My Life Being An "Illegal" International Student In The U.S.
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Politics and Activism

My Life Being An "Illegal" International Student In The U.S.

Every day was a lucid nightmare.

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My Life Being An "Illegal" International Student In The U.S.
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On Wednesday June 8th, I was leaving work, strolling along the leafy stretch of road where the Admissions Office, the Rare Musical Instruments Collection and some other administrative buildings were located, when I bumped into my dean, her husband, and their adorable little puppy. I immediately walked over to say hello.

“So, uh, what are you doing here?” My dean asked me after we exchanged the usual small talk.

“Oh, I’m working for the city government,” I explained, recalling how difficult it had been to search for an internship.

A little pause and a few raised eyebrows – “you’re not taking classes?”

Her husband, who is the director for affairs of international students, jumped in, prudently but firmly, “but, Yupei, your student visa expired almost two weeks ago; your continued presence here is, effectively, illegal.”


Earlier this year, I had received full funding to pursue my dream – studying abroad in Japan for a year; I would be taking language classes, doing sociological research and making music. After a period of unproductivity when I struggled with academic and mental health issues, I finally summoned the courage to take hold of the opportunity and live my life to the fullest; I promptly applied for a leave of absence for the 2016-2017 academic year. A few weeks later my request was approved. I was to not take classes at Yale for the 2016-2017 academic year; if I wanted to enter the United States, I was to reapply for a tourist visa. Simple.

Or so I thought.

Standing under the leafy canopy, where sunlight trickled down, I suddenly felt a chilling sensation stabbing through me. My field of vision blurred and whitened. Lunch churned in my stomach. For a brief moment I was disoriented, perplexed, then absolutely livid at both my naiveté and the apparently bureaucracy that prevented anyone from making this painful fact explicit to me.

Of course, the 2015-2016 school year just ended. If Yale isn’t expecting me to return for next year, Yale had no reason to keep me here and my presence in the United States becomes illegal the day my leave is approved. In other words, even though the 2016-2017 academic year runs from September 2016 to May 2017, my “leave of absence for the 2016-2017 academic year” runs from May 2016 to September 2017, which no-one has ever clarified to me. My fifteen-day grace period would end in less than a week and I would have to leave by then if my records could not be recovered.

Walking home, my head hung in utter disbelief, rage, bemusement, and dread. As much as my dean and her husband tried to comfort me by referring me to another director and promising me that things would turn out alright, I had little faith that the U.S. government would be so merciful to the enormous flock of international students.


For the next few days, my life was a limbo. On Wednesday night I managed to cook for myself, clean my room and maintain a fairly interesting conversation with my roommate; every time I lay my eyes upon anything the thought of whether it would be the last time I got to see it brutally invaded my mind. I furiously scrolled through social media, and half-heartedly skimmed over my new Japanese novel, yet words strung together made no sense to me. That night, I prayed furiously to my late grandmother and to whatever deity I had been ignoring for the past 20 years, to save me. The next morning, I woke up at 6 am, screaming silently from an incredibly realistic dream where two immigration officers dragged me, only to wake up to another nightmare from which I could never escape.

My supervisor did not question my absence at work. I tossed my clothes about my room and found my passport, in which contained my (invalid) U.S. student visa and a Canadian visa. Maybe I could just hop on a plane to Canada and reapply for a tourist visa. I thought. But what if my application gets denied, and I’m stuck in a foreign country with barely any money, while all of my clothes and valuables are in the United States?

My sheet music lay in a disorganized heap on the floor. I lost all of my incentives to keep writing music when I may be forced to leave, so soon that I would have nowhere to store my instrument, let alone record anything. For days I lived off instant noodles – clearly there was no point in doing shopping if I might have to hop on a plane to another country at any minute. Some moments I felt compelled to prepare for the worst and pack, yet other moments I firmly believed that packing would attract bad luck that would turn the situation into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I attempted to prewrite emails to be sent to my Japanese professors, funding staff, and my landlord, should I actually have to return to China and be cut off from Gmail.

Cooking, washing-up, taking a shower, reading, studying, working, trying to sleep – as my fifteen-day grace period rapidly came to an end, every passing moment was a reminder that my presence was about to become illegal, that I could choose between borrowing some money and buying a ridiculously expensive plane ticket home, or simply overstay and then risk being denied a visa when I come back for senior year. I accidentally pierced my skin when cutting some vegetables; blood gushed out and I absentmindedly ran my finger under the cold tap water. This is real; this is a real nightmare, I thought to myself. And I could never wake up.


The following Monday, one day before the end of my fifteen-day grace period, I crashed the Office of International Students and Scholars to find the director whom my dean had referred to. “Yes, I have an appointment with her,” I lied through my teeth to the receptionist. She had been too busy to reply to my emails, and I felt like I had no other choice to be display my absolute worst – catch her at work. To my surprise, she agreed to talk to me, yet it wasn’t long before she delivered a crushing blow – there was not much they could do, aside from trying to reinstate my records, on the condition that Yale College Dean’s Office agreed to do so – from my knowledge of talking with friends and classmates, they almost never did. I left her office crushed, defeated, and absolutely devastated.

Walking along Temple Street under the sun, I recalled almost surreally that this used to be part of my daily routine – I used to walk here, during the afternoon, between classes and an internship; sometimes, late at night, I would take this way to the math department; freshman year, these are the slabs I walked on to reach my dreaded weekly French tests…Yet, never have I felt so distanced, so rejected, so despised, by an surrounding so dear to me. It was as if every single red brick was screaming for me to get out. Birds were chirping and singing and I could smell the crispy scent of summer leaves; if this were a nightmare, it was far too realistic.

The Yale College Dean was out, I was told by the receptionist. Please, I begged, in a husky, shaky whimper I had never heard exit my mouth before. She listened, she made a note, she gave an email address and wished me luck. I crumpled into a lifeless pile on the cold marble staircase; I wish I could go somewhere, but there was nowhere for me to go. My hands were shaking uncontrollably; I wanted to bawl my eyes out, yet no tears came. In my three years here in the United States, never had I felt so strongly despised and unwelcome; never had I been so devastated.


In the end? Well, I’m still here. The Yale College Dean miraculously granted me an extension, the Office of International Students and Scholars miraculously submitted an application to reinstate my student visa and it was miraculously approved. I did not have to fly anywhere. I can continue my government work, my independent Japanese studies and my music projects. I did not have to worry about storing my books and instrument for another two months. My shoddy little sublet can remain my home, I can continue cooking burnt bacon with my roommate and never have greasy stains on the stove been so endearing to me.

Did I learn a lesson from this? Maybe – above all, I learnt not to be overconfident in my ability to read and understand bureaucratic documents. However – and rather tragically – I learnt that the real world is usually less friendly or understanding than we presume it to be. The U.S. has no qualms about kicking students out two weeks after their visa ended, even if the students may be barely making enough to feed themselves, and, theoretically speaking, the U.S. has every reason to do so. Yet when you meet students like me, who meant no harm, who were never told the specific implications of their academic leaves, who were assumed to be able to just hop on a plane a get home – yet most of us, as individuals, are absolutely powerless against the machine of bureaucracy.

During my three years here as a student, I was able to access a lot of privileges. Sure, my F-1 student status allowed me to visit certain countries without a separate visa, and yes, I do get tax exemptions from tax treaties between the U.S. and China – yet more than that, I was able to live in peace. I could attend classes, volunteer, apply for internships, travel domestically and internationally – without ever having to worry if my presence in this country is “legal”. I did not have to live constant fear or uncertainty; I did not have to worry about the next time I would be able to see my possessions, home, friends – moreover, I did not have to constantly stress about being forced to return to a “home country” that was almost never home to me.

The nightmare is finally over, and I hope I never dream of it again.

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