Tag Archives: Third World

Death by Bureaucracy


This week my salvation was tested in a fiery trial of red tape.  I almost gave into the temptation to assault someone behind a counter in the office of Immigration.  We have been working for the last 3 years on getting our “Permanent” Residency Visas… which will only last for 2 years before they must be renewed.  That right there should be a clue to the kind of thinking that we encounter in government offices of Third World Countries.  Apparently “Permanent” does not mean what you think it means.  I now know that “Permanent” means permanently standing in line to have papers stamped.

Two months ago we spent another day standing in various hot, long lines; and we thought we saw the end of the tunnel.  We received a piece of paper with a date and time on it.  This was the appointment for us to return as a family to sign our “cedulas” which would mean that we would no longer have to leave the country every 90 days to renew our tourist visas.  We were ready to sign and celebrate the end of a long and expensive process to stay legal.  But the paper pushing gods were against us.

chairsOn the designated day, we arrived at Immigration with our 3 children in tow.  I know from experience that an appointment does not exempt you from standing in line for a few hours.  So we came prepared with snacks and Game Boys and iPods and Kindles- ready to endure.  When our blood sugar levels started to drop around noon and we still had not been called back into the cubical area, I knew things were not going well.

Finally they called all of us up to three separate cubicles and started drilling us with questions.  My husband asked if they could process all our papers together so we could be with our children and help them.  The answer was NO so we kept hovering between spaces, talking over half walls, and passing papers between us.  At one point the woman helping my husband actually LOST a paper that he had just handed her.  Ten minutes later and many insistent demands that SHE find the lost paper, it was discovered in a pile on someone else’s desk.  My own breaking point was rapidly approaching.

The woman working with my stack of papers pointed to our date and time for this appointment and asked, “So, have you started paying into the social security system since you were given this appointment date?”  I said, no, why would we pay social security if we didn’t have a visa yet?  She then briskly informed me that I had missed some imaginary deadline to start paying taxes and now all my paper work was invalid.  I was shocked.  I felt my brain start to seize up as I tried to process the words in Spanish.

I asked, “Where does it say that?  Show me where it says that I have to start paying taxes before a certain date or my visa application will be denied.”

She barked at me, “You just DO IT.”

“Yes, but how was I supposed to KNOW that?”


This illogical exchange occurred over and over for the next 15 minutes at ever increasing decibels until the tears eeked from the corners of my eyes.  I wanted to beat that woman upside the head until her marbles settled into the logical grooves.  How could someone be expected to navigate a bureaucratic rabbit warren using nothing but mystical forms of divination and mind reading?  It was as useless to reason with her as it would have been to reason with a brick wall.  I deeply desired to curse her with a plague of paper cuts and then squeeze lemon juice on her.

impatiently-waiting_lFive hours later we had managed to convince them to at least take our children’s pictures and put them into their files for a future date so that we wouldn’t have to take them out of school for another day, but we were no closer to getting our coveted residency visas than we had been 2 months earlier.  The next day, my husband went down to the social security office to set up an account.  They were just as confused as we were.  He only succeeded in obtaining another appointment next week to stand in line again.  And so the saga continues… unless I get deported from the country for strangling someone as I wait in line.

This is not an uncommon story among missionaries.  We are all a bit surprised, and a little gratified, when we hear how similar each of our stories are all around the world.  There is no use fighting the system.  We just pray for the endurance to press on and conquer yet another trial.  We have huge mountains of paper blocking the way to our calling.  Fortunately I know a God who specialized in moving mountains.

Photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/funky64/2603653222/”>Funky64 (www.lucarossato.com)</a> / <a href=”http://foter.com”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>CC BY-NC-ND</a>

Photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/jasonlparks/5139930960/”>Jason L. Parks</a> / <a href=”http://foter.com”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>CC BY-NC-ND</a>

Where do I report this Bribe on my IRS forms?


In our culture, I mean the Western or American culture, some things look really black and white until you leave the law abiding world behind and enter the gray zone called the Third World.  In America, it’s straight forward- a bribe is illegal and will get you in a big ‘ole pile of doo-doo.  Keeping your word is the equivalent of building a solid reputation for trustworthiness.  “Honesty is the best policy”  and “cleanliness is next to Godliness” are more than just manipulative sayings used by your grandma.  We really believe these things!

But overseas, the virtues that you hold so precious look foolish and impractical to others.  In some countries, these concepts that are so ingrained in us don’t even cross people’s minds!  It can be quite shocking how easily people in other countries “lie” or “cheat” or “steal” or “give a bribe.”  But is it really that cut and dry?  Can we really brand the actions of another culture with our American labels?

I admit that this is one of the areas of cultural adjustment that I have struggled with the most.  When I was a college student, I had my first taste of cultural misunderstandings when I worked for a short time with high school students in a Cambodian youth group.  One of the principal values of Asian cultures is not to cause someone to “lose face” or be embarrassed publicly.  I didn’t understand this.

So when I would ask my girls, “Are you coming to the event on Saturday?”  and they all enthusiastically replied with the affirmative, I was confused and angry when no one showed up.  But they SAID they would be there!  Why would they LIE?!  Turns out they didn’t see it as lying.  They saw it as a gentler, kinder way of saying, “no.”  Rather than saying no directly to my face, they took the indirect approach and just didn’t show up on Saturday.  I still don’t like this even though I understand it now.

Sometimes the problem isn’t so much with personal morality as it is an issue of how things get done in a Third World country.  For example, we have friends in Asia who were having trouble getting their visa renewal paperwork to move through a particular office.  The office staff drug their feet until the visas were only a week away from expiration.

In frustration, my friend tried to think about how he had seen his local friends pull strings.  He leaned forward at the desk and asked the clerk, “How can I help you get this work done?”

“Well,” the clerk thought, “we like Durian fruit here.”  Without saying a word, my friend nodded, turned on his heels and walked out the door.  The next morning he didn’t even bother to stand in line.  With two armfuls of Durian fruit, he walked right to the front of the line, opened the door and heard the clerk happily announce to the entire office, “The Durian is here!”  Mission accomplished, the visas were renewed by the end of the week.

So was it a bribe?  Or was it just greasing the wheels of commerce?  The world will never know.  But I do know for a fact you can’t report that on your IRS forms.