A word of warning:
If you ever find yourself in Manila, needing to get into the Japanese Embassy, arrive early. Very early. Like, pre-sunrise early.
(Hey, you never know -- this could be you. Life is strange. You might very well end up there someday, just like me, south of the American Embassy on Roxas Boulevard in downtown Manila, just up from the Pasay bus station. It's possible. At one point in time I was a geeky kid running the streets of St.Catharines, Ontario, and the next minute I'm in the Philippines, waiting under the sun, trying to get a working-visa for Japan. One of those moments where you scratch your head and look around and mutter: "Huh?" I turn around to share my bewilderment, but everybody else is a Filipino, and they look like they know exactly where they are and what they are about to do.)
They come out in force, the Filipinos do. Hundreds of them. Waiting patiently outside of the Japanese consular building. Everybody carrying FED EX packages from Japan, most of which carry working contracts, certificates of eligibility, the proof that they will not, in fact, defy the law. Proof that they will be good citizens.
And I'm one of them. Carrying the necessary documents. Hoping that the disciplined dudes inside the embassy will give me what I need, seek, desire: a stamp in a passport. That's all. Nothing more, nothing less -- but which means, for all intents and purposes, everything.
The way it works, the company in Japan sends you your contract. You sign it and send it back. They send you a certificate of eligibility, most of it in Japanese, and then you take this magic piece of paper to the embassy in Manila, all in exchange for a green visa placed precisely within the margins of the pages of your passport. A simple process, exhausting in its bureaucratic complexity.
Me, being the experienced world traveller that I am, having lived in Japan for four years, two and a half year in Cambodia, and one in the Philippines, me, being worldly and sophisticated, dare I say dashing and debonair, not to mention wise to the ways of the international working experience, me, that person, figured I could just show up at the embassy, stroll right in, mutter some Japanese and be on my way, freshly minted and legal to work in the land of the rising sun.
Sometimes I marvel at my own naivety. (Or stupidity, to be more precise.)
You have to line up for hours and hours if you want a good place in line. Under the darkened sky that shifts, slowly, to sun. Then, at the appointed time, they let you in. The gates open. Mecca has been reached, all praises due to Allah. They give you a number. You sit in front of a row of windows, behind which sit the blandly pleasant people who will determine your fate. When your number is called, so are you. You walk up, feeling like the kid called by the teacher to the front of the room, and they ask you such complicated questions as: "What is your name?" and "When is your birthday?" Then they take your passport and tell you to come back in three days.
So I did. And now I'm official. Back to Japan, and not more than half-an-hour from where I used to live for four straight years -- which, if it isn't karmic destiny, or a cosmic accident, is, at the very least, kind of funny.
If you want to, or try to, you can always learn something from foreign places, and what I learned last week is: work is special. Work is not something to be sneered at. Work -- decent work, work that actually pays -- is few and far between here in the Philippines. (Not to mention Cambodia. Mama mia.) People in the west complain about the lack of jobs, and it's true -- good work, sustaining work, is never easy to find anywhere. But in countries like the Philippines and Cambodia, you're already born behind the eight-ball, to a certain extent. Getting decent work that pays well is very difficult to do, so if it means leaving the country to find it, you leave. You leave your parents and your families and your children. You go where the work is, period. Everything else in your life, including your life, is secondary.
It's a very odd experience, lining up like cattle (or amusement-ride riders, I suppose), doing what you're told to do, trying to be polite and amenable, if only because they could, these scary-stern-embassy-type-people, turn you down with no explanation whatsoever. When you need a job, you are at the mercy of others, and all cockiness, all confidence, suddenly seems superfluous. What matters is not your exterior facade but the lines on a paper, the signatures on a form, the stamp in a book. You are reduced to your pleasantries and your record. You do what you have to do.
Nobody likes work, and those that say they do are probably lying. But the possibility of work, the desire for it, the need for it, is a thirst-like craving that, when quenched, is enormously satisfying. Because all you have to do, as you walk away from the embassy, papers in hand, sweat on brow, is take a look behind you and glimpse the faces of all those in line, all those others so much like yourself, patient and willing and nervous. When you look at them, you realize: Work is a privilege passed out to a selected few. Those that are rejected will have to walk home, take the jeepney home, slouch home. They will have to face their families, and sit at the kitchen table, and try to figure out another course of action. They will need to summon their reserves of strength and convince themselves, again, of their own worth, even though it has just been rejected by those in power.
Which, for me, makes a line-up here and there, even for hours, even under the sun, a small price to pay for a chance to dignify yourself.