule, and started checking out of the Foreign Service Institute. There is a lot of administrative stuff to do, and this will keep me busy for the next few days.

I leave Washington, DC on Monday. After a few days of consultations with the Department of Homeland Security in Los Angeles, I will arrive in China on Friday.

It’s starting to get real.

Trying not to waste time

While I wait for my Chinese visa to come through, I have to remain in D.C. There is a temptation to take advantage of this down time by taking an in-place vacation. But there are too many things that I want to do, that I didn’t had the time for while I was in training.

This small delay in getting started on my tour in China is a bit disappointing, but it is also an opportunity to work on my own professional skills.

I am working on some online courses that are quite interesting, such as “processing security advisory opinions” (more interesting than the title suggests) and “detecting impostors” (useful for matching people to their documents when adjudicating a visa application).

I can also work on my Chinese language skills. I’m reading a book from the Chinese classics, which was written in Classical Chinese. Reading one page of it can take an hour or more, because that style of writing is very compact (and because my Chinese isn’t as good as I would like it to be).

There is also the opportunity to spend some more time with my classmates. I got to participate in some activities this weekend that I would have missed had I begun my travel on Thursday. One got married, and we celebrated with him yesterday. Later was poker night at another classmate’s apartment. This afternoon several of us are going to a baseball game.

Tomorrow I will wait for instructions from my supervisors, and will continue to work on my own professional development.

This extra time in D.C. is a gift, and it would be a shame to waste it.

The adventure continues

My flight leaves D.C. at 4:00 this afternoon. I will not be on that plane. Why? Because my Chinese visa is not yet ready.

The clerk in the visa office of the Chinese embassy recognizes me by now. I have been visiting regularly this week, hoping that the visa is ready and I can leave for China. The first few times that I asked her if my visa was ready, she frowned and said: “Not ready yet.” Last time, she said: “Still not ready yet,” with a clear (and slightly petulant) emphasis on the word “still.” Today, she seemed world-weary as she scanned my paper into her computer, shook her head, and silently passed the paper back to me.

I have bored the visa clerk. This is a new low point in my nascent diplomatic career.

Now that I can’t depart for post on schedule, my status has to change. There is a large administrative structure at the State Department to take care of this stuff. It isn’t hard to imagine that this problem happens frequently, so there is a lot of precedent. In fact, one of my classmates is working on a temporary assignment in D.C. while she waits for her visa to a different country.

If my visa had been ready, I would have left today, so I had packed my suitcases last night. Instead, I had to return to my apartment and unpack. Then I had to make a lot of phone calls to postpone my flight, cancel my consultations in California, etc. I also had to notify post that I was not coming to China on schedule. My Career Development Officer is scrambling to change my administrative status so I can still get paid.

Not knowing what my next step is can be stressful, especially when I am not in control. Stress is not healthy or productive. Stress also prevents me from seeing the positive aspects of my situation. So I have decided not to be stressed.

The weather is beautiful today: sunny and in the low 60s. Walking back to my apartment from the Metro station, I saw this beautiful cloud formation. This picture doesn’t do it justice, but you can see what I mean:

20140424-122352.jpg

Stressing doesn’t help, and a little drama makes for a good story to tell afterwords.

Besides, one of the reasons that I wanted this job was because I wanted to do something different. This week has definitely been different.

Life is good. Stay tuned.

A Visa and a Needle (something I want and something I don’t want)

Still no visa. I went to the Chinese embassy’s visa office yesterday to check. After waiting in the wrong line for 15 minutes, I realized my mistake, then got in the right line. When it was my turn, the clerk thumbed through the plastic tub that contained stacks of American passports. A couple of times, I thought that she was picking up mine. No luck, though. She looked at me like I had a disease, and told me “not ready yet.” She seemed to believe that I was at fault for my visa not being ready yet.

So, no visa, and three days before leaving town. That was stressful. I was on pins and needles. There was no time for panic, though, because I had an appointment on the other side of town.

I had to rush back to FSI to get three more shots at the health unit.

From figurative pins and needles to facing a real needle.

Even though I didn’t have a large lunch, was stressed about the visa, and was tired from traveling from Michigan that morning, I handled the shots with no dizziness or fainting.

I am a masculine man.

One who doesn’t yet have a visa.

Saying good-bye doesn’t get easier

I am returning to DC today for what I think is my last week in the country for a while. I went back to Michigan this weekend to see my family. All my siblings came in to town. It was great to see everyone again, and catch up with our respective adventures.

Part of human nature is to be preoccupied with one’s own life, and to assume that what one’s activities are the most important and interesting events in the world. I’m just as guilty of that self-centeredness as anyone else is. In the three months since I left town, my family members have all been living their own lives, adopting a dog, preparing to sell a house and move, helping a child move out of town for a long-term internship, changing jobs. I guess that’s what we mean when we say that “life goes on.”

I also made time to go see a former co-worker and dear friend, and catch up on what is happening in her life. Her kids are getting older, life is going on.

My own family is doing well as well. Being separate from them is an emotional challenge for me. My wife is a very strong and capable person, but I feel that my leaving to start this new career is unfair to her. In the long term, when she is able to join me, I believe that we will enjoy the adventures that come with this career. In the short term, though, she has to take all the responsibility to take care of the house and our younger son, plus find her own self-fulfillment in her art. She has a heavier burden to bear than I have.

This morning I had to say good-bye again. This time, my family isn’t sure when we will be able to get together again. Modern communications is great. We can keep in touch with text messages, email, and video chat. Sharing our activities and new experiences often has shrunk the distance between us. This separation would have been a lot harder without technology. It isn’t the same as being there in person, though. Even though we have been able to communicate easily and frequently, a text message is a rotten alternative to a hug.

Last day of training

Today was my last day of classroom training at the Foreign Service Institute. Next week I have two consultations in Washington, then I will go to LA for additional consultations on my way to China.

All of these plans are contingent on my China visa coming through. Still no word on that. I don’t want to think about making changes to my plans if the visa doesn’t come through in time.

In any event, it’s nice to think that I am progressing through the training process, and moving forward on the road of this new career. It would be easy to get stressed out over the details, and forget that I am beginning a new adventure, one that I prepared for and looked forward to for such a long time. This is the life that I wanted, and now that I have it, I should embrace the positive aspects of it. And there are many positive things about this experience.

Website problems and visa delays

My website was having some responsiveness problems over the last several days. You may have noticed it. I logged a troubleshooting ticket with my hosting service, and the good technical support people managed to find and fix the problem. So the site should be back to normal now. Happy face.

My diplomatic visa has still not been issued. The office at the State Department that helps with passports and visas recommended making a trip to the China visa office and asking in person. They said that sometimes helps. So the three of us who are all heading to China at the same time made the trip this morning. One of my classmates was lucky. He had applied for his visa a few days before me, and his visa was ready. Mine was not. Sad face.

I am scheduled to leave for China next week. If my visa isn’t ready in time, I will have to change a lot of my arrangements, and that will cause some inconvenience for a lot of people. I’ve arranged to consult with the Department of Homeland Security office and Customs and Border Protection ┬áin California on my way to China. In addition, my future coworkers in China are meeting me at the airport. Worried face.

I do not like not being in control. Of my website or my visa. Angry face.

Waiting for my visa

I have my diplomatic passport, I made plane reservations, and everything seems to be arranged for my departure for China. Unfortunately, I still do not have a China visa. And that small detail may derail all of my arrangements.

Right now, I am being optimistic. I am assuming that everything will be fine, the visa will come through in time, and all of my plans can go forward. However, I have to be realistic, and recognize that it’s possible that my visa will not come through in time, and I will have to redo all of my travel arrangements.

One person told me that he got his visa in one week. Another person said that his came through in three days. The official statement is that it can take up to six weeks to get your visa. Six weeks is too long.

The type-A control freak in me is very uncomfortable with not having control over this process.

Another week of training, more scary stuff

On Monday and Tuesday this week, I attended the “Security Overseas Seminar,” during which invited speakers took turns telling us about all the scary things that can happen to you overseas: surveillance, spying, carjacking, sexual assault, chemical weapons, and bombs. The final presentation was from a clinical psychologist. Her topic was how to bounce back from trauma. At times it felt like the presentations alone were trauma.

Wednesday was a one-day class on emergency medical trauma. Among other things, I learned what a sucking chest wound is. I think that, in general, it’s best to avoid sucking chest wounds.

Now that they have scared the life out of us, we might take precautions when overseas, and be safer. I guess that’s the idea.

I won an Ozcar!

No, that isn’t a typo. I won an Ozcar, not an Oscar.

Consular officers spend most of their time adjudicating visa applications. There are dozens of different kinds of visas, different visas for different purposes of travel. Foreign students apply for an F1 visa. Tourists apply for a B2 visa. Professional athletes come in on a P visa, unless they are amateur athletes, in which case they come in on a B1 visa. Rock stars come in on an O visa, and their crew comes in on O3 visas.

And on and on. Do you think it’s confusing? Me, too.

As part of our consular training, we did role plays to help us learn how to process visa applications. We took turns playing consular officer and applicant. When we adjudicate visas, we have to ensure that the type of visa that the applicant applied for is the appropriate fit for the purpose of their travel.

When it was our turn to play the applicant, there were costumes that we could put on to help us get into the part.

I got a little too into the dress-up part.

Hippie

Hippie

Rich Man

Rich Man

Opera Star

Opera Star

It was a good learning experience for the people playing the consular officer. For the applicants, it was a lot of fun. For every applicant role, there was a back story that we had to give to the officer. We were all citizens of the country of Z. The names of the people in Z tend to be Z-dominated: John Zmith, Zippy Jonez, Zeremiah Zmiller, etc.

Sometimes it was a straightforward application: parents want to take their kids to Disneyworld. Sometimes it was underhanded: a person wanted to go to the U.S. on a tourist visa, but he really intended to work illegally once he got there. Other times it was complex: an opera star wanted to travel to the U.S. to perform, then go to Canada to perform, then return to the U.S. to rest and relax in a friend’s home. The two purposes of travel are different, so that person needs to get two visas. Of course, the applicants don’t know that they need two different visas. It’s our job to get the person’s story, and then determine the appropriate visa (or deny the visa application if the purpose of travel isn’t legal).

Yesterday was the last day of consular training. At the graduation “ceremony,” the instructors handed out “Ozcars” for the best performances in the various role plays (visa application, prison visit, etc). I won the Ozcar for the best visa application role play. I won a fabulous certificate, and the right to wear the purple robe of honor for five minutes.

Ozcar!

Ozcar!

Now that the two big training courses are complete, I have a few more weeks of shorter training sessions. Estimated time of departure from D.C. is April 24.