how the world sees america

India Says Wait for Your Visa

lineup2.jpg
Don't complain, join the queue.
I’d be living with villagers in south India right now, but -- as many non-American trying to visit the U.S. would understand -- my visa is holding me back.

An Air Emirates flight was set to depart Friday, June 15 at 9:30pm carrying me with it. All was in order except my press visa to India, which I thought was being taken care of back in Washington. Not so. I got a call on Wednesday telling me I needed to re-apply for the visa in person in the UK. This could take “days, weeks” I was told. A bit of panic struck.

I went immediately to the Indian High Commission in London, planning to hop the line (or “queue” as they call it here), talk directly with the minister and have this “sorted out right away.” Cutting straight to the visa window, I panted, "I’m an American journalist. This is urgent."

Without looking up, a bored consular official monotoned at me: “Get back in the queue.”

“But, my f--”

“Queue.” This was a lost cause. I got in line.

jack-bauer.jpg
Jack Bauer doesn't wait in lines.
I’ve never been good at long waits and official procedures; my impatience often lands me in trouble both with officials and other customers. I tend to interpret lines selectively -- especially those hydra ones with many endpoints, always looking for the fastest way in.

But that is not British, I’m told by a UK businessman as I shuffle forward, scanning the queue for points of least resistance. I slow down to talk to him, and tell him about my project. “You have your flags” to show your American identity, he says, and “we queue properly; it’s very British.” Interesting, I thought, it sure didn’t rub off on their former colonials. I can't wait for the chaotic lines of India.

But wait I did, in a low-roofed room that looked like the lobby of a bank, beside an elderly man who told me he was “in no hurry to go anywhere,” making it sound strangely like he thought Indian-Embassy-visa-section-purgatory could save him from death.

I didn’t get my visa that day, or that week. Unlike Jack Bauer's or Gregory House's way of getting things done, I wasn’t able to threaten a bureaucrat or break into the consulate at night. Living beyond the rules -- is that an American dream or a universal one? In either case, I've delayed my flight for a week, until this Friday the 22nd. Now lingering in London, I'm planning to spend the extra few days in Scotland or Ireland, anywhere but a wretched queue, and I'm all ears for your suggestions.

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Comments (19)

Candy Boyer:

unpardon malunion superstimulate planetologist unwayward hyperexcitability constitute sinuauricular
Snowman Paper Doll
http://www.rogersgardens.com

Emilio Mejia:

unpardon malunion superstimulate planetologist unwayward hyperexcitability constitute sinuauricular
St Margaret's School for Girls
http://web.axelero.hu/arbix/fuszer/photos/origanum-tyttanthum-1b.jpg

Tehran:

I understand this! I'm just saying its annoying....It is certainly much worse for non-Americans.

My parents have told me horror stories of coming to the US repeatedly.

Persian Redneck, Tehran:

When you get to India, or even in London, have a look at long lines at the American Embassy. Rules and lines are for every one, chap!

What makes you think that you are different?

Also, when you are in India, go to the American Embassy and ask what kind of process to which an Indian journalist must adhere for travelling to USA? Or should he just stay at home and watch CNN and FoxNews?

Bill:

might as well admit the urge shankar, doesnt mean u do it

Amar:

Hi Shankar, Fair point! It does occur to me, I'll be honest. But do I do it? No. I submitted my application to both months ago. It was the last minute glitch that really threw me off this time. My visa application for Pakistan, for example, was submitted back in March but still is under consideration. It's sometimes much harder for journalists to get visas, the rigmarole of which was in this post originally but then edited out.

As far as being a foreign national and being treated like a criminal, I can say I understand best through the stories of my parents who migrated from India in 1976. My father was denied a visa, I believe, and given no reason. My mother pleaded on his behalf and after months an official changed his mind -- it was quite whimsical, unfair. So by no means should one bypass the expected procedure. And likewise officials should be sure to uphold procedure.

The point of this post, at least for me, was how compelling the fantasy of breaking the rules is. But it seems I have few sympathizers here! Off to writing the next post...

Shankar:

I'm sorry Amar I fail to sympathize if indeed your point was to drum up support for "jumping the queue". I would ask you to consider this: as an Indian citizen I get treated like a criminal by just about every consulate or embassy I visit. I live and work in the United States and while US consulates are no picnic they are certainly not the worst. But I jump through every hoop, bring the 100 documents I'm supposed to, plan my visit to the consulate months in advance, slavishly follow their extraordinary space-shuttle-launch-type specifications for photographs and show up at 5 am to get in line so that I am doing what is required. And you ask to be treated better just because you are a journalist? Or that you can maybe throw some more money at the problem? How is this even remotely fair to the hundreds or thousands of people who actually follow the rules?

And all this discussion about "free spirits" like Jack Bauer or Gregory House makes me wonder -- the world runs because most people follow the rules and pull their weight by doing their jobs day in and day out. Yes I enjoy watching TV but it does not occur to me even when I have waited in the rain outside a consulate for several hours that I should bribe a few guards and catapult over a fence.

If you are stuck in England/Scotland, then I highly recommend visiting Fort William for the whiskey, the Sunderbans for hiking or London for the night life. Good luck to you.

Amar:

Hi JRLR, I saw that and recognized the repost. It certainly fits here too I suppose. Today is the one for big decisions. Checking in with the embassy to see if my visa might be ready 'early.' If it is, I'm off. If not, I'll head out of London most likely or focus on immigrants today.

JRLR:

Amar, obviously, someone ANONYMOUS is having fun reproducing here (7:13 PM) a slightly shorter version of my post to you dated June 16, 11:11 AM....

Looking forward to hear where life finally takes you.

Anonymous:

Sorry to hear the Indian part of the journey has been delayed. I was ready to leave with you, and this! Are your contacts catching up on lost sleep, or something? As an eminent-multi-media-journalist from the Washington Post, accompanied by all of us, the faithfuls, tell them we consider you deserve a red carpet welcome now! Et plus vite que ça! Que ça saute!!...

THOUGHTS.

Why not take this opportunity to see how Europeans see America?

Here are two possibilities:

Option 1. You can arrange to travel to the "Continent" without passport and do so for a week. Let's be ambitious: How about interviewing people in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Spain, for instance? I myself recently traveled with my wife from southern France to Italy and back, by car, and there was not a soul at the borders to stop us and ask any question. I don't know how it is, leaving from good ol' insular England, but you can inquire and find out quickly.

Option 2. You arrange to meet different groups of European nationals currently living in Britain and find out what their views are on America versus Europe... and "European" Britain. I can imagine you getting help from the French at the Maison Française (Oxford) or from the French Institute in London. How about meeting Germans with the help of staff at the Goethe Institute, 50 Prince's Gate, London, SW7 2PH, UK 020 75964000(?)? And so on for nationals from other European countries. (Wish you could be at Maison des États-Unis, Cité Universitaire, boul. Jourdan, Paris; you would be surrounded by them -- but that takes us back to option 1, version 2...)

Of course two options always lead to a third, e.g. pursuing the journey in Scotland and in Ireland...

These are just thoughts, of course, but in the spirit of your project, I believe. Is it not entitled: "How the WORLD sees America"?

Amar:

Moosey,
What were you up to in India? Can't wait to get there. My family hails from Delhi, and I've spent many months there. It's a visually incredible place. I definitely want to share some of that.

Tom,
There probably is a quicker way of getting this done here - just don't have the money to do it. In a lot of places, bribery is like an informal tax, it seems, and is practically built into a bureaucratic system. For me, an experience in Nicaragua springs to mind where for an extra few bucks you could bypass a massive line -- basically it was for tourists. Because staff was underpaid, extracting this flexible bribe was a source of income.

Alex P,
Where are you based? If you're in England, would love to meet up. I'm meeting a guy named Patwant Singh tomorrow, a writer, and am then debating pushing off to Scotland unless I can get the visa for India and leave sooner. Glad to have you aboard anyway!

For all, as a junkie, any Jack Bauerisms that seem to be somewhat on theme are most welcome!

Amar:

Sabrina, you're sounding a bit like John Stewart on Crossfire, defending himself against the bow-tie-wearing guy Tucker Carlson who said Stewart lobbed softball questions to Kerry. Stewart said: my show is a comedy! So by no means do I think torture or the abuse of patients is acceptable, but I do think that the longing to break out of certain confines is inherently appealing, and feeds into many Hollywood and TV dramas, where protagonists show they excel beyond natural limits: whether The Matrix or Ferris Bueller's Day off. Adherence to rules is important, no doubt, but the wish to break free grows as rules become more restrictive. In the UK for example, you have this big controversy right now over some soccer stars trading driving points with one another in order to speed on roads and still be able to play soccer. It's a big deal, with some people saying the omnipresence of speed-control cameras makes the lure ever greater. I'm not coming down on either side, yet, though I admit my sympathy for the speeder. But I think the wish to break free is a powerful one -- of course within reason -- and a fictive TV show is not reason!

Moosey:

There is nothing particularily American about wanting to bypass orderly procedures, especially in this case, so speculations about national character are inappropriate in this case.

I spent 4 months in India and saw two,exactly two, orderly queue. One was in the Indian Embassy (in Thailand :-), the other was in Jaipur where the train station had narrow (i.e. wide enough for only a single person) guide rails in the ticket line. Other times, queues were often free-for-alls with people pushing their way in front of me, throwing the money down on the counter and me grabbing the money and tossing it on the floor, etc.

Do I miss the disorderly chaos that is India? You bet.

Alexander P:

Hi Amar,
I work at washingtonpost.com, maybe i'll see you around haha. Good ideas for Scotland is Edinburgh. This place has got some rich history, some fine shopping and dining. You really need to check it out. And by the way, I go to school in London. Go to Nando's while you're at it. My favourite over there.
Have a good trip.

sabrina:

I am, in fact, a fan of epic struggles and breaking barriers. But I take issue with your examples, Amar. It's important to maintain the line - yes, often subtle - between an entrepreneurial and free-thinking spirit and one that violates or ignores the basic rights of others.

Let's not forget that Jack Bauer ignores some "rules and confines" which are integral to our (global?) moral(?) fabric, e.g. prohibitions on torture. Republican candidates made that connection explicit in a recent GOP debate... and came in on the side of Bauer and machismo.

Dr. House's insistence that patients always lie and are not to be trusted or consulted in the course of their medical treatment also violates certain key tenets - ethical and legal - that I don't find oppressive or confining...

tom:

Another "Americanism" is the ability to pay a fee and jump to the front of the line. I would expect to be able to do that anywhere, but it seems to be formally recognized only in America. From Six Flags to passport agencies, there is always some sort of "expedited processing." I guess in Britain, you wait in line no matter how much you're willing to pay.

That said, this ability to get things done with money is informally recognized in a lot of Latin American countries, where a few dollars extra on the side make these sorts of bureaucratic processes go much more smoothly.

Amar:

Couldn't agree with you more, Sabrina.
Anonymous, I hope I'm not the only one. But shows like House, 24 and movies like Lord of the Rings appeal to me precisely because their protagonists are engaged in an epic struggle, living beyond the rules, the confines they're expected to be within. I don't know if that's my reaction to 9-5 pressures (which are great in America since we work harder/longer than most) or scholastic pressures or what. But its a powerful idea....Interested to hear what others think.

Anonymous:

The fantasy of tearing through obstacles, living beyond the rules. Is it just me? Or is there something American about it?

sabrina:

The answer is Jack Bauer. The question doesn't matter.

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