Most of the visa applicants that come to the interview window do not have functional English ability. These applicants are casual tourists who plan to visit the US with a tour group, under the care of a tour guide. Those of you who have gone on tours to foreign countries know that it isn’t necessary to speak a foreign language in order to be a tourist.
Although these applicants don’t need to speak English, they still need to have a visa interview. Since they don’t speak English, consular officers need to be able to conduct the interview in Chinese. The Foreign Service Institute in DC has a large language training program that prepares officers to use the language to conduct their diplomatic work.
The basic Chinese course, which is designed to get officers to a basic working competency, lasts nine or ten months. After that, officers are expected to be able to ask informational questions, and to understand what is being said to them. Just enough to conduct a visa interview.
Anyone who has studied a foreign language for ten months, particularly a “hard” language like Chinese, knows that ten months of instruction doesn’t get you very far.
I already “had” Chinese when I came into the Foreign Service, so I didn’t need language training. I’m lucky that I have a wide range of experience with using Chinese in various contexts, from everyday life with a native speaker (hi, honey! Miss you!) to professional settings, and even legal proceedings in courts. Even with this rich background in Chinese, I sometimes feel challenged at the visa interview window. The local accent is different from what I’m used to, and people use local terms that I’m not familiar with.
For example, there’s a term that seems archaic to me: 姑娘 (gu niang). It means “young lady.” but some older people use it to refer to their daughter. The first time that I heard an old lady saying that she wanted to go to American to visit her “gu niang,” I had no idea what she meant.
In another case, the one-child policy seems to have resulted in the collapse of familial relationships. One pair of younger applicants claimed to be siblings, but they had different last names. I had to ask them several questions about their relationship before I finally got that they were cousins. The guy said that the young lady was his 妹妹 (meimei,) which means younger sister. She was actually his 表妹 (biao mei), or daughter of his father’s sister, who happens to be younger than he is (if she would have been older than him, she would be his 表姐 biao jie, instead of 表妹 biao mei. Confused? Welcome to Chinese!). These are some of the local linguistic quirks that I had to get used to here.
If someone like me with greater depth of experience in Chinese gets stuck sometimes, it isn’t hard to imagine the frustrations that someone with less exposure would have. Although ten months is laughably too short a time to prepare someone to conduct a visa interview in Chinese, the service needs people on the interview line ASAP. It would be great if the government could spend five years to get someone to a really high level of fluency, but there isn’t time or money to do that. Besides, once you get the basics, you can develop higher levels of fluency through exposure. So, the service throws people on the line as soon as possible. The other officers and the Locally Engaged Staff are always happy to help when someone gets stuck. So there’s a bit of a support system at work.
When I was still in DC, I talked with an officer who did a consular tour in China a few years ago. He said that by the end of his tour, his Chinese was actually worse than it was when he was fresh out of language training. He said that he was fine with “visa interview Chinese,” but he had less functional ability outside the topic of visa interviews. I was surprised to hear that. A lot of people in the Foreign Service say that “getting paid to learn a language” was one of their large motivations for joining. We aren’t exactly getting paid to learn a language, but we are provided with this opportunity to learn language and use it on a daily basis. I understand that this isn’t a big motivator for everyone, and Chinese isn’t necessarily everyone’s first choice of a language. Also, since it’s a hard language, I can understand how people can get discouraged and give up.
The government also recognizes the value of diplomats with higher levels of language ability. Officers who are posted overseas can take advantage of the “post language program.” Some larger posts may have a full-time language teacher at post. In the case of us in Shenyang, the Consulate has contracted with a few local language schools to give language lessons to officers. I am eligible for 20 hours of language instruction per month. In theory, I could take some of those lessons during the work day, but the reality is that I’m so busy during the work day that I only have time for language class after work.
Two days per week, after work, I walk to the language school and have tutorial lessons for two hours. Usually, I’m tired after work, so I’m not as alert as I would like to be, but I always look forward to Chinese class. Language lessons are a terrific perk of the job, and one of the reasons that I wanted to be posted to China was the opportunity to improve my Chinese. All you taxpayers, I assure you that I work hard to get your money’s worth out of the tuition that you’re paying, and I promise that you’re getting a benefit from it. I’ve only been taking language lessons for a month now, and I have already seen an improvement in my reading ability. Simplified characters are more familiar to me now, which means that I can work faster, and process visa applicants more quickly and efficiently.
I’m determined to take advantage of this incredible opportunity to improve my Chinese. I know that a lot of people wish that they had this benefit, and I know how lucky I am to have it. I’m not going to waste this opportunity.
Life is good.