Saturday, June 2, 2012

Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!* - January 2012

You know what I hate?  Visa applications.  As I approach the middle of my last year in Japan, I’ve had to make a decision about what I want to do next year.  I’ve had it in my head for a long time that I’d like to see more of the Pacific rim before I go home, particularly Australia and New Zealand.  After all, it’s unlikely that I’ll be visiting this region again any time soon, nor be this footloose when I’m older.  And it doesn’t make much sense in terms of time, money, or environmentalism to travel all the way home and all the way back.  I’m kind of homesick, but I think I could stand another year abroad, and I’ve saved enough money that I think I can afford some travelling.

So I’ve decided to apply for an Australian working holiday visa, which allows one to live and work in Australia for up to one year.  If I get it, I’ll be travelling there in the summer and staying till the visa expires or I run out of money.  I’ve had to obtain work visas for foreign countries before, but on previous occasions the process was handled by an employer or agency.  This is my first time applying for a visa on my own, and so far I’m not enjoying it.  First of all, there are all those questions that aren’t answered in the instructions, for which you have to call the Australian Embassy, which is conveniently open from 9:00-noon, Monday to Friday.  (I knew there had to be an up-side to getting influenza!)  The good news is that I can lodge my application through the embassy in Tokyo; I was terrified that they’d force me to do everything via my home country.  Asking about payment methods was a bit more complicated.

Me: “How do I pay the fee if I file a paper application?”
Friendly Representative of the Australian Government: ”Oh, you don’t need to file a paper application.  You can file on line and pay by credit card.”
Me: ”But I don’t want to file on line.”
FRAG: ”But the on-line application is much easier and quicker than the paper one.”
Me: ”No, really.  I prefer to do the paper one.  So how do I pay for it?”
FRAG: ”Well, if you do it on line you can pay by credit card.”
Me: ”But I don’t have a credit card.”
Awkward silence.

Okay, first of all, you have to love – and by “love”, I mean “be infuriated by” – the helpless confusion that sets in when you tell people you don’t have a credit card.  Admittedly I do have a credit card, and my frequent claims to the contrary are largely about being contrary, but for me it’s a point of principle.  It’s a pet peeve of mine how many services these days are only available by credit card.  What about all the people in the world who don’t have credit cards and can’t get them because they’re poor, homeless, or unemployed, or simply have lousy credit history?  How are they supposed to pay for things?  Are they to be denied access to airline tickets, video store memberships, and the contents of the Amazon catalogue just because of their socio-economic status?!

I admit that I’m ranting, and that this is an issue about which I know almost nothing.  But it just bugs me on an intuitive level.  Not to mention that there are all sorts of other downsides to credit cards.  I mean, seriously, you’d think in this day and age we’d have come up with a better way of paying for things than by punching in a sixteen-digit number (which can be stolen by a good enough computer hacker or anyone who gets a glance inside your purse) linked to a line of credit (which may have a limit way beyond anything you’d actually want to spend) that you then have to pay off every month (you know, with real money that you actually have) or risk paying compound interest on (‘cause debt is everyone’s favourite gift with purchase!)  I’m just saying…

Me: (Some time later.) “Oh, you mean you do still accept post at the Australian Embassy?  And you’ll know what to do with a money order if you get one?  Sweet.  Guess I might be coming to visit your country after all!”

Completing the application itself wasn’t actually such a big deal, but I ran into problems again when I realised that I needed to include a certified copy of my passport.  The web site didn’t give me any more helpful information on how to do this than to say that it would depend on the country I was in.  Great!  So, supposing I was in Japan…  I tried asking around about where I could find a notary public or someone else qualified to certify a photocopy, but no one seemed able to help me.  So I was back to calling the embassy again.

Me: “Where can I get a photocopy of my passport certified?”
Helpful Representative of the Australian Government: “You can get it certified at any of our offices.”
Me: “Wait, you mean I have to take the photocopy to the embassy to get it certified?”
HRAG: “Yes.”
Me: “I can’t get it stamped by a lawyer or something?”
HRAG: “No.”
Me: “Well where are your offices?”
HRAG: “We have offices in Sapporo, Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka.”
Me: “None in Sendai?”
HRAG: “I’m afraid not.”
Me: “So, let me get this straight.  To complete this application I’m going to have to travel five hours to Tokyo and five hours back, arriving sometime during embassy working hours, so that you can look at my passport and make a photocopy of it?”
HRAG: “Or you could mail us the original.”
Me: “Mail you the original.”
HRAG: “Yes.”
Me: “You want me to mail you my passport.”
HRAG: “Yes.”
Me: “For an application.”
HRAG: “Yes.”
Long, awkward silence.
Me: “Are those the only options?”
HRAG: “I’m afraid so.  Well, unless you want to send us a clear photocopy of every page of your passport.  We’ll have to see the original eventually, though.”
Me: “I can do that?”
HRAG: “Yes.”
Me: “Just a regular photocopy?”
HRAG: “Of every page.”
Me: “And you didn’t think it would be worthwhile to supply this information at any earlier point in the conversation?”
HRAG: “If your application is accepted you will have to send us your original passport so we can affix the visa to it.”
Me: “Thanks.  I have actually travelled to foreign countries before.  Would you believe I’m doing it as we speak?”

I’d been told that the application process typically took about two months, so I was surprised when, less than a week after mailing the form in, I received an e-mail telling me that to complete the application I’d have to undergo a medical assessment.  As usual, this couldn’t be done just anywhere; it had to be at an embassy-approved travel clinic, the nearest of which was in Tokyo.  And it had to be done within twenty-eight days – not exactly the most convenient time frame for scheduling a doctor’s appointment in Tokyo when you a) live in Sendai, b) have a job, and c) are female.  Fortunately they weren’t too anal about it; I wrote back asking for an extension, and they readily granted me one.

Actually, I would have made the deadline anyway.  I scheduled my appointment for the first weekend in February, taking a bus there on Friday night and getting another one home on Sunday.  I could have made the visit shorter, but as long as I was going all that way I figured I might as well make the most of the trip.

My appointment was early Saturday morning, and took less than half an hour, leaving me the rest of the day for exploring Tokyo.  First I decided to walk around and look at some embassies.  Living in Ottawa, I’ve made an occasional hobby of embassy-spotting, but I’d yet to try it out in the Japanese capital.  I found the German, French, and Chinese embassies, and completely failed to locate the Korean one.  However I soon realised that the biggest embassies tended to be obscured by high walls, and that the most interesting and photogenic ones were the smaller buildings that weren’t too fussed about security.

After lunch I returned to Ueno for yet another visit to the Science Museum.  It took me three trips, but I’ve finally been able to complete my tour of the exhibit!  If you’re ever in Tokyo, I recommend it.  It’s quite good and has interactive guides in English, Chinese, and Korean.  Afterwards, I checked out Ameyoko (a popular shopping street), which wasn’t very interesting, and went to Harajuku to look for cosplayers (I only saw a couple).  I got the bus home the next morning.

Now it’s just a matter of seeing how my medical results turn out.  The cost of my visa application so far?  $220 for the application itself, $210 for the medical exam, $70 for a return bus ticket to Tokyo, and $30 for one night in a hostel (the other one was elective) comes to $530.  And that’s assuming one-hundred yen to the dollar.  The truth is Japan’s currency is actually worth rather more than that; putting the true cost at closer to $700.  Australia had better be worth it, is all I can say!

You know what else I hate?  The skills-development conference.  That’s what they’re calling the annual ALT conference this year; last year it was the mid-year conference.  Whatever you want to call it, I hate it.  Or rather, what I hated was having to prepare for it.  Last year I was a first-year ALT and didn’t have to do anything but attend and bring a poster.  This year I’m a veteran, which means I had to present about something.  In theory I was supposed to do the presentation along with my head teacher.  In practice, she deferred to me for most of the planning and decision-making.  I don’t think she would have contributed anything at all if I hadn’t specifically drawn up an outline designating time for her to talk and specifying what I wanted her to talk about.  That accounted for about five minutes; it was up to me to fill the other sixty-five.

Okay, here’s why I hated the skills-development conference.  It wasn’t just the question of having to do work (which is reasonable), nor of having to become an expert in some element of English education (which is a bit more intimidating).  It was the lack of support we got throughout the whole process.  There was no information session, no instructions on how to structure our presentation, no suggestions of topics they wanted covered.  All the information I got was delivered in Japanese, and came to me via my head teacher, who expected me to explain it to her.  The work of assigning topics was carried out by having each ALT pick their three favourites out of five broad categories, and then assign one to each of them.  Within that category, we were allowed to present on anything we wanted, ideally sharing as much (or as little) as we knew.

I chose to present on technical aspects of English, with an eye to focusing on pronunciation.  It was one of the few elements of English I could claim to know something about, having spent a good part of last year learning the the I.P.A. and trying to teach myself various British accents.  (What?  I have a lot of time on my hands.)  Afraid that wouldn’t be enough, I threw everything I had into the presentation that had to do with pronunciation, reading, listening, and language-arts, only to discover that it would have taken me twice the allotted time to present it all.  Feeling a lot better, I trimmed it down, made a slide-show and a handout to go with it, and got it into a state that was more or less presentable.

In the event the presentation went really well.  I assigned several blocks of time for group discussion, which seemed reasonably productive.  My audience was polite, asked good questions, volunteered answers to my questions, and even gave me good feedback at the end.

The rest of the conference was a mixed bag.  One consequence of all the disorganisation was that we had effectively no say in which seminars we attended.  We’d been given a form to fill out, with the names of all the proposed seminars but no details on their content.  I filled it out, but I could discern no correlation between my choices and what I actually ended up attending.  For instance I somehow ended up in a seminar on elective English classes.  But my school doesn’t have an elective English programme…

There is one good thing about the skills-development conference: it’s over.  And since I’ve already made up my mind that this is going to be my last year in Japan, I know I’ll never have to do it ever again!

Back at work, five of my students ended up writing reply letters to the students from Canada.  There were others who’d expressed interest but never got around to doing it.  The ones who did finish, however, put a lot of effort in.  Not only were the letters so long that I was sure they must have gotten help with them, but most of them wrote them on nice paper and decorated them with pictures.  They brought rough drafts (often themselves very nice-looking) for me to check, and I corrected them only enough to ensure that the recipients would understand them.  I sent them all off in a big envelope along with a letter of my own and a picture of the School Festival display I’d made.  I know I’m sending them ten months after the original earthquake, and that the Canadian students will all have moved up a grade in the mean time.  I also don’t expect I’ll ever hear back from them or learn how the letters were received.  But hopefully a late reply will be better than none.  Especially when it’s coming all the way from Japan.

I mentioned that this fall didn’t seem a cold as last year’s but the temperature seems finally to have dropped, and I’m once more miserable in my apartment.  I’m coping by practically living under my kotatsu, from which I barely move all evening.

In the middle of the month there was a festival called Dontosai, which is apparently a Miyagi specialty.  It includes a half-naked pilgrimage, where the participants run through the streets wearing only shorts, a headband, and sandals (plus a vest for the girls).  I have enough trouble dealing with freezing cold on a regular basis; getting naked in it really isn’t my thing.  So I didn’t participate in it last year or this year.  I did go out with my tea lady to see it, though.  We ate some festival food, saw the big bonfire for ritual burning, and even ran into the group of ALTs who were participating and my school principal, who was also doing the pilgrimage.  They looked cold but brave, and I respected them for it, but I wouldn’t want to be them!

* “Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu!”: Japanese for “Happy New Year!”