Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Visit to US Consulate Chiang Mai

Three weeks ago I got onto the US Consulate in Chiang Mai website. I wanted to get some information, maybe some help if possible, about the project to export mangoes our farmers grow here to Anchorage. Well, I couldn't find any email addresses or any phone numbers. The only thing you could do is make an appointment, using their form.

Note: there is a phone number up now, but that is only if you have technical difficulties with the online appointment.

I looked for information on trade or commercial assistance but couldn't find any phone numbers or emails. As you can see from the screenshot, there weren't very many choices.

None fit my needs except 'other.' Would they even have someone there who could talk to my needs? I didn't really want this kind of help, but there was no way to contact them to find out how to get to someone who had the information I needed. (I could have gotten an appointment last week, but with the Bangkok trip, I wasn't sure if I'd be back in time. Also, there still are walk appointments for Americans until the end of March when that will end.)

OK, I decided this was an experiment in US State Department services. My last overseas experience, going to the US Embassy in Beijing had been a nightmare. (Let me modify that a bit. I'd made an appointment from Anchorage through someone who had a contact in the US trade office in Beijing. That was great. It was going to the Embassy that was awful. I did get treated reasonably when I got to the window, but I could see how bad it was for Chinese folks and that was the real nightmare. I was embarrassed that my country was treating them like that.] They did have phone numbers in 2004, but they only got you to recordings and no one ever called back. But the Embassy itself is in no-man's land. they shut off the streets around it, the buildings all around it seemed abandoned, and we had to walk about 100 yards through barricades down this deserted street to the Embassy. It reminded me of walking from West Berlin into East Berlin in the 1960s. Creepy. And we didn't have to stand in the long line like the Chinese and other non-Americans did before getting to walk through this empty corridor.

Once inside, there were a couple of small room with few chairs. Americans got to sit in a special area and got called to the window when it was their turn. Others stood waiting in the depressing little room. It was very demeaning in every way and I had Chinese colleagues who would rather pass up US grants or activities than be treated the way they got treated there. It thought of the retired college professors I had visited in Beijing who had to go through this to get to visit their daughter studying in the US. And you had to go in person, even if you lived several hundred miles away. And there was no guarantee you'd get a visa even though you had paid for one.

So, would this be different? My boss knew I was going and yesterday gave me the name and phone number of a Thai friend who worked at the Consulate. "Today is a holdiay. Call him tomorrow. What holiday?" I had to think - oh yes, Presidents Day.

This morning I wasn't sure how long it would take - it's on the opposite side of town. Not all that far - maybe 4 or 5 kilometers of traffic. So I left an hour before on the bike just to be sure. It was a breeze. The morning was still cool and cars and motorcycles are very patient with bikes. I got there in about 20 minutes.

I didn't take any pictures. It does look a bit like a prison, with a huge wall all along the street. I realized I hadn't taken my passport or even my appointment number. I'd made the appointment before I'd worked out the wireless connection to the printer. But, no problem. My driver's license was fine. Empty your pockets for security. They went through my shoulder bag and put my camera, phone, extra sound card for the camera, and a usb drive into a plastic bag. "But wait, I need to make a call." No problem, they gave me my phone and sent me out the front door. I called Pet's friend and he said he'd come join me when he finished his meeting. Gave them back the phone.

Back in, and into another room that was open to the outside with green even hanging in, lots of seats, even a flat screen tv playing Battlestar Gallactica, but no sound. A sign said that people with appointments should go in the door on the right and report at Window 1.

The young Thai at the window, wearing a leather jacket (it's air conditioned) was extremely nice. I spoke in Thai. He had me listed for an appointment, what did I want to discuss? Exporting mangoes.

He said he'd give me a phone number to call. At that point I mentioned Pet's friend and he said, OK, then just go wait in the previous room. Pet's friend came in a few minutes later and looked around trying to figure out which farang was Steve. He sat with me and we talked, again in Thai mostly, but I had figured if he worked at the Consulate his English was much better than my Thai. I told him I wasn't sure there'd be someone who could help and he assured me there was and I should wait for my appointment.

I hadn't been given a ticket and maybe the first man thought that my appointment was with Pet's friend. So he left and I went back to the window to check. The man said that someone would come out into the waiting room to talk to me. Pet's friend had let him know.

Eventually she came out and sat down there with me. I had a list of questions, but she made it clear that the US government was interested in helping people who wanted to import American goods to Thailand, but much less interested in exporting Thai goods to the US. But she could give me information. We did this all in English. She went out and got several pages of contacts with trade related organizations that she thought would be helpful. In the conversation it came out that I had been a Peace Corps volunteer and we switched to Thai and she suddenly became much more helpful. She went out again and brought back two huge books - one was the Thai Association of Small and Medium Enterprises - which she told me to take and bring back when I got what I needed and gave me her email address.

I left thinking - if I hadn't had Pet's friend as a contact, would I have gotten to talk to anyone at all? It would be so much easier from a user's perspective to be able to email "Here's what I need, can you help me or give me some better places to get help?" than to have to go down to the Consulate.

My sense is that 9/11 made everyone paranoid and all the US diplomatic outposts became fortresses and entry has become much more difficult. They used to be open and friendly US PR offices where people living in other countries could get a glimpse of the American democracy. Now they are hostile and demeaning (not at all unlike airport security - if you are not white expect extra scrutiny) for Americans and non-Americans alike.

The second problem, I suspect, is that the State Department budget has been cut badly over the years and so they've switched from human contact to all electronic contact. The Thai security guard appeared to be a contract security person, not a Consulate employee. That may make it easier for the State Department, but it defeats a great deal of the purpose of being there. People just don't go there to get help anymore. It's too much of a hassle. My boss laughed when I told him where I was going. He said security wouldn't let him in when he tried to go. Unless they HAVE to go - to get a visa etc. - many people just skip it. It really adds to the negative image of the US abroad.

In the Chiang Mai case, I have to say the US is lucky that all the staff I dealt with were Thai and they were all extremely polite, hospitable, and helpful, even doing the security check. It isn't like that in Beijing.

Perhaps our new Secretary of State along with our new President can make some changes here, to make our embassies and consulates sources of information and glimpses of democracy once again instead of the grim, intimidating places they've become.

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