Thursday, November 26, 2009

it can SUCK to be an expatriate American here!

My youngest needs a new passport. Sometimes these things just sneak up on you and that’s what happened this time. My ex sent me a text a couple months ago telling me it was time to replace our youngest’s unexpectedly expired one, so I did the research using information on the RAO website maintained by our local embassy warden. It all seemed pretty straight forward. I looked at what is required for children in the custody of one parent and there didn’t seem much to it—an extra simple form and a legal custody document.

One of the FEW good things, as far as I am concerned, about the American embassy here is that periodically they do outreaches to various sites around the country so that we don’t have to go there. That’s always a good thing since going to the embassy in Manila is painful. Aside from the ugly downtown traffic I hate the way I feel when I’m there in the embassy—I certainly do NOT feel welcome. In fact, just the sight of that building causes my blood pressure to go up; and I’m not the only American living here that feels that way.

Many of us get the impression that WE are a pain in their collective ass. How much easier would their job be if WE weren’t here? I’ve asked expatriates from other countries living here if they feel estranged in their own embassy and they have no idea what I’m talking about. I’m sure it’s because ours is so big and always full of “customers.” “Besieged” is the word that comes to mind whenever I see the hordes of people trying to get inside whenever I pass by that place. And when I’m one of those unfortunates trying to get in I always get an uneasy feeling, like that of an untrustworthy farm animal being processed into a factory for rendering.

Travelling with small kids to the heart of Manila is NOT fun and can be risky if not dangerous. For example, just last week one of my elderly and physically more fragile veteran clients was forced by the VA to go to the outpatient clinic for a pension exam and had his wallet lifted on the train. He was lucky that something worse didn’t happen, for there are many potential pitfalls in making one’s way through that town.

Wanting to avoid that sort of possible unpleasantness, my ex and I were determined to get our girl’s passport application done in one fell swoop here at the outreach. My ex even called the embassy customer service line several times just to make sure all was in order. Reassured that all SHOULD go smoothly I went ahead and scheduled a full line up of veteran clients at my morning gig at the VFW on the day of the outreach.

Alas, it was almost 10 am when my ex showed up at the office looking stressed out and tightlipped. She asked if I couldn’t go with her back to the outreach from where she had just come. Things had NOT gone well for her there evidently. I should have known.

‘Oh great! THAT figures!’

Luckily, my replacement-in-training was there, and, thankfully, he's an exceptionally quick study to the service officer business. I handed off to him and took off with my ex. In the car she explained that the Filipino fellow that she ended up in front of took a quick look at her forms and then stubbornly insisted that “The father MUST come here. If he can’t make it then you’ll have to come to the embassy some other day. Besides, it’s almost 11 o’clock and that’s when we shut down.”

My ex said he refused to look at any of the papers she had, including her American passport and the divorce decree showing that she had custody of our girls; and in the condescending fashion that local bureaucrats typically affect here he sent her away. By the time I got there I was in a silent rage. She pointed out the smug fellow and I stood in front of him trying to maintain control of myself; however, I ended up doing a horrible job of that.

I got a terse sentence or two out and he stopped looking at my face. I’m sure it’s because he could see the fury there that matched the trembling anger in my voice.

“I don’t understand the problem,” I told him. “We are divorced. The decree states that SHE has custody of the girls, so WHY must I be here? That’s not the information we got from your customer service or from the internet!”

At that point he passed the papers over to the American woman sitting at his side. He mumbled something that I could not understand. He dismissed me the same way that he had dismissed my ex earlier. I needed to get away from that man before I exploded. I walked to the front of the table to remove myself from his indifferent galling presence. I didn’t like him and he obviously did not think much of us. From the looks of him lunch was foremost on his mind.

The attitude of the female American consular officer was like day to his night. She was wonderfully professional. Within seconds my seething anger was doused into submission. She listened to us, read through our documents and in a courteously friendly fashion explained what was needed.

“Sir, I’ve read through this decree and although it says she has custody it doesn’t mention sole legal custody, which is the requirement if she is going to be able to be a single parent signer. Maybe you can find where it says that and show it to me?”

“Maam, let’s not parse. If we don’t have what we need there to make the mother the sole signer then what do we need to get my girl her passport so she can get the heck out of this country?”

“No problem sir. Just sign here."

It was as easy as that. I signed on the line and all was well. In fact, I finished signing and looked up at her with a nod of my head. She then went one step further which made me a fan for life—she smiled at me and apologized. Completely tamed and even chastened, I in turn, also told her that I was sorry. THAT is how things SHOULD be done. THAT woman should be an ambassador some day. I love her!

So two things:

1) Why are there locals doing the work of “assisting” Americans applying for American citizens services, especially one like THAT fellow? In this case in particular the man was dismissive and officious, something that I’ve gotten used to in dealing with local government institutions as a second class non-citizen here, but I shouldn’t have to put up with that sort of indifferent attitude when dealing with my own embassy.

2) If you are a single parent here with custody of your children, before trying to apply for a new passport for them, ensure that you have a certified legal document showing “sole legal custody.” If THOSE THREE WORDS are NOT included in your divorce documents and you show up with an application for your child’s new passport, they will shrug and tell you to come back with either the other parent or with a document showing “SOLE LEGAL CUSTODY.”

Oh, and there is a third thing: Mr. smug man insisted that my ex come up with a photo album showing my girl as she has aged from the time of the first passport. No one informed my ex of that requirement when she called embassy customer service and I saw nothing like that in the embassy warden’s info site. It was explained to me that we have to suffer with this "extra" requirement due to the extremely fraudulent nature of this place. I’m positive parents in the US don’t have to worry about doing such a thing. I have no idea what they would do if no pictures like that exist, perhaps simply deny issue of the passport in that arrogantly dismissive, infuriating way that this round faced guy did. My ex had to send someone all the way back out to her far distant town to get an album of photos. I was just leaving the outreach as it neared the 11 am closing when my ex’s husband hurried through the hotel door with the necessary album. It had taken him more than two hours to make the round trip.

Like I said, that professional consular lady notwithstanding, my embassy sucks; or on the flip, it can SUCK to be an expatriate American here.


Ed said...

Something to remember if I ever become an expatriate.

Downtown Manila always scares me. For one, whenever I am there, I am always being followed by two or three young boys with their eyes on my wallet. I have learned to walk around with one hand on my wallet at all times. Fortunately, I'm big enough that they haven't tried to just rough me up to get it.

Consul-At-Arms said...

Sorry your initial experience was so unpleasant.

I've never served in Manila so I can't speak to how they handle their workload. Personally, I find the Amcit services part of consular work to be usually the most pleasant and rewarding, although you sometimes have to deliver bad news.

The two parent signature requirement is relatively new. It does trip people up, as well as the fact that children's passport are only valid for five years, when their parents are valid for ten. Nine times out of ten, I think, this is why parent's don't realize their children's passports have expired.

Outreach events like you describe are a lot of work for everyone involved, including customers, but are a huge help in providing vital services to our farflung compatriots abroad. I'm glad your experience with the consular officer end up being a positive one.

Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas,Phil. I hope you've had a happy holiday. xo Hope

Amadeo said...

Hello, Phil:

How have you been? Taking a blogging sabbatical?

I am still here in Cagayan de Oro, getting heavily involved in local politics. I have a horse in this election, a trusted friend and former teaching colleague who is running for mayor.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Be careful buddy. Doing what your doing openly can be dangerous in this country and that's an understatement.

I'm having some problems "above the neck." I hope to be writing again soon. At the moment, just not up to it.

Amadeo said...


Hope you get back to the feel of things quickly.

To the other issue, you forget I can blend in as well as the rest of the population. HiHiHi.

Anonymous said...

Phil, did you feel that earthquake yesterday?

I'm here in the states and saw my honey's reaction to it live...she's in Guagua, and from what I saw, it was just a light shaking.

She was pretty calm-went downstairs and everything was ok so she came back upstairs and we resumed our long distance conversation!

PhilippinesPhil said...

I didn't feel it. It would have to be a significant shaker before I would have looked up anyway. Actually, this place is DUE a big one; once it comes, expect some serious damage around here. They don't build to any real standard from what I've observed, some places better than others. I shudder to think of the prospects.

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