Monday, June 2, 2008

Reality TV at the US embassy

[Warning: long post, no pictures, no food.]

You learn a lot, just by sitting and listening.

I had brought a book with me when I went to the US embassy for my visa interview last week. It was clearly stated on the website that it was going to be a long-drawn out process, and I didn’t want to be caught with nothing to do and staring aimlessly (and suspiciously) all over the place.

First, there is the hassle of queuing up and getting through security checkpoints. Yes, there are two checkpoints, less than 20 metres apart, demonstrating either (1) the embassy’s total lack of confidence in the first checkpoint; or (2) its faith in the ability of Malaysians to magically sprout dangerous materials in the 20 second walk from one checkpoint to the other; or (3) the dogged and bureaucratic adherence to recommendations by an overpaid security consultant firm helmed by the husband of the second cousin of a Senior Government Official in charge of worldwide embassy security (Malaysians can totally identify with the third scenario).

Once I jumped though the hoops, parted the curtains and entered the holy of holies – the Waiting Room – out came the book, which was a welcome distraction. After two chapters, I was commanded into the Interview Room, where my fingerprints were taken and I was asked to hold a black board up to my chin with my name scrawled on it in white chalk (okay, that last bit was from CSI).

I was then told to wait with 30 others to be called to any one of the four counters to be interviewed. So I settled into a chair and broke out the book, but before I could finish the first sentence of the new chapter, an American voice boomed out (with the aid of amplification) through one of the counters:

“How much do you earn?”

I stopped reading.

“Fourteen-five,” a short man in a dark blue suit favoured by senior government servant-types said confidently.

Hmm, doing well for yourself, Tuan Pengarah*, I thought. He had to speak up too, since a thick glass wall separated him from his interviewer, and Tuan Pengarah did not have the help of a microphone to make himself heard across the partition. I realised that in the small cramped room, we were all going to be privy to some of the more interesting conversations in Malaysia (well, technically, on an island of US soil in Malaysia). No secrets here!

*Honourable Director

There were all sorts of folks in the room – tourists, businesswomen/men, and students mainly. Most of the interviews were short (10 minutes) but the questions were pointed and designed to sniff out fake stories.

One lady was a middle manager on the way to the US to support some clients. Perky, confident, voluble and very well versed in business-jargon gobbledegook, she was asked what she would be doing, exactly, in the US.

“Well, [deep breath] oursupportsysteminvolvesmeetingoutclient’sneedsbyand

“Okay, okay,” interrupted the frazzled Mr. Young Interviewer, after three minutes of this soliloquy that seemed to be gaining speed instead of coming to a resolution. “You haven’t said what you’ll be doing, exactly.”

“Well, [deep breath] weprovidetheplanningsourcingandorganisationalcapabilitiesforthisspecific

“How much do you earn?” Mr. Young Interviewer apparently has given up.

Perky Manager’s voice drops, oh, four decibels, as she tries, vainly, to hide personal details (she’s married, has three kids, has no relatives in the US, her parents are retired, she went to school in Malaysia) from the rest of us. “Four thousand five,” she almost whispers.

Another middle manager-type, this time from a technical background, let on that he earned eight-plus. Moral of the story? If you don’t qualify under affirmative action policies that open doors to cushy civil service jobs, getting an engineering degree is better than a business degree in the long run!

One elderly Malay Malaysian couple was applying for a visa to attend their son’s graduation. “My wife doesn’t speak much English,” Malay Gentleman told Mr. Older Interviewer, who chatted with them in a jocular fashion. He even cracked a joke at the end, to which Malay Lady tittered a little.

“So, you do understand English, huh?” smiled Mr. Older Interviewer. “You’re pulling my leg here. Well, I’m sure you’ll understand this phrase – ‘Your visa’s been approved.’ Have a good day.” That was nice of him.

Students get different treatments depending on which schools they got into. When I applied for an earlier visa many years back, one meek Chinese Malaysian girl who was going to Ohio State got such a long grilling that she almost crumbled before our very eyes. This time round, another young Chinese Malaysian lass underwent the same sort of interrogation. Her crime? Having a university in Iowa accept her.

Why Iowa? What’s the advantage of studying there? Are you going to return when you graduate? How are your working-class parents going to pay for it? Are you sure you won’t spend more time working than studying? Are you going to return home? Where else did you apply? Any other acceptances? Why not study locally? Are you going to return home?

It was sad thing to witness. This is reality TV, but with real consequences, not hammed up acting for TV cameras. Many such parents who don’t earn a lot of money bust their guts to send their kids overseas because local university education is not an option due to the quota system. Some of these kids are from rural areas and being interrogated by a stern American bent on sniffing out potential overstayers must have been a harrowing experience. Not all of them get their visas approved. It’s so different if your parents are well to do, give you a good education, and you get accepted into one of the Ivies.

There was one preppy Chinese Malaysian lady who spoke with a distinct English accent, who had an English husband, and who obviously has lived abroad for some time. She wanted to visit a friend in Texas.

“How do you know the friend?” asked Another Young Interviewer.

“Through the internet,” she replied.

Oh no, I thought. Totally wrong answer. Internet friendships are so no-no. It just smells of mail-order brides. Didn’t matter that you spoke with a posh accent and have a foreign husband – you’re going to get the fifth degree. And so she did, getting the grilling that all could see was coming (When did she marry? How did she meet her husband? Any kids? Job? Salary? Who is this friend? Any pictures? And on and on and on.)

Exasperated, she snapped: “Well, I could have told you we went to school together and you would have been none the wiser.” Oooh, spunky!!! And I think she got the visa.

You couldn’t help but be self-conscious, overhearing all these conversations. But surprisingly, once it got to my turn, I ended up totally focused on the interview and forgot that everyone could hear my answers. Perhaps it is because you face the interviewer and your back is to the rest of the room, so you don’t see them. Maybe it’s because of the way the panels on your left and right cushion your voice around you, so that it sounds intimate, instead of an echo that wafts across the room. Anyway, by the time my interview was over and I turned around, I realised the room had thinned considerably, so I didn’t have a full house for Episode #274 of My Life.

The interview itself went smoothly. Madam Interviewer was extremely courteous, and even worked with me when we realised I didn’t bring one document – she asked me a series of questions to satisfy that those conditions were met.

As I left the air-conditioned embassy and walked into the spiky, muggy mid-afternoon KL air, I clutched my visa approval thankfully and realised that even though I didn’t make much progress beyond the first line of Chapter 3 of my book, I was much the wiser about the secret lives (and salaries) of a small group of my compatriots.

No comments: