Saturday, June 7, 2003

Manila Slalom, and How I Got A Bikini Model to Sarenade Me...

A couple of people (Michele and Jeff) have recently said that my reflections on Manila and thoughts about my job would be interesting to some people. I've put it off because a) it's easier to put it off, and b) I'm worried that I might say something that would compromise my position in some way. I'm a U.S. government employee after all, and that disclaimer at the bottom of the index page doesn't really mean squat. My job involves sensitive and sometimes classified information. If I say something that runs contradictory to U.S. foreign policy or otherwise embarasses the State Department, I could be in a whole lot of trouble.

there are some things I can talk about. So I'll try to feel around to what those are.
First, some ground work. For those who don't really know what I do _ and I didn't in the first few weeks of working here _ I'm a Vice Consul in the Immigrant Visa section of the U.S. Embassy in Manila. This means that I adjudicate visa applications. My friends over in the Non-Immigrant Visa unit deal with student visas, tourist visas, and the like. The most common reason for refusal over there is that they think the person won't leave the U.S. _ that they are an "intending immigrant." Those intending immigrants are what I deal with.
An alien (or foreigner, or whatever you prefer) can get a visa if they have a special skill needed in the U.S. That is largely determined by the Department of Labor, and can be pretty broad. The vast majority of our work visa applicants are nurses. There's a relative nurse shortage in the U.S. Even Filipino doctors go to nursing school to be nurses in the U.S. Sometimes I get a physical therapist, or cement mason, or even a cook. "To prepare Western-style meals" for a construction company. There's a shortage of that, apparently, according to Labor. No comment.
But most of our immigrants have family ties. Parents can bring in their kids, kids can bring in their parents, siblings can siblings, adoptees can adopted, etc. The time it takes is variable according to age, family ties and status of the U.S. petitioner. A U.S. citizen can get their wife or minor child in pretty quick. Green-card holders take longer. A U.S. citizen will have to wait about 22 years to bring in their Filipino sibling. One of the small joys I have is giving that visa to some old guy and his family who has patiently waited and diligently followed our labyrinthine procedures and requirements, so they can immigrate and get a green card.
(Which, incidentally, isn't green at all. It was at one time. Now it's kinda peach colored.)
There is a far more interesting type of visa, too, the fiancee visa. An American can petition for their foreign fiancee to come to the U.S. They have to get married with 90 days of their arrival, and they must be happily (reasonably so) married _ to the same person _ for 2 years. The BCIS (formerly INS) checks, otherwise the alien is sent home. This visa can take a relatively short time to get, a matter of months.
For obvious reasons, these can be the most interesting cases and the hardest to adjudicate. They're not related, of course, so I can't just check to see if they're really father and son or whatever and send them on their way. We have to see if it's a "valid relationship." In other words, we see if Cupid has really done his job, or whether it's just a show.
Mind-reading is not a job requirement, though it probably should be. The Internet _ and its predecessors, the bride catalogs that still circulate from Asia and Europe _ fuels most of our applicants. Some are former schoolmates or neighbors here in the Philippines, but most aren't. Most met through online personals ads, in one form or another.
It's not easy, to say the least. I look at pictures of them together. I read their printed e-mails. I read their love letters and cards. I delve into their most personal details, from their medical records to their former loves (or marriages) to what side of the bed their fiancee sleeps on. And then I decide.
I worked today, on Saturday, because we're really behind on fiancees. It's no one's fault, really, it's just that everyone in the U.S. is marrying everyone in the Philippines, and they all have to go through my office. We had about 300 applicants show up today, a few with their U.S. fiances.
(Apologies for the gender references, but the vast majority of our fiance(e) beneficiaries are female. The U.S. citizen is almost always male. They also tend to live in little itty-bitty cities, but that's a different issue.)
As an aside, let me quickly mention my Manila Rules for Driving, since we got our car and have done some driving in the city.
1) There are no rules.
2) You are only responsible for the front half of your car. Same for other drivers. Cut off and be cut off.
3) Jeepneys (do a Google search for a picture if you haven't seen one) and buses are all over the damn place, and tend to stop suddenly to drop off or pick up passengers.
4) Beware of buses. They swerve all over the road. They're getting a bit better, now that some people _ including a former congressman _ have chased after erratically-driving buses and shot (yes, with guns) at the drivers.
5) Keep the windows rolled up at all times. Pollution, beggars and security.
6) There is no rule 6.
7) Do not use your turn signals, ever. Manila drivers see it as a sign of weakness.
Anyway, back to the fiancees. Here's a quick rundown of some of my more interesting cases.
1) 20 year old girl and 79 year old U.S. citizen. Internet romance, of course. He's been married 3 times before, and had two previous Filipina fiancees that didn't work out for various reasons.
2) 42 year old woman and 86 year old millionaire U.S. citizen.
3) A woman who had a kid with the male petitioner, her husband, then he went to the States. After 2 years of this guy trying to make enough money to petition for her, she apparently lost patience and married another guy, having three kids with him. 10 years later, the woman and guy #1 make up, and he's petitioning for her and all four kids.
4) Army man petitions for Filipina who was working as an "Entertainer" ("I served drinks and talked with the guys," she said.) in Korea.
5) U.S. citizen there with his Filipina wife, when I had to tell him that no, he's not really married to his wife because she has a prior unterminated marriage. (This happens _all_the_time_. Divorce is illegal in the Philippines. You can only get a marriage annulled, have the spouse die, or have him/her declared 'presumptively dead,' which has its own problems.) He took it somewhat well, considering. He didn't yell much.
And now, my singers. This hasn't happened before, but I might try to make it a habit.
6) U.S. citizen vacationing in Indonesia met a Filipina who was working as a singer there. She's part of a harmony group. I ask what she sings, she says Manhattan Transfer songs. I ask if she knows "Boy from New York City." She at first claims not to, which I refuse to believe, then admits she does. I tell her to sing it. Surprisingly, she does. She's an alto.
7) The Foreign Service Nationals (the local Filipino staff at the office, who are the backbone of any embassy) are all abuzz about an applicant who has married an American citizen. They say she's the 2003 Boracay bikini contest winner.
(Beauty contests are ridiculously popular here, and I'm not very up on Philippine stars yet. A few weeks ago I interviewed the mother of a big local TV/Movie star, Alice Dixson. I didn't have a clue.)
Everyone rushes over to check. I, being the responsible American officer, decide to check on the local staff and make sure they're not having any problems. In passing, I see her. She's mind-blowingly hot.
For some reason, they give her case to me. They said they saved her for me. Usually they just save refusals for me (I think they're cleansing after a bunch of cases like 1-3 above).
So I take her, so to speak. She, a 25-year-old, married a 53-year-old guy from Hawaii. They met at somebody's wedding. He's your basic middle-American middle-age guy. He's about to become real popular among his friends.
I ask her what she does for a living, she says she's a model and singer. I told her that we like to verify things. I couldn't very well demand that she model a bikini _ arg _ so I ask what she sings. Karen Carpenter songs, she says.
Of course. This country loves all that treacly crap.
I ask what her favorite Carpenter song is, and she told me. I can't remember it now, and I didn't recognize it. I asked her to sing it. She said she didn't want to, but she would sing "Close to You." So she sang a good three verses or so to me. I turned the speaker in my window up. She's a soprano. She was really good.
After I approved her visa (she was qualified for the visa, not just as a singer) and the FSN's returned her passport, she stopped by my window to wave goodbye.
No parting song.

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