Saturday, September 7, 2013

Our Fiance (K1) Visa Saga: Chapter Two

Our Fiance Visa Saga: Chapter Two
LJ Salceda Schroeder

(pic c/o my Aunt Vivian)

Akala ng iba madali, masarap at bongga kapag may bf/fiance/asawa kang 'Kano. Ang 'di alam ng marami, sangkatutak na papeles, red tape at sakripisyo ang titiisin mo para lang sa lovelife at loved ones mo. Bago maging isang nobela ito, back to K1 tayo. If you missed Chapter One, here's the link.  

After passing the medical exam, it's time to PAY AND SCHEDULE THE VISA INTERVIEW.

The interview process was both exciting and nerve-wracking for me. I've been granted a 10-yr tourist visa before I applied for the K1 so I am aware of the routine. What made it worrisome was, some of the documents that I needed for the interview did not arrive on time because John sent it via post office! This is a NO-NO for very important and original documents. (Use Fed Ex or UPS or other shipping companies, NOT the post office if you or your significant other need to send anything valuable to each other!) I had to re-schedule the interview (twice) if I'm not mistaken because I wasn't sure if I should go through with the interview with our incomplete documents. When it did arrive (two days after the interview) in the mail it was opened and a masking tape was used to re-seal it. Sigh!

The day before my interview, I was scrambling and petrified. After chatting with John and praying together, I asked him to scan and e-mail whatever copies he has left of income tax/investments/bank accounts or anything to prove he is financially liable of myself once I get there (another important requirement for the K1 application). I also asked him to write a letter to the Manila US Embassy explaining what happened to the rest of the financial support papers which I brought to the interview. 

FYI: If the petitioner does not reach the "poverty guideline" in his state, he may look for a qualified co-sponsor.  

In spite of our dilemma, we entrusted everything to the Lord then I reviewed some of the possible questions for the interview.

ON THE DAY OF THE INTERVIEW July 1, 2011, I woke up at 4am, got ready, double-checked my list, asked my mom to pray  for me before I left (a lot of help to calm my nerves) and arrived at the US Embassy gates by 5:30am. My interview was at 6:40am and the line was already loooong as expected. 

I was in-line for at least 30 mins (protocols and specific requirements at the embassy are included in the interview confirmation e-mail) before they started letting people in, getting checked by security and going through some of the documents (interview confirmation letter, receipt etc.)

K1 visa interview is slightly different from the Tourist Visa Interview. Once inside the embassy grounds, your documents will be initially checked and you will be given a number. By batches (using you number) you will be fingerprinted (biometrics), then you will have to wait again until your initial interview. 

When my number was flashed, I went to a room with a Filipino consul/staff. He checked my docus (I organized them in a huge plastic envelope) and just asked the basic questions- my name, the petitioner's name, do I have all the documents etc.  I showed him John's "explanation/apology" letter and explained what happened to the rest of our papers. I think he said it's up for the interviewer to decide. When he was done, he told me to wait (in the lobby) until my number pops up above one of the windows where the actual interview will happen.

I silently prayed and practiced some more while waiting for the "actual interview". I also observed how some of the interviews went (you will learn a lot just by observing.) I noticed that one of the girls that was being interviewed (who was either denied or given the "colored" slip I don't remember how it ended) was having a hard time explaining her annulment. She was a little feisty too! 

When my number was shown, I was thankful that I was assigned to a very friendly American (Caucasian) man probably in his 30's who was wearing a barong tagalog. He again asked me the basic questions- my name, my fiance's name, how we met, what he does for a living, wedding planning etc. Then he noticed John's apology/explanation letter. I started explaining and apologizing and promised him I will come back and submit the rest, but he assured me and this is his exact words because I clearly remember to this day, "Your fiance seems to have enough money to support you. No need for additional documents." (Whew!) Then he congratulated me and swore me (to get married within 90 days) and gave me the white paper (where you have to put your mailing add for the visa delivery.)   

A miracle! An answered prayer! A relief! 

It took more than a week for my visa to be ready for pick up in one of the 2Go branches. You can also have it delivered as an option. I stayed in the Philippines a few more weeks to spend time with family and friends, work on the rest of the wedding, attend the Commission on Filipino Overseas or CFO seminar (another requirement prior to departure) and on July 31, 2011 I flew for the third time to the US to be with my man for the rest of my life.
Again, it's not an easy journey. It doesn't end once visa is in your hands or once you are married. K1 is just the first process among the succeeding processes you will go through if you decide to marry a foreign (American in this case) national. It is not for the faint of heart that's for sure. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Our Fiance (K1) Visa Saga: Chapter One

Our Fiance (K1) Visa Saga: Chapter One
LJ Salceda Schroeder

Even before John and I got married and to this day, I still receive e-mails seeking advice/tips/prayers/information regarding fiance visa a.k.a K1 visa. A few examples:

"Hi ate LJ!  Ask lang po about some ideas- paano po mag apply ng US fiance visa? salamat po! God bless."
please can you help me get some information about fiance visa in the US? I will be getting married soon also and I do not know how to process the papers. I hope to hear from you.

just wana ask, madali ba magfile ng visa? how did you do it? how much money did you spend? is it easier to go there or get married here? just want an idea what to do... my bf really doesn't know where to start... 

my gsto lang po sana akong itanong. may mareng friend po ako na my boyfriend na foreigner nagpaplano po cla na magpakasal,ano po ang unang ginawa nio para makapagfile  ng mga papers na mapunta ka po states? ano po ginawa ni Mr. nyo nong pumunta cya dito pinas? Sya po ba nagpunta sa american embassy? pls.po need ko lang po kasi malaman gsto ko lang po matulungan marengfriend ko,di po kasi alam gagawin nya.maraming salamat po!

Now that one or maybe two (not sure) of my cousins is/are dating an American guy as well-I've decided to recall, recollect and blog about John and yours truly's K1 journey. Hopefully, I'd be able to answer most, if not all of their (and yours too) visa related q's.

Disclaimer: I am in no way an expert on visa or relationship matters. For legal, official, up-to-date and first-hand info, always consult the experts or authorities. 

For the definition, types of visas, requirements, frequently asked q's, fees and the complete process, please refer to the US embassy website- or the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website- What I will be sharing with you here is more on our personal experience when we applied for the fiance visa (different from the Tourist B1 or Spouse visa K3/IR1/CR1.) 

Prior to John popping the question and the ring, we knew with certainty that our relationship was heading towards marriage. With that goal comes TONS of hard work, patience, faith and resources. I started reading, researching and gathering the evidence or documents early on in our dating stage. It helped that I am an organized, detail-oriented and very sentimental person. I saved our chat logs, receipts, airline tickets and took lots of pictures. You will be needing majority of these as part of the evidence of your relationship- one of the requirements for the K1 application. (I always reminded John to save and send me a copy of our chats whenever I was ym'ing him from my phone because I can't do it in my phone.)

Note that K1 is a PROCESS. Sometimes stressful, overwhelming, draining, long and might take it's toll in a relationship, but rewarding if you make it to the next stage (marriage). Every case or application is different. USCIS usually gives a timeline as a guide not as a rule. Many factors can come up and affect your application along the way.

John proposed to me on January 05, 2011, during my second trip to the US. Another side note: meeting each other in person is another requirement for the K1 application. It doesn't matter where or how long basta magkita kayo ng mata sa mata. :) 

We filed our application end of January or early February 2011(my memory fails me when it comes to dates, that's why it helps to save docus). This is the first official part of the process- FILING OF K1 APPLICATION BY THE PETITIONER. John (the US citizen or petitioner) has to send the application (forms, additional documents and fee) to the USCIS in the United States (not the US Embassy in the Philippines) via snail mail. Most of the documents required are from the petitioner (John), however there are requirements from beneficiary (me) as well, such as passport pictures, biographic info (form G325A), letter of intent, etc.

FYI, you will encounter a lot of acronyms, terms, document types etc. as you go through the K1 process. Yung mga forms may mga letters pa sa huli like A,B,C,D at ina-update from time to time. Good thing is, there are plenty of resources and support groups on-line that you can turn to for answers, clarifications and to help keep your sanity. :)

Feb. 10, 2011, USCIS received and acknowledged our K1 application by sending us a notice on e-mail and a hard copy a.k.a Notice of Action (NOA1). By May 13, 2011 (3 months after our application) we got our coveted second notice- the approval (NOA2) in the mail. 

Note that this is NOT the visa approval, this is just the K1 application approval. Once the application is approved it will be sent to the National Visa Center or NVC. The NVC will then forward your approved documents to the US Embassy in Manila. 

It is rare for an application to be denied at the initial stage. The worst you can get is what they call a Request for Further Evidence (RFE) which could be a missing/updated/proper document.) Once you send what they want and they are satisfied with it, wait for the notice (or an update if you are signed up on their site), then upon approval you have the go signal to move on to the next stage.

While waiting for the approval or NOA2, we started collecting the rest of the requirements (proof of relationship, NBI, CENOMAR, proof of financial support etc.) for the forthcoming stages (medical and interview).  I also tried to squeeze in exercise and vitamins to boost my immune system in preparation for the medical exam. 

PREPARING FOR THE MEDICAL AND INTERVIEW (after receiving the NOA2), was probably one of the most stressful, arduous, challenging parts of the process. You see, while going through the K1, you are also hoping/trying to prepare for a wedding abroad, maximizing whatever time you have left with family and friends and in my case leaving my 
job of more than a decade and moving my stuff from my place to my mom's apartment.

(Gown-fitting with my gown maker, Ate Laila Ramos)

After the petitioner gets the notice of approval (NOA2) in the mail, the beneficiary will then receive an appointment letter (might take between two weeks to a month) stating that he/she is eligible to schedule for an interview at the Manila US Embassy. Mine arrived on June 15, 2011 (more than 1 month after our NOA2.) 

Prior to this you have to undergo the dreaded medical exam at St. Luke's Medical Center Extension Clinic (SLMCEC) in Manila. During our time, you can go on with the medical exam even without the hardcopy of the appointment letter from the Embassy and without scheduling for the visa interview, (you do need to have your Case Number which your petitioner can get by calling the NVC hotline in the US). However a new rule is now being implemented- you need to have a schedule for an interview at the embassy first before you can do the medical (walk-in and on-line appointment are both allowed at SLMCEC). Also, there is another set of requirements and fee for the medical exam that you will have to prepare/pay/bring at SLMCEC.

FYI: the steps, fees, forms change periodically that's why it's important to check the USCIS or Manila US Embassy website for updates.

The medical exam during our time (feels like ages ago) was a two-day visit. May 30, 2011 was day 1: I paid the fees, presented the requirements, waited for my turn for the vitals, blood draw, x-ray, physical, interview with the doc etc. May 31, 2011 was day 2:  vaccines and getting/reading the results. Some applicants get a positive result on the TB test and this can be one of the roadblocks you may have to face because the doctors will require you to do a re-test and medication that could last for months. Also if you had an annulment (bring your papers), they will require you to talk to a psychiatrist and if psychological incapacity on your part was the reason of your annulment- you will have to go through a psych exam. Be prepared for more time at the hospital and expenses. If everything goes well the first time, then you are (almost) at the end of the K1 visa journey. 

If you made it to this part, I highly commend you! Nevertheless there's MORE to come... It's not a saga for nothing!

Side note: K1 is not the visa for couples who plan to get married in the Philippines but would like to settle down in the US. You need the spousal visa for that. Although if you are a K1 holder you can both have a wedding in the US and once you have adjusted your status (AOS) or in the process of AOS with the appropriate documents you can go back and have a wedding in the Philippines. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Life as an Agent (Front Desk Agent that is)

(Special mementos that I received from some of our guests.) 

Life as an Agent (Front Desk Agent that is)
Lj Schroeder

If you want to see the worst and the best in people, work in Customer Service- to be more specific, work as a hotel Front Desk Agent/Officer (the front line of Customer Service in the hotel industry).

I thought I've already encountered most (if not all) types of folks from different strokes of life having worked in media for almost 12 years. Wrong! The four months I spent as a front desk agent has been eye-opening, grueling, draining but also enriching. Thanks to my former supervisor Sharonica Naidu for opening the door for me to experience the life and work of a hotel agent.  

Prior to working as a FDA, I had so many thoughts and misconceptions such as...

1. Hotel front desk work is only for attractive people or as we say in the Philippines, people with pleasing personality. While I was applying from one hotel to another here in the US, I noticed that physical appearance is NOT a major factor for this job (not here at least). So far, I've seen and worked with agents from different cultures, with various accents, skin color, height, weight, age, religion, educational and work background. If you can do the job well and fast with less mistakes, then you might just have a shot in this field.

2. Hotel front desk work is for less talented and not-so-smart individuals because all they do is answer phones, greet guests, check-in and check them out. Another HUGE misconception! Yes, they do all those and more!

They also handle the register, memorize a gazillion of information like rates/codes/telephone numbers/bank info/discounts/room numbers/acronyms/packages/promos/usernames/last names/dates/events etc. They also have to drive (I don't) if the bellboy is not available, assist guests with their luggage, stock the gift shop, maintain cleanliness in the lobby, report complaints, deal with complaints, file documents, make reservations, make keys, follow-up on requests, call other hotels for their rate/occupancy, deliver mails or packages and a thousand more things.

FDA's are expected to be expert navigators, restaurant reviewers, weather forecaster, TV technicians, magicians, counselors and business people.  

One of the most frequently asked questions while I was doing front desk work is direction. Man, I am the last person you want to talk to about directions. Thank God for Google map!

3. Hotel front desk is pretty laid back and uncomplicated. Far from the truth, it is one of the most exhausting (they work while standing for almost 8 hours sometimes more in a day, 5 times a week), they wear many hats while dealing with various people (from rock stars to smelly students competing in a tennis competition to bridezillas).  It is a combination of physical, cerebral, emotional and technical skills.

4. Hotel front desk pay is easy money. I earned five times more than what I used to earn as a radio announcer in the Philippines, but it is hard-earned money. Front desk officers belong to the lowest wage earners in the hospitality industry (in the US) and if you are not aggressive, sensible and wise enough with your finances, everything will go to waste. Just an update: I actually earn more now as a nanny/housekeeper compared to when I was a FDA. 

5. Anyone can do front desk work. After being on the job for four short months, I could say from experience this is not the case. Few, selected folks have the ability, drive and tenacity to last in this job. And those that have stayed, oftentimes expressed their choice of not doing it again or just using the experience to climb up the ranks. 

I remember crying a lot because of the pressure, fear of making a mistake, being called out after making a mistake, losing the job, losing my control etc. 

I don't have a lot of "great" memories while working in hotel. Two of the things that stood out though were- during my last week, there was only a few of us left for the night shift which happened to be a busy night. The hotel I worked for did not keep housekeepers for the evening shift to save some moolah, so guess who does some of the housekeeping jobs? Us- the FDA's! One guest requested for a personal fridge which happened to be kept in one of the storage rooms. Since there was no one else but the front desk agents left (me and the overnight shift), I had to carry (I couldn't find the luggage cart) the fridge from one end of the hallway to the guest's room! When one of the other guests saw me doing this, he offered help and handed me my first "I appreciate you card!" 

One of my favorite guests was this older man who trains therapy dogs and take them to hospitals and schools. He travels from city to city and talk about how the dogs help children who have serious medical conditions. This was the only time I took a picture of myself at work.

After my brief stint as an FDA, I'll never see or treat this position or the person lightly nor lowly again. 

Hats off to them!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Nanny LJ by LJ Schroeder

(pictures of my alagas)

Name: Love Joy "LJ" Schroeder
Occupation: Nanny/Home Organizer 

Who would have thought that I will be back to my very first job? Taking care of kiddos! A.k.a. nanny, babysitter, caregiver, yaya, katulong, kasambahay, alipin (ibang era na 'to).  

I remember being the one in-charge of my younger cousins as early as grade school days because I'm the oldest among them. By high school, I led/taught Sunday school for kids and also volunteered as counselor for youth camps. In my last year in high school, I struck a deal with my aunt. I agreed to be the primary caregiver  of her sons (my cousins who were then toddlers) in exchange she will help me pay for my tuition fee in college. You can read an article I wrote for the Philippine Daily Inquirer's Youngblood about my previous nannying experience through this link

So after 12 years in media, 4 short months in the hospitality industry, I am back to my roots and I am loving it... well most of the time.  

I've always adored kids and my training when I was younger helped me developed the skills and character that I am putting into great use. But man, things have changed a lot.

When I was younger I knew nothing about CPR or first aid or peanut allergies. Nowadays, especially here in the US- nannies, babysitters or caregivers whether part-time or full-time are mostly required to have a certificate/training to be even considered for the job.

Some employers look for applicants who already have insurance, bond, specific trainings/certificates, references related to the job, licenses and even their own transportation! 

Twice I was turned down because I'm not a mother (yet.) A few times I was told I was overqualified and the employer assumed I might get bored with the job. (Perhaps I should take that as a compliment.)

But I kept the faith and kept on looking. After more than a month of sending applications and a number of interviews- I finally got a full-time nannying job! Since end of November, my regular workday runs from 8-6, Mon-Fri with occasional Saturdays. I also accept part-time housekeeping/babysitting/organizing jobs mostly on weekends and at night. Like most occupations, there are certain things that I love about nannying and things that just makes it a job.  

The perks of being a nanny: Always casual Friday because I don't have to dress-up or wear make-up or even take a shower (not that I don't like cleaning myself or being presentable). No deadlines to beat and lesser stress. Additionally and surprisingly, it pays better than my previous job as a front desk officer. Plus, it's been something I've done or been doing (house chores) for many years. No additional trainings needed, college diploma is optional but you do need to be able to communicate well with your employers and the kids.

The challenges: Caring for two toddlers (one a cancer survivor), teaching them the basics (it's like going to kindergarten all over again) and the long commute. We (my hubby still drives for me) travel about 40-45 mins to work and back, and double that for my loving husband. 

In my previous jobs I talked to celebrities, leaders and politicians now I am teaching a toddler how to s-p-e-l-l and form a sentence. I used to play popular songs as a radio host, now I sing nursery rhymes all day long. I used to produce, travel, attend events, research, write, give awards but now I feed, play, read, clean-up poo poos/pee pees, look for missing socks, organize, put them to bed and put up with their tantrums and break fights.

I have discovered new BFF's too- Dora, Diego, Mickey Mouse, Bob the Builder and Thomas the Train. 

The first few days I felt I was demoted. I was a little demoralized and on the verge of writing myself an invite to a pity-party. 

Then I realized I am living one of my childhood dreams of becoming a teacher, an influencer, an inspiration. I never expected that when my alagas learn the difference between dark blue vs light blue, or that 2+2=4 or that hearing the word PLEASE would give me so much delight and pride. 

The kids hate it when I say my favorite expression C-A-R-E-F-U-L, but could you blame me? God forbid something happens to them, I will not only face the wrath of their parents but also the court. It's a life, a person, his well-being even his future that I am entrusted with. Unlike businesses, customers or products lives can not be replaced. I always have to be mindful of this important fact every single day.

I was having a conversation with another Asian a few days ago. She was complaining about her husband not being a sipsip to the bossings so he would get a promotion. She then asked me, "How about you Lj, have you learned the art of kissing someone's behind (she actually used the a- word)

I answered, "Nah, it's not my personality."  Looking back, I would have answered it differently. I'd probably say, I'd rather clean someone's behind (hopefully a baby's) than kiss it.

It's not the most glamorous job (like the previous jobs I've had) but I can certainly see myself doing this for long and possibly to my own soon... maybe this year? God-willing. :)