Death and Taxes

This is the second year I’ve lived in Pittsburgh. Just as the Chinese New Year arrived in early February, I received two magazine-size tax return manuals—one from Pennsylvania, the other from the city of Pittsburgh. I guess once you have an identity in the U.S., (for a foreigner, it’d be your residential address, phone number and most importantly, your social security card) you’ll be reminded of filing your tax returns annually.

The tax return manuals are certainly my guaranteed new-year presents from the U.S. government.

How can I forget about this cumbersome documentation? Chatham University’s international affair officer made it clear: all international students, regardless of being employed or not, must file the Form 8843.

8843—it sounds like an inmate’s identity number. To some extent, I do feel myself, as one of the F-1 students in the U.S., am bounded by the paperwork of the Department of the Treasury. Form 8843 is a statement for exempt individuals and individuals with a medical condition. On the form, the subtitle reads: For use by alien individuals only. I don’t like the term, alien. But I guess the U.S. Federal Government sees us foreign visitors no different from the outer space invaders. 8843 actually can make a case number for the X-Files, too.

I filed Form 8843 last year, so it’s just routine, I thought. But this year, instead of filing it on paper, the international affair officer taught us to file the form through an online software. I find the process taking more time than by the traditional method.

How reliable is this tax return software? Can you really depend on the machine to take care of your personal accounting? I mean, the information you provide on the computer is not simply your name and phone number, but your annual assets, your money!

Since the day I spent money in the U.S., I’ve realized I must pay tax on every transaction. So a paperback at the Barnes & Noble is labeled US$15, the total cost is always more than the price tag. Why can’t the price tag show a tax-included price? So I won’t be overly elated when I see a cheap price but, in fact, it’s not cheap when I pay at the cashier. In China, I’d have to pay what it is priced on the item. If a bowl of noodle costs ten yuan (approximately US$1.5), I’ll only pay ten yuan. No tips, no tax, no frills. The price has included the tax.

In America, it’s so different. Customers can learn clearly the breakdown of the cost; the governments, federal and local, try to make their revenues transparent by requesting every eligible taxpayer to fill out tax forms on which list, if not hundreds, but dozens of questions. Some of these questions are interrelated and involved with some twists-and-turns calculation. No wonder an accountant is such a desirable occupation in the U.S.

As long as you have lived in America, taxes will follow you all your life. Even though you’re dead, the governments will chase your soul. I remember when I first filled PA-40 tax returns, in the column of filling status, there’s one option which reads D for Deceased. I didn’t know and wondered. Can’t the government just let the dead rest in peace? Later I learned the departed’s family is the preparer of the form. As they say, nothing is certain but death and taxes.


Filed under: Humor, Prose, Songyi Zhang's America