It was 2009, only a day after Tropical Storm Ondoy (international name Ketsana) wreaked watery havoc on the Philippine capital of Manila, causing landslides and floods of up to 20 feet (20 feet!) in some rural areas, and where was I? In Manila, naturally, walking up muddy pedestrian bridges, sidestepping enormous puddles, and waiting hours (literally hours!) for a taxi, all because I was due for a US visa interview the next day.
The thing is: I didn’t even want to go to the US. Oh, I know there are tons of beautiful places in America, and I suppose I would love to visit it someday, but it’s always been the proverbial land of milk and honey for many of my countrymen, and so, of course, its appeal to my occasionally counter-conformist, lactose-intolerant, honey-disdainful self has always been close to zero. And I didn’t even like being in Manila under ordinary circumstances. But this, this — having to make my way through mud and debris clutching my precious embassy-demanded papers, having to deal with the entirely different specie that is the Manila taxi driver — was the closest one place had ever come to making me cry.
Why was I there? Because my boss wanted me there. So stupidly simple. We were working with an American healthcare organization, and the company that made the software we used at the office had organized a conference to be held in the US. My boss was sending 3 of us to attend it as a “reward” for our hard work — my boss having this unshakable notion that it’s every Filipino’s dream to go, work, and eventually live in the US — and who was I to say no to free travel?
And so the next day I heard myself called to a glass-enclosed counter at the embassy to present the case for Why The United States of America Should Let Good Old Me In. As I approached, I saw that the guy behind the counter, a Filipino, had gotten up, apparently to go on a break. “Just one more,” an unseen lady told him, and he unsmilingly sat back down. He wordlessly leafed through my documents, probably noted that I was single and childless and not exactly wealthy, read the letter of invitation to the conference, then asked just one question.
“You’re a medical professional…and you want to go to a software conference?”
“Well, yes,” I said. Put that way, it did sound a bit dodgy, but I had a rational explanation for that. “You see, it’s the software we use for…”
He didn’t even wait for me to finish my answer. He sighed, grabbed a sheet of blue-colored paper, checked a box, and handed it to me along with my other documents. Visa application denied for “lack of sufficient ties” to my home country — a nice way of saying they don’t think there’s anything in the Philippines that would make me want to return and therefore I’m likely to stay illegally in the US.
Up until that point, I had been ambivalent about the outcome I wanted. I had half-hoped my visa application would be denied so that I wouldn’t have to go to the US and be in close contact with my boss (he is overwhelming as it is over the internet). But I didn’t want the application denied that way — in a manner that suggested I was a liar. Without meaning to sound melodramatic, it felt like a failure, one of the very first of my life, and an undeserved one too; in school, if you don’t study, you fail an exam, you deserve it, but here, I was telling the truth, I had no evil intentions, and I still didn’t get a passing grade. It was a tough lesson about the inherent unfairness of life, and though it’s actually a very good lesson to learn, and though I’ve had much tougher ones since then, I admit I still carry a bit of a grudge. It’s why the US still isn’t on my bucket list (not that it cares) nor will be anytime soon.