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Photo courtesy of Hoong Ruru

My Experience as a Non-Resident Alien

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Photo courtesy of Hoong Ruru


“Non-resident aliens on F-1 visas are exempt from paying FICA taxes.”

Stirring from my drowsy languor, I look around the room to the other hundred or so international students attending the mandatory immigration session, ready to exchange a bemused smile or look of disbelief. I hardly understood what it meant to be on a F-1 visa, let alone what FICA stood for — but non-resident alien?? I felt ready to sprout a pair of neon green antennas on my head.

Back then the term seemed farcical, but over the next few months I encountered moments of bewilderment and extraneity that made me feel, well, not too far off from alien. When my American friends argued about cultural appropriation and microaggressions across the Arrillaga dining table, I found myself shrinking a little into my seat, afraid to offer my own differing view in case it would be construed as offensive or wrong.

Yet I hardly missed Singapore; I was too stubborn and too fond of my new-found freedom for that. Singapore had its own set of problems. But in America, Singapore was “home.” I found myself defending my country and my culture: “No, Singapore is not in China. No, our government isn’t (that) repressive.”

At the same time, I found myself extolling the virtues of America whilst abroad, assuring relatives and friends that not all Americans carried guns around, and that not everyone subscribed to anti-immigrant sentiments or ethnic hierarchies. I was bewildered when, more often than not, I was asked (in Singapore!) where in America I was from. “California,” I sometimes said, too lazy to explain that I was actually Singaporean. My accent, tinged with American inflections and intonations, clearly did not fit the more disjointed Singlish patois. I belonged neither here nor there; I was neither a native in my own country nor an American at heart.

Freshman and sophomore year was a confusing time because my identity was shaped by negation. It was defined by what it wasn’t, rather than what it was. I think this re-shaping of identity is something that everyone experiences in college — international or not. But I realise now that this is what makes college exciting. The disjoint in worldviews may never quite dissipate, and the uncertainty may never disappear — but there is no better time than college to pick apart your own biases and re-examine your own system of values.

Half of my time at Stanford has gone, and I am anxious to treasure every little moment I have left. Stanford friends: I look forward to more incredible conversations, 2am debates over Late Night mozzarella sticks, and spontaneous Zipcar adventures. We will find solidarity in hours of debugging code and bemoaning waffle fries gone soggy. But please, just keep one thing in mind— don’t sit on my bed with your shoes on.

Ruru Hoong

Class of 2019

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