Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Too Easy?

This was not the first time I would be going to the US embassy in Toronto for a visa interview. So naturally, I was prepared: my visa forms were filled out and printed off and I made sure to let people at work know I was not coming in the next day. Finally, I looked up the location of the embassy again and made a mental note of how to get there.Then set my alarm for early next morning and got some sleep. I am rarely so well prepared. It was going to be a piece of cake.
The day was going to go down in history as the best day of my life while simultaneously being the worst. Did I mention I am never well prepared? I was giving one last check to my paperwork before I left and realized that I had missed one document. Since mine was an F-1 Visa, I was required to pay an additional fee through SEVIS website which wasn’t required last time. And since I had neglected to go over the papers sent from SCAD, I was blissfully unaware of it until then!
I figured I’d pay the SEVIS fee now and leave, then just get a printout from Staples. However, when I tried to make the payment, I realized that my credit card didn’t have enough balance on it. “Oh, I will just transfer some money over from my checking,” I said to myself. But even the checking account didn’t have enough funds. I started freaking out! I only had about 3 hours before the appointment. Just commuting to downtown Toronto was going to take about 2 hours! I could not miss this visa appointment because I failed to make a payment! I also wouldn’t have told anyone that I made such a blunder. So I devised a plan.
I would run to the nearest TD bank and use my “traveler’s ATM card” to withdraw money that I needed for these payments. And after depositing it to my checking and visa accounts, I’d have to run back home and make the payment online.
“Ah, if only I could ask someone to make the payment from their computer and email me the receipt, I could directly head downtown.”
“No, I cannot tell anybody that I goofed up! It’s too embarrassing.” I argued with myself. All that, if done within an hour, still gave me only 2 hours to scramble to the embassy downtown.
I ran to the bank about a kilometer from my building, used my card to withdraw cash from the ATM and walked in to the bank. I didn’t have a watch or a cell phone with me because they do not allow people to take any electronics inside the embassy. I estimated that it had been 15 minutes. I frantically scanned the walls inside the bank. I was looking for a clock; somebody else might have suspected I was checking for security cameras. Not long after, it was my turn.
“Hello, how are you doing?” She asked with a smile.
“I’m fine, thank you.” I replied back politely.
“Do you know about our new offer…” she started
I do not like speaking over people or interrupting. But at that moment, every second seemed like a minute, it was like she was talking to me in slow motion and I just had to...
“No thank you! I do not have time for this! I need to deposit some cash to my checking and visa” I snarled.
“Okay,” She timidly backed off and co-operated with me.
“How soon can I use my visa again?” I asked politely.
“Immediately. Anything else?”
“Yes, I need $130 in US dollars” I said with a smile on my face. Isn’t it awesome when things simply work?
“Okay, let me check.” She went to the back and checked if they had enough american bills.
“Thank you” I said. But to me she might as well have been an ATM machine.
After the transaction was completed as planned, before I left, I now got softer and said,
“Excuse me; I wanted to ask you one more thing.”
“I thought you didn’t have time.” She taunted me back. I still think about it and laugh at how she grabbed the opportunity to get back at me!
“I just wanted to know what time it was.”
Running back to the apartment again, took me about 15 minutes as well. I immediately made the payment, saved the e-receipt to my USB key and ran out the door. The bus stops going both ways were just a stone’s throw from the apartment. I dashed to the bus stop hoping that I didn’t just miss one.
One bus and two subway trains later, I was downtown. I didn’t have an exact idea of the time. I just feared the worst. I had another list of errands to run before I could go to the embassy. I had to get a ‘recent passport size photo against a white background’, pay the visa application fees at a Scotiabank bank branch and get the printout of the SEVIS receipt and an envelope from Staples.
I went to the Staples first because I had been there last time and I knew where it was. I Purchased the envelope and got the printouts then asked her if she knew any place nearby where I could get my photo taken. She showed me a list of photo studios around downtown and their addresses. But she did not let me use the computer right there to google-map it. “What a bitch!” I thought. I definitely wasn’t my usual self. I had gotten extremely jumpy, touchy and irritable. I stomped out of the store.
I went to the Scotiabank branch on Queen street and resumed my scanning of the walls. “I must know what time it is!” After what seemed like an eternity, it was finally my turn! The teller didn’t slack; I wouldn’t have let him! I then went on my quest to find the photo studio. In the panic, I almost drove myself nuts thinking “I have been around here a hundred times before; Why can’t I find these places now that I really need them?”
I tried the photo booth in Eaton Center. But I did not have the right coins. It needed toonies while I only had quarters and loonies. Never before had I hated the convenience of being able to carry $2 coins in your pocket. I kicked the stupid photo booth, shook my fist and went to the Blacks photo store. Another customer was getting his photo taken in a corner. “This is going to take a while!” I thought and walked to the counter.
“Hello, how are you?” The guy asked as if he had all the time in the world.
“I need passport photo for US visa.” I said cutting to the chase.
“okay, that’ll be $15. Wait here for your turn.”
I got my picture taken by an amateur who was probably just out of high school. He was using a D40 with the on-camera flash! Having worked with a great photographer at my internship and learning as much as I did about portrait photography and the use of flash, I was appalled at how ridiculous this setup was. “And I’m paying $15 for this?!!” I was outraged! But there was nothing I could do.
I browsed around the store while I waited. I thought “I should have gotten my picture taken first, and then gone out to do my other tasks; while they printed on their Stone Age printers that take a century for a tiny 2x2 print!” There was just no end to my miseries and my ranting! Numerous “Almost done.” And “he’ll be right out with it” later, I finally had my photos in my hand! I look at the clock; it had been 20 minutes since I walked in. They lied about the 15 minutes!
It was already 5 minutes past the given time. However, I remembered from the last time that they start letting people in at the given time, and depending on the number of people and how slow the security is… well, in a nutshell, I was confident I was still going to get inside. Whether I was going to get a visa? I was not so sure.
I started seeing bad signs as soon as I walked through the security. There was an Asian girl standing in front of me talking to the staff. She just wanted to go to the states to attend a wedding but the form she had, said student visa. He asked her if she has the I-20 form. She was clueless. He explained to her the situation and that she is going to have to reschedule. She said she had already booked the tickets. But that didn’t matter to the officer. She started crying. My heart sank.
When he was looking over my forms, I struck up a conversation, asked him if he was new. Yes, he was in training. I asked, “How many people come in on an average day, did the number fluctuate in winter or summer?” making small talk with him. It helped me relax a little. I had all the required papers; he let me in. I overheard an older couple mentioning that they don’t have photos, they were directed to the photo booth. If only I had known! I could have saved $10 and time and energy by just directly coming here!
The room was more crowded than the last time I was here; January the day of President Obama’s swearing in ceremony. I sat there overhearing people’s conversations, the questions the interviewers were asking the applicants, the news on the tv… I remember the first time it was broadcasting Obama’s ceremony. This time, I don’t remember. All I remember is seeing the faces of the people who had been denied. I thought I might get denied too. But I feared to think What if I get denied.
I kept telling myself “You aced it last time. You’re going to do it again!” I thought back to the mock job interviews that were conducted and recorded at my internship at Bell Mobility, Canada. I was pointed out what I shouldn’t do and how I can improve my interviewee skills. One of the pointers was that my volume went down as my confidence in the answer went down and I would start to kinda mumble.
All I needed was some pep talk. And since nobody else was going to give it to me, I thought to myself, “My English is awesome, I am dressed well, I have an amazing background, they want me to come study there!” And by the time my name was called, I was so confident that I swore I am not walking out of here without a visa or without a fight! In retrospect, picking a fight is probably not the thought you should have in your head when you go for a visa interview.
I walked over, stood straight at a distance from the window. Didn’t lean in, didn’t crane my neck forward, did not put my hands on the counter.
“What are you going to be studying?”
“It’s an expensive school, who’s paying for this?”
“My father” I handed him the financial papers. I remembered how after my mock job interview I was told to not just give one word answers and explain yourself.
“what does he do? Does he make enough money?”
“He’s an accountant. They did offer me a scholarship…” I continued…
“Yeah I saw that” He interrupted, obviously not liking my casual conversational tone.
“Do you have a sibling?” He said, still looking at the papers
“Yes, a sister.” I kept it brief as I was a little surprised what this question had to do with anything.
“Where is she?”
“Back in India.”
“Doesn’t she want to study abroad?”
I then understood why he was going into such detail about my family. However, I was getting annoyed at his questions.
“No. She’s very close to the family, she won’t want to leave and go so far away to study.” I replied haughtily.
I guess there was nothing else he could ask. There was no reason for him to deny me. Unlike my friend Natansh who was told he’d have to go back to his home country to apply as he had been in Canada less than 6 months; or another friend of a friend who was told by the embassy in his home country that they cannot override the rejection of the US embassy in Canada; I did not have to hear any excuse.
The interviewer had my papers; he saw that I had been a good student at Sheridan and that I had enough financial backing to support myself while I was studying. I had just gotten myself a very prestigious internship in Toronto and I am confident and determined enough that I will stop at nothing. So he accepted defeat and just said, “Okay your Visa has been approved. You’ll get your passport in the mail.”
I thanked him and walked away. What I really wanted to do was jump up and shout “yippeee!” I was extremely happy. But I had no one to share it with. I didn’t have my cellphone so I couldn’t call and let anyone know. I had to wait till I got back home. All my excitement bundled up inside. As I journeyed back home, I thought I should go back and apologize to that lady at TD bank; I should again thank the lady at Staples for giving me the list of photo places nearby.
I had gotten my visa, great! But the next day, I still had to go to work; finally tell the guys about my visa and my plans to go to SCAD. Not to mention the packing and moving my life from Canada to USA in a few weeks from then. Sure, I now had the confidence of knowing where my life’s going but nothing’s ever that easy. I still wasn’t ready for the new set of problems that awaited me in the months after I stepped out that door with my bags. But one thing was certain: nobody can take this experience away from me.