Encounters with Strangers Posted by christian h., 13 Jun 2007 05:23 am
A couple years ago, I made one of my periodic visits to the US Consulate in Frankfurt (Main), Germany, to obtain a new visa stamp. I was tired, since the latest appointment available is at 8:00 am, so I had to get up at 5:30 am to catch a train to get me there in time; and I was nervous. Even though for a white protestant German like me there’s basically no chance of trouble the thought that one official having a bad day could ruin your life is a little disconcerting. Will they wonder what I did in Morocco the year before? Will they notice United for Peace and Justice or Monthly Review among the charitable and political organizations I’ve given money to (if you’re male between the ages of 18 and 45, you have to list all of those)? I am being paranoid of course, but who knows how the “war on terror” influences the situation. Maybe there is more pressure on the consular officials to be extra careful. Maybe the consulate is being audited.
So I arrive a little early for my appointment - appointments come in groups of several dozen people at the same time - , the clear plastic folder with my documents in hand (no electronic devices! No cameras! No backpacks!) and after some standing in line in, luckily, reasonable weather, I get through the metal detectors and into the building (no problem there, the guards are very polite and nice). I immediately make a beeline for the passport photo machines some licensed company has put up in the place - you have to know that there are specific requirements on the format of the photo to submit with the visa application, and it needs to be new. The photos coming out of the machine don’t conform to the specified format, but the machines are there by permission of the consulate, so their output is accepted anyway. My photo turns out borderline, the top of my head touching the upper boundary of the photo (too tall! I should have slouched more.) This makes it hard for the computer to produce the biometric data they are later going to compare to that produced from the photo taken when you enter the country.
After that, I wait until my number comes up the first time - turn in the application forms, the proof of payment of the application fee, the photo. The waiting area could be at an office of the social security administration, or the DMV: standard rows of chairs, bathrooms, counters behind bullet-proof glass. More waiting, and I’m called for the interview. First, the technical stuff has to be done: press the left index finger here. Now the right index finger.
For the kind of visa I was applying for - J-1, “academic exchange” - the actual interview is a fairly perfunctory affair. I think the general purpose is just to find out if you actually are going to engage in academic pursuits or merely getting the visa so you can enter the US and then overstay. Since Germany is part of the visa waiver program anyway, this consulate is treating applicants nicely.
Still, as I said, I’m nervous. With every question, I wonder what the official - a woman in her twenties - really wants to know. “What is the purpose of your stay in the US?” - easy. “Do you like the US?” - careful now, I’m supposed to credibly convince her I’ll leave the US after my temporary position is finished, even though we both know that’s not how it works. On the other hand, you don’t want to lie (or claim that you hate it here) - so I’m honest and say “yes” enthusiastically, hoping I didn’t make a mistake. “What are your duties at the University of Illinois going to be?” “What kind of research do you do?” - the usual, I just need to show I’m not faking it, that I know what I’m doing. If I was a biologist or chemist or nuclear physicist, this might be different - I’d have to let them know on the application that I have knowledge relevant to the production of WMD.
“Well then, have a good trip home!” she says - and I realize she knows quite well I’m likely to stay in the US, and is just being nice, trying to have a conversation. No nefarious interview techniques. It was her position of power over me that had made normal conversation impossible on my end, no matter how nice a person she was.
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