Thursday, January 11, 2007

Sisyphus in Seoul

Posted in Foreign Service Life, Korea at 7:33 pm by graceandpoise

Some of my friends have asked me why I don’t talk about my job much. I tell them that they probably don’t want to know, and that it’s really not that interesting. I understand, though, that this kind of answer is less than satisfactory, so I have decided to break with my general way of doing things here and talk about what my work is like, at least in broad terms. Seriously, I’m not kidding when I say it’s completely uninteresting. People say that the best and most amusing/extraordinary stories in all of State Department work come from consular work, but in Seoul the bland, factory-like nature of the work is not even conducive to that. It’s work that needs to be done, and it’s work that does make some kind of difference in the lives of people who want to go to the U.S., but it is definitely more draining than interesting or engaging.

Every day, a couple thousand people come to the non-immigrant visa windows here for an interview, trying to get a visa to the U.S., and the flow of applicants never slows down. The officers and the locally-hired staff work our tails off every day, often to the point of complete mental exhaustion. Each officer stands at a bank teller-like window and asks the same questions a hundred-plus times every day, getting the same half-answers (“I work for a company.”), and there comes a point most days when it starts to become difficult to remember which questions you’ve asked of whom. In my own case, by the time it’s time to go home, I have a hard time speaking any language at all, and my ability to comprehend or retain information is completely shot. I am rarely able to do anything that requires any real degree of activity or interaction with others by the time I get home.

Then, the next day, it starts all over again. You never make a dent in the flow of applicants – they just keep coming, and it’s as if all the work done the previous day never happened. It’s the hole dug on the beach that fills up with water just as quickly as you can empty it out, even if you expend every ounce of energy you’ve got in the effort. Or the rock that, just when you’ve finally managed to roll it to the top of the hill, always gets away from you and rolls back down again for you to start all over. Luckily, we appear not to have made the gods quite as angry as Sisyphus did – we’re not here for all eternity. After two years of this, we have the possibility of doing something else, and if we’re really on good behavior, we may have the chance to diversify our activities during the two years. I’ll keep you posted on that one.


  1. Great description of a “visa mill” operation!

    I’ve linked to and quoted from you here:

  2. […] a consular officer in a busy post (visa mill in FS slang) like South Korea. You can read about it here and decide you still want to join up. -Shawn no comments trackback this article comment […]

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