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Uncertainty with Aidan in Taichung City

Taichung City, Taiwan, March 2016

I brought my family to Taiwan. We offered to help out a friend who was working on an art installation in the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung City. It was a relatively short trip that had its share of ups and downs. But what loomed over my head insidiously was an unmistakable change in the behavior of my son that started a month prior. It was something I tried to dismiss, but really couldn’t. It wasn’t until much later when the pieces were put together that I had a better understanding of what was going on.

On our walks in the city, he had this penchant of walking ahead of me with no regard to anything around him. He never looked behind to check if either of his parents was still nearby. He tried to break free every time I tried to hold on to him. I always found myself having to catch up to him in corridors and walkways as he kept moving. The pictures below will offer you glimpses of what I dealt with.

We also spent time with an artist couple who had a daughter roughly the same age  who I understood had her own little developmental issues. But even then, she was significantly ahead in many aspects and was more conscious of her surroundings.

At nearly two years old, close friends and his grandparents were already noticing how he actively avoided eye contact and wanted no part of anybody other than his mother. Even I had a difficult time interacting with him. It was a stark contrast to the baby boy that always smiled and laughed to the delight of everyone around him.

Little did I know back then that autism had become a distinct possibility for him.

Perhaps my ignorance back then was a blessing in disguise. It would be months before I was adequately educated of my son’s condition. By then I could already look back at the pictures below with amusement. Otherwise, I’d be picking up a very different story immediately after taking these pictures.

These seemingly symbolic scenes of him walking alone in the huge expanse offered by the parks in the city evoke strong emotions that haunt me, which I am sure some of you can relate to. I still choke up a little bit as I type this post.

The difference seen in the pictures here and our Hanoi trip more than eight months later was dramatic. It was almost like he was in his own world in Taichung. Hanoi saw a boy significantly more engaged with his surroundings and the doting people around him.

Nearly one year after, I am relieved to say that things have improved significantly. The doctor still doesn’t want to completely rule out autism, and he continues to attend therapy sessions to address his issues. But at this stage, the possibility of the condition that I dread for my son has become highly unlikely.

There is still a fairly long trail that lies ahead. But at least now, I am confident that the worst of this issue is over and things will be looking up.

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Hanoi trip notes (December 2016)

It is in this trip where it occurred to me that I can now start to live vicariously through my son. I didn’t think it would come so early. He’s years away from shooting his first hoop or playing his first three guitar chords.

From start to finish, there was always something.

He was quite a center of attention during the conference amusing everyone in sight. I had officemates more than willing to look after him. I was told a Vietnamese student offered to change his diapers. He stole the show for a short while during his mom’s presentation.

At Ba Dinh Square, just before I took this picture, there was another family with whom we stuck around with for a few moments. They had a friendly little girl who wanted to play. I’d have let them if I wasn’t so worried about Aidan’s habit of pushing other kids (we’re still working on that).

Before we checked out of the hotel, the receptionist asked what time we were leaving. When she realized she wouldn’t be seeing us again, she gave Aidan a hug then asked if he wanted to stay with her (lol, like that’s gonna happen), then said she hoped to see us again.

The man who drove us to the airport was quite feisty on the road and some of us felt he had a bad attitude. But what the rest of the group didn’t know was that before we left, I was standing outside the hotel with Aidan. The driver approached us, smiled, lightly pinched my son at the cheek, then gave me a thumbs up. He was a bit stiff, but I don’t think he’s a bad guy.

Then while we were waiting to check in at the airport, a middle aged Korean man approached my wife. He recognized them, turned his camera on, and showed a picture he took of Aidan while we were at the coffee shop beside the Vietnam Military History Museum the day before. His group was seated some tables away and took the picture (in hindsight, I probably should’ve asked for a copy).

I know he’s cute. But so are a lot of kids. So, it can’t be just that. As my former boss once said — he has a certain character about him, which is now being tempered by his time at A.B.L.E. Center and Bahay-bahayan ni Mariang Makiling — it’s the things he learned from both of them which the other people see. But no one deserves more credit than his own mother. It’s been an arduous learning process not without its share of mistakes on both our parts. But it’s her effort and sacrifice that keeps everything else going.

 

Visa Application: United Kingdom

As I write this, I still may or may not make this trip to London which I had been thinking about for the past month. But it didn’t stop me from applying for a visa despite the cost, anyway.

Applying for a visa is always a stressful undertaking for me, as it may be for many of you. I believe I have already earned the credentials to go to just about wherever I want and be allowed to do so. Being an academic makes things even easier. But still, the thought of someone you don’t know judging as to whether or not you are worthy of entering another country kind of affects my self-esteem. Even more stressful is having to compile all the documents required of you and have those closely examined. Applying for a Schengen visa is just that.

However, the UK visa application process outwardly looked more similar to the US visa application as far as requirements are concerned — an exhaustive application form, a rather high application/processing fee and a suspiciously short list of required supporting documents. After all, being used to going through the eye of a needle with Schengen visa applications, I can’t help but think that what if they suddenly ask for something I did not bring with me and all that shit.

So, I searched the Web for all the instructions and pointers I could fine. Aside from the information from the UK Embassy’s own website, I came across Wanderlass’s blog, which I found to be helpful and encouraging. I will now attempt to fill in whatever blanks her blog left and updates to what she laid out (the blog was written back in 2011) which I think might prove useful for everyone.

Everything starts with the online application form. It is long — perhaps longer than the US Embassy’s DS160. It requires information whose relevance you might question. For example, I can’t for the life of me, understand why a savings accounts’ income (interest rate for the rest of us) be more relevant than the actual balance. But I filled it, anyway (which turns out to be close to nothing).

After taking a few days to gradually fill that form, I finally submitted it, and set my appointment for the biometric scan and whatever interview that may arise. This was back in February 10, 2016. The good news is that I had the option to schedule my appointment for as early as February 12, and that’s exactly what I did. I chose to be processed at 8:10AM and then paid US$128 by credit card. Then I waited.

The UK Embassy doesn’t deal with applicants directly. Instead, a third party, VFS Global along Chino Roces Ave. extension at Makati, does it for them. Apparently, they process visas for many other countries, including Australia and some Schengen states, which I found surprising. Maybe I can experience applying for one through them next time. But at the time, I was focused on my immediate need.

I was there early and relaxed a bit. I fell in line exactly at 8:10AM. Then I realized that bags are not allowed beyond the waiting area. It would have been nice to know that prior to my going there. The good news is that VFS Global offers a locker service. The not so good news is that it will cost you P150.

Coming in to the processing area, I was surprised to see a largely vacant seat of benches, especially when you’re accounting for all the countries they represent. This was no US embassy, that’s for sure. I have barely started filling the checklist the receptionist gave me when my number was called. I took a deep breath, assuming that if there was going to be an interview, it would be then and there. I was expecting to have to answer questions of why I did not carry this or that supporting document. Instead, the young man at the counter asked me:

Man: Is this all that your going to submit?
Me: Well, is there anything else I need to submit?
Man: That’s up to you, sir.
Me: Uh… ok. If that’s the case, that’s all of them.

I mostly felt relieved, but not completely, lol. I submitted a certificate of employment, a bank statement, information on the conference I was planning on attending and a hotel reservation confirmation. I thought it was enough, but I can never really know and that would be totally on me. Well played, VFS Global.

I was then asked if I would prefer my passport to be sent back to me via courier and be sent notifications via SMS. I quickly said yes to both, and then got surprised when I looked down at his counter. I saw that the return delivery cost P500 and the SMS notification cost P150. Wow. I was beginning to realize how lucrative a business VFS Global has going. Then again, it is hardly my concern. I just wanted to get this over with.

I waited for a bit to have my picture taken and fingerprints scanned. Then I was done. I fell in line on time at 8:10AM and was out of the building before 9:00AM.

I was told to wait three weeks. But I knew full well that it was a safe and conservative estimate. I was confident that this will not take long in my case. My guess my application will be processed within two weeks. But on February 17, I received my SMS notification that my application has been processed. My passport was delivered back to me the following day. That was six days from my personal appearance at VFS Global to my passport being delivered back to me. Even my original supporting documents along with the passport were returned to me.

This application is on the costly side, but it was quick and smooth. Not bad at all.

 

 

 

 

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Visa Application: United States of America (2013)

I previously wrote about how I did not look forward to having my passport renewed. I did so, anyway, and much earlier than I expected. Here’s why.

I got scheduled for a trip to the US, but it fell within six months before my passport’s expiration. I might not be allowed to travel when I go to what is perhaps one of the things I looked forward to the least — falling in line to apply for a visa at the US Embassy in Manila.

I’ve already applied for other visas and would not hesitate to reapply given the need. But I’ve always thought it wouldn’t be a loss nor would I ever feel unfulfilled if I end up never setting foot anywhere in the US. (Un)fortunately, an good opportunity to do so arose. It was hard to pass up. So, yes, I had my passport renewed early just for this.

August 22 — The first stage of the process was strange. The online application consisted mainly of the DS-160 — easily the most exhaustive visa application form I’d ever seen so far (it’s worth seven pages when you print it). It took me a while to finish. The first dilemma came when I had to declare whether or not I had been to the US in the past. I’d make it easier for myself and say no, but that wouldn’t be true. I was barely a year old and hardly remember anything from that time, but my family lived in Indiana for a while when my dad was taking his PhD. I didn’t want to be accused of lying in case they actually still have my old visa on record. The problem was I had very little idea how long I stayed exactly. I had to ask my dad, who didn’t remember either. It was a good thing he didn’t throw my old passport away. I had to dig deep into the old documents in storage, but I found it. When I checked, the visa was so old it didn’t have the 10 digit number that is standard today. The DS160 did not accept the number, anyway. It felt like a waste of time, but I figure I’d just bring the old passport with me at the embassy, just in case.

My first US Visa.

My first US Visa.

With the DS-160 finally accomplished and confirmed, the next thing to do was pay for the processing fee. A hundred and sixty US Dollars is steep, but what choice do I have, no? I opted to pay online. I love BPI’s online banking, but payment does not register immediately in the embassy’s system. I was worried, as I was paying in the midst of a typhoon and there was an upcoming holiday. One banking day may as well be one week in reality.

What made this bad news was the set of appointment dates that were available to me. According to the system, the earliest date for an appointment was October 18. I had to fly on the 19th. I promptly told my colleagues they may have to travel without me. Still, I was advised to keep checking. While I felt like it was fine if I wasn’t going to be able to go, I did check regularly. It surprisingly paid off. By August 29, new appointment slots suddenly opened for September 5 and 6. I got myself signed up for the 6th at 6:30AM

September 6 — The drive from Los Baños to Manila was quick, as expected, being so early. I made it outside the premises and found a parking slot nearby across Roxas Boulevard at 6:00AM. By the parking lot and around the overpass, there were lots of vendors, selling pens and offering storage of electronic devices. Even USB flash drives weren’t allowed in the embassy. But I already knew that. I made sure my bag only contained my documents, a notebook and two pens. Everything else, I left in the car.

The lines were already long, by the time I joined it. It was thankfully still cool and it wasn’t raining. I can only imagine how much worse it is for those who have to endure both conditions later in the day. Fortunately for everyone, the queue moved at a quick pace. Soon enough, I was ushered inside the building. The queue was unsurprisingly long, filling a large area to capacity. But I have to commend the personnel at the embassy for their efficiency and ability to keep things in order.

The application itself is a three-stage process that involves getting a biometric scan, verifying your documents and the actual interview. The online application stage explicitly states that I do not bring any other additional documents that is not mentioned in their checklist. It even said not to print the DS-160. I did so, anyway (in typical Filipino segurista fashion). Needless to say, that was a waste of paper and printer ink.

It was during the verification step that I asked if my going to the US as a baby count. I showed the old passport to the person going over my stuff. I don’t remember getting a clear answer from her. She barely looked at it and told me it’s ok or something.

The final stage involved the interview conducted by Americans. As I waited, I couldn’t help but observe the row of windows manned by the interview officers. Each one handled interviews differently. Among those that I could see, there was a dour older guy, a no-nonsense guy that probably wasn’t that much older than me, and there was the affable lady that was all-smiles. I ended up in front of a no-nonsense guy.  The interview went something like this:

Officer: How are you today?
Me: A little anxious, to be honest…
Officer: What do you do?
Me: I teach at the University of the Philippines
Officer: What’ll you be going for? (I couldn’t hear him clearly.)
Me: … I’m sorry?
Officer: Where’ll you be going?
Me: Oh, I’ll be attending a conference in Las Vegas.
Officer: What’s it about?
Me: It’s a conference on e-Learning.
Officer: How long will you be there?
Me: Two or three days, then I’ll head to San Francisco for four days, if I can.
Officer: [Looks over my documents one last time, and then…] Ok, we’ll just send your passport back to you after a week or so… Good day.

That was quick…

I wrote down the times. I was led inside the embassy at 6:18AM. I got out at 8:07AM. By 8:30AM, I was enjoying a mug of coffee at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf shop across the street. The anxiety was gone.

I received my passport with a 10-year multiple entry B1/B2 US visa within five days. Everything eventually went as planned. It’s going to be a while before I will have to go back in there to have my visa renewed. But when that time comes, I don’t think I will be anywhere as apprehensive as I was during this first application. It wasn’t the easiest process I’ve ever experienced, but it sure wasn’t nearly as hard as I first imagined.

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