As an Immigrant, What Does It Mean to ‘Assimilate’?
When I first came to Canada, I was given lots of well-meaning advice to assimilate.
“Start watching hockey so you can carry on a conversation with local Canadians.”
“Familiarize yourself with 80s and 90s Canadian TV shows so you are not lost when people are reflecting fondly on their childhoods. After all, bonding over shared experiences of childhood is a great way to build a connection.”
As a confused new transplant looking to build a network, I stumbled awkwardly through this. None of it felt right. I didn’t grow up in Canada. Am I supposed to tacitly conceal that from others to be accepted? Does my childhood in Pakistan, full of ambition and vibrant dreams and a relentless focus on goals, against all odds, not count for anything?
In the corporate world, we talk a lot about diversity.
We want to hire people from a variety of cultural backgrounds. We want a balanced board. We want a rainbow at the boardroom table.
But hiring immigrants and visible minorities is useless if we expect them to act the same as locals. What is the point? Surface level diversity looks great on corporate glossy paper. But does it allow us to fully leverage the power of diverse thought in the decision-making process? Does it allow us to leverage different perspectives to come up with rich and varied answers to complex problems?
As a senior leader today, I encourage my team to bring their whole selves to work.
I ask them about their unique backgrounds, and I embrace those differences. And when I mentor people, I remind them to hold true to who they are even if they’re shunned. Even if they get puzzled looks. Even if they’re otherized.
Your ‘self’ and your identity are too essential to give up. I know because I’ve spent a lifetime hiding the shame of my Pakistani upbringing. But ultimately, this shame wasn’t enough to curtail my ambition — of skyrocketing. Of progressing in my career while unashamedly being who I was.
My mission today as a leader, mentor, and coach is to give people permission to be who they are. To embrace their backgrounds. To let go of shame and hesitancy at being an immigrant and to embrace how it makes them unique. That, ultimately, is true diversity. Not the color of your skin or the height of your heel.
But that’s easy for me to say. The reality is, it’s easy to stay true to your identity when you’re a truly assimilated immigrant.
I still wonder if I would be where I was if I wore a headscarf. Would I be accepted if I didn’t enjoy a glass of wine with my colleagues at leadership meetings?
I don’t cook curry at home. I speak English fluently with only a hint of an accent. I dress in Hugo Boss suits, and Tahari dresses, just like the other women. I can tell the difference between merlot and cabernet sauvignon. I don’t take prayer breaks during work or fast during Ramadan.
Sure — I would be confused if someone made reference to being terrified by ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’ in the 1990s. But how important is that? How often do we have those conversations? For all intents and purposes, I blend in.
I am aware of my privilege, even within the immigrant community. Not everyone has a Master’s degree. Not everyone enjoys a certain level of disconnection from their own culture and community. Not everyone is adaptable. Not everyone has the benefit of having left their home country at the age of eighteen to be molded nearly perfectly into their adoptive culture.
There is no easy answer, but all I know is that change is happening.
It’s not always pretty or comfortable or smooth. But it’s our responsibility to enable it by embracing the diversity conversation. Not only in the context of skin color. But in the context of the whole plethora of beautiful features and backgrounds and perspectives and thought processes that make us unique.