Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Watching the visa queue

They don't let you take pens into the Consular Section at the US Embassy in Kathmandu, much less notepads or cameras, but you can write on the handouts they give, handouts with brutalist, all-caps titles like PHOTOGRAPH REQUIREMENTS FOR PASSPORTS ISSUED OVERSEAS. Because the only pen you can get is either attached to a table via a ball-chain and heavy block—there's only one of these—or in the breast pocket of the blue-uniformed, name-tagged security guard1 who spends much of her day shepherding rejected visa applicants out of the walkway, taking notes discreetly is something of a challenge.

This challenge is further compounded by the huge amount of distraction: you are liable, on any moderately busy day, to see and often hear, crisply, someone's hopes of bettering his life be whimsically, or capriciously, or hardheartedly crumbled2. That's the nature of the place, after all, and if you were allowed to make purely touristic visits they would be something akin to safaris to crocodile-populated watering holes on the African savanna. That, or to a parole hearing.

One of the more interesting things about the Embassy here, I think, is how in recreation or reconstruction of the United States overseas—the massive noncontiguity that the Embassy not just represents but putatively is—the Embassy repeatedly and faithfully transports the physical objects and structures that most typify the America of dominance. From the street the Embassy itself looks like nothing so much as an over-fortified office park, with brushed-aluminum, swept-arm benches and pink stone and even, incredibly, corporate art; the parking lot is attended by security guards who arbitrarily allow or disallow parking, standing, or walking through certain sectors of an asphalt lot; the security checkpoint is a little room with blast-proof glass and twice as many guards as petitioners, if not more; and inside there are two sections of seats: a section for American citizens and green-card holders that faces the windows of the consular officials, and a section for Nepalis that faces the south wall.

Considerately, on the wall is attached a rectangular, HDTV television, looped to show again and again and again how a Nepali ought to put his finger in the fingerprint scanner.3

This is all weighted with symbolic power—the embassy could still be in the more high-school-like Phora Durbar compound across the street from the old Narayanhiti Palace, or in an elegantly decrepit Rana Palace, or in a building that is an exact replica of the White House—but who is this symbolism for? The aforementioned handout, for instance, has at its top the heraldic US seal of the bald eagle with its wings displayed, a scroll in its beak and its claws grasping a branch—an olive branch, not that you can tell—and a clutch of arrows, all in all vaguely Roman, vaguely Germanic, undoubtedly corporate-imperial. In fact, to my Western eyes it's almost a caricature of a seal, the type of thing most appropriate—if you and I were not already inured to it by familiarity—to a Hollywood dystopian movie about the corporatist or corporate-fascist state. Something like Demolition Man, say.

It is almost certainly lost on the Nepalis who come to visit, as the symbolic language is Western, is just as incomprehensible to a Nepali as the Nepali language is to a bideshi, a foreigner. Pink marble Hollywood presents, typically, as tacky; heraldic emblems are self-consciously European; and here the banality of corporate power—the visual allusion of the place—just looks banal. It is certainly bideshi-looking, and perhaps intends to take some of its power from that fact, but in the end conveys that—as my new friend Prasad says, smiling—“Americans are very rich,” and little else.

Clearly I am unafraid of making judgments, but here I find my understanding lacking. Is the Embassy—built only recently—set up like a business in reflection of the lesser Bush administration's aesthetic and moral preferences? To demonstrate to citizens abroad that American standards and praxis of bureaucracy have fruited here, mycelium-like? Because Americans, as a whole, are an aesthetically dulled people? Because of the amazingly persistent American inability to see the world through another's world view, another's history?

No matter. It is enough to see how America chooses to display the power it has: not through military strength, the most common colonial strategy; not through the promotion of liberty and autonomy and market capitalism, as during the Cold War; not as a friend to whom you owe a favor, nor as a friend who's doing you a favor preemptively; not as the center of cool—the home of jazz, of Hollywood, of television, of rock and roll; not as a working model of a more efficient and developed way of life4; but through corporate strength, economic strength, the type of strength that works in the developing world not through a morally legitimate exchange of labor for capital, but as often as not through a false dichotomy of job-or-no-job, through the real dichotomy of this-job-or-homelessness, of this-job-or-hunger.

It's American greatness, and to some degree American “exceptionalism,” that's presumed here. “They did not want to hear just that US education is better than Nepali education,” Prasad says. “They know already.” Or take instead a passage from Kiran Desai's somewhat silly book The Inheritance of Loss and its description of the Consulate that Biju visits: “In this room it was a fact accepted by all that Indians were willing to undergo any kind of humiliation to get into the States. You could heap rubbish on their heads and yet they would be begging to come crawling in....”5

And so, waiting in the chairs facing the consular officials, waiting for them to process my application for a passport renewal abroad, it strikes me that perhaps the job most analogous to that of an Embassy official in the Consular Section is indeed parole officer. The excess of this analogy is that Nepal, then, is the prison; or rather, that the prison is the SAARC countries where Nepalis with citizenship papers can travel freely. But nonetheless, the Nepalis want to go, often just to visit, and this is the place, by structure, for the consular officers to tell them they cannot, that though they have good grades or are qualified the official isn't convinced.

Yet a place of birth is luck; I no more “deserve” to be from San Francisco than Prasad “deserves” to be from Kathmandu. Further, the great number of visa applicants will be denied for luck: for not having enough family money, for not being an oldest son, for not speaking English well enough and earnestly enough to convince the officer behind the glass of their desire not to make money but to help their own people (whatever that phrase—my own—means).

Still, the consular officers enter with upright motives: they believe, by and large, that they are doing something necessary, something good. They participate in a system that, in effect, treats blocks to capital flow as mortal sin (see WTO) but impediments to the free flow of people—of labor, in economics-speak—as legitimate, and their places as person-sieves as necessary, if not always perfectly justifiable. Indeed, it's the literal structures of the place they work that emphasize this world view, that emphasize economic power more than anything else. The visual structures of American capitalism are, in Kathmandu, at the Embassy, consuming. Are they, the officers, complicit actors or victims?

Yes, I say.

Prasad, by the way, successfully got a visa to study at the University of Texas at Arlington. He started talking to me because he was so excited he couldn't help himself; we were both going out of the Embassy at the same time. “Tell everyone thank you,” he said to me as we waited for security to retrieve our bags. “Tell your friend”—meaning my friend at the visa office—“thank you.”


1 Note that “for security,” the only people with nametags are the Nepalis who are the security and custodial officers—the people who, as potential collaborators, are explicitly most vulnerable in the event of attack or siege.

2 I choose not to use “validly” (or a more elegant synonym) intentionally, for reasons that this essay should elucidate, at least dimly; though in the minds of the consular officers many Nepalis are rejected for reasons they, and the US government, see as valid or legitimate.

3 I've been to the Embassy four times now, and every time the vast, vast majority of Nepalis applying for visa have been young men—I'd guesstimate about 70–75%, though I'm sure the Embassy itself keeps those sorts of statistics.

4 Terms used with all possible irony.

5 Because it's actually quite insightful, here is a lengthier excerpt, with only a tiny bit of cutting:

Some would be chosen, others refused, and there was no question of fair or not. What would make the decision? It was a whim; it was not liking your face, forty-five degrees centigrade outside and impatience with all Indians, therefore; or perhaps merely the fact that you were in line after a yes, so you were likely to be the no. He trembled to think of what might make these people unsympathetic. Presumably, though, they would start off kind and relaxed, and then, faced with all the fool and annoying people, with their lies and crazy stories, and their desire to stay barely concealed under fervent promises to return, they would respond with an indiscriminate machine-gun-fire of NO!NO!NO!NO!NO!

On the other hand, it occurred to those who now stood in the front, that at the beginning, fresh and alert, they might be more inclined to check their paper more carefully and find gaps in their arguments.... Or perversely start out by refusing, as if for practice.

There was no way to fathom the minds and hearts of these great Americans, and Biju watched the windows carefully, trying to uncover a pattern he might learn from. Some officers seemed more amiable than others, some scornful, some thorough, some were certain misfortune, turning everyone away empty-handed....

Biju watched as the words were put forward to others with complete bluntness, with a fixed and unembarrassed eye—odd when asking such rude questions. Standing there, feeling the enormous measure of just how despised he was, he would have to reply in a smart yet humble manner. If he bumbled, tried too hard, seemed too cocky, became confused, if they didn't get what they wanted quickly and easily, he would be out. In this room it was a fact accepted by all that Indians were willing to undergo any kind of humiliation to get into the States. You could heap rubbish on their heads and yet they would be begging to come crawling in....

Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss. New Delhi: Penguin India, 2006, pp. 183-184.

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