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Is it possible to define immigrant identity? An immigrant’s perspective

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Themrise N Khan at Canadian citizenship ceremony.

Who Am I?


This question plagues perhaps every individual on the planet. And yet it is one that has no clear answer. 


For instance, if I were to answer this question, I would say I am a… South Asian, single, dual national, Pakistani-Canadian, heterosexual, Muslim, female, of Afghan descent, currently self-employed, middle-income, social policy researcher and blogger.

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And it doesn’t end there. Depending on my personal choices and global contexts, I can continue to add/subtract from this list. Because our identity is not based on a singular physiological or psychological concept. It is in fact, dependent on a combination of different ‘variables’, and within each of these, are further sub-variables, many of which are largely subjective, and move beyond just hard administrative data. 

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Migration of individuals across geographical and cultural boundaries, often adds greater complexity to our identity. Immigrants carry with them not only the identity of the home they were born in, but also the identity of the home they choose to adopt. This impacts how migrants are viewed and represented in the larger discourse around migration in both host and origin countries.


This begs the question; does identifying as an immigrant lead to a deeper understanding of society, or does it further complicate matters by spreading our ‘identities’ too thin?  


As an immigrant from Pakistan to Canada, my migrant journey – which is exclusively my own – has surely sub-divided my identity into a number of new variables which have changed the way the world sees me and indeed, the way I see myself and the world.


*  *  *


Canada is a thriving microcosm of fluid identity ensconced within the notion of multiculturalism [1]. In addition to its Indigenous Peoples and the white colonial settlers, it comprises a range of identities vis-a-vis the immigrants and refugees who have chosen to call it home. 

When I arrived in Canada from Pakistan as an immigrant, my identity was limited to how my Pakistani passport defined me; by my nationality and gender, and to some extent, my religion. 

Once in Canada, this began to gradually change. Unlike in Pakistan, where I was in the majority by way of my religious identity, in Canada, I suddenly became part of the legally-defined ‘ethnic minority’ [2]. Or the ‘other’ as post-colonial literature would define it. The fact that the range of immigrants in Canada varied enormously, only complicated the notion of my own immigrant identity, as was the fact that everyone’s experience of migration was also markedly different.


Was I part of the South Asian diaspora or the Pakistani diaspora? Was I a woman of colour like African-Canadians, or was I distinct given my ‘brown’ heritage? Was I a Muslim-Canadian, or a Pakistani-Canadian Muslim? And could I continue being a ‘Pakistani’ if I was now on my way to being a ‘Canadian’? 


These questions were further complicated by the continuing narrative around Islamophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment and racial discrimination. Could I only qualify as a Canadian if I were white? Or if I was born there? 


But upon my return to Pakistan, I soon realized that my identity in my country of origin was no less complicated. I had to contend with the fact that I was now legally and morally accountable to two very different Constitutions, by nature of my dual nationality. But I was also thrust back into a State that viewed religion as the primary marker of identification. In this sense, I returned to being the ‘majority’, and my secondary nationality took a back seat. 


Contradictions also emerged in how immigrants were viewed by host and origin in migrant narratives. In Canada, the dominant narrative by pro-immigration governments, for instance, viewed immigrants as those who ‘sacrificed’ for a better life and contributed socially and economically to Canada. In Pakistan however, the immigrant was the one ‘who ran away’, particularly as viewed by individuals left behind. This narrative was conveniently reversed when migrants chose to leave the host to return to their origin, i.e., return migration, or if a Conservative government was in power who viewed immigrants as a drain on the host society.


These contradictions raised the question; can I be part of two societies that are so different in their moral outlooks merely by holding their respective nationality? Canada was a largely tolerant, progressive and robust society, whereas Pakistan was the exact opposite. Could I only be a Canadian in Canada and a Pakistani in Pakistan? 


This question resonates not only with those immigrants who either choose to or are forced to live between two worlds. It also resonates with settled immigrants in multicultural societies that have been given the option to practise their culture freely. The answer is simpler in this case, i.e. I can be both identities in Canada, but only one in Pakistan. 


This realization has complicated my immigrant identity, because it is dependent on which country I chose to settle in. In effect, my choice to migrate has created greater chasms in my identity, than it has clarity. 


That’s not all a bad thing, given that identity should be evolutionary. But in today’s world of heightened migration rhetoric, it may lead to creating more questions than answers. Canada will continue to add newcomers to its population who will over time, bring with them perhaps even more complex forms of identity, as their origin cultures either evolve or contract. Such as in Pakistan, from where people will continue to migrate to Canada and elsewhere for a better life and bring their complex origins with them. 


As a result, multicultural societies like Canada will need to devise even more ways to accept and accommodate different social norms and cultural lifestyles and more diverse legislation to recognize emerging identities, while migrant-sending societies like Pakistan, will have to adapt to their citizens making hard choices between home and heritage.


Thus the identity of the immigrant will always be one of perpetual choice. Be it in their country of origin or their host nation. And this choice is what ultimately will define immigrant identity. Or help it to continually evolve.


* This paper was inspired by a presentation made by the author entitled ‘Is Canadian Identity Measurable? Exploring Canadian identities in an age of multiple identities’, for the symposium Measuring Identity, Diversity and Inclusion in Canada @150 and Beyond; December 2017, Quebec, Canada.

Notes and references

[1] Canada defines multiculturalism under the Multiculturalism Act of 1988, as aimed at promoting ‘the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society’.

[2] The 2016 Canadian Census reported 250 ethnic origins and/or ancestries in Canada. This does not include the various Indigenous First Nations People of Canada.


Themrise N Khan

Themrise N Khan is an independent researcher with over 20 years of experience in international development, social policy and global migration. She has published both academically and professionally, on issues ranging from development aid intervention in fragile states, to gender inequality, to regular and irregular migration and citizenship. She is an occasional writer of op-eds and thematic pieces for various print and online mediums on development assistance, migration and gender. Selected publications and articles can be found on

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