When Do You Stop Being An Immigrant?

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Canadian Beaver, Ottawa, October 2011

For the first two years I was in Canada, it was fairly obvious I was new to the country. Not only I didn’t speak English very well but the North American way of life was a novelty to me. I didn’t know the local customs, products and culture. I never really researched Canada the way a lot of prospective immigrants do because I just happened to land in the Great North Strong and Free by chance.

At first, I considered myself a traveler. I explored the area, the city and the culture like backpackers do. I drew comparisons with France and chatted a lot with my friends back home. I lived like a French, taking advantage of Ottawa’s status as a somewhat francophone city: I only read French books, spent a fortune in European shops and looked for familiar brands, familiar TV shows, familiar faces and accents. Canada’s little quirks amused me and I saw them through the eyes of an outsider.

But being a permanent tourist gets tiring. At one point, you either have to integrate or be a lifelong expatriate—and the latter wasn’t an option for me.

I got my first job in Canada after obtaining a Working Holiday Visa. I worked in an inbound call centre as a bilingual agent and my English quickly improved. Being on the phone all day with customers and surrounded by English-speakers, I didn’t have the choice. Besides, I was more comfortable taking English calls then dealing with French calls from New-Brunswick and Northern Quebec because I couldn’t understand local accents.

By the time I decided to apply for permanent residence, I moved from being a traveler to being a prospective immigrant. Suddenly, I cared about all kinds of practical matters. I started wondering whether I had a future here and how I could make the country work for me. I worried about a lot of things. What if I wasn’t able to adapt to life in Canada? Would France take me back? I was 22, I had just graduated from university but I only had a Baccalaureate and virtually no work experience back home. Most of my friends in France were moving on to graduate studies. Meanwhile, I was filling in immigration papers and working odd jobs. I had reached the point of not turning back. I had to start my adult life somewhere and hopefully not regret it later. Worse, no one could really advise me. I was caught between two cultures, two ways of life. I cried a lot that year, and eventually hoped for the best.

When I was granted the permanent residence, I decided to embrace my new status. After the ordeal of dealing with CIC, I knew my rights and my duties and I was well-versed into immigration matters. Once in a while, my immigrant status backfired at me. Some places refused to hire me because: supposedly they couldn’t do a background check because I hadn’t lived in Canada long enough. Whenever I was interviewed, I always made a point of mentioning I did have a legal status and a valid SIN number. People always asked me how long I had been in Canada for, gauging the chances of me bailing out and going home or trying to figure out whether I could say “eh” properly.

The permanent residence was a short-lived victory. At first, I was overjoyed by the thought of being a full-time immigrant with the right to live, work and study in Canada indefinitely. But I still had to explain my status. To a lot of people, I was still a French in Canada, merely a Canadian in training. Some jobs were off-limit, including government positions, which represent a large chunk of the job market in Ottawa.

I couldn’t wait to apply for citizenship. By the time I was eligible, I had outgrown my permanent resident status and I wanted to belong fully, if only on paper. After taking the oath, I wanted to hug Canada, kiss the ground and shout “it’s mine too!” I’ve never been the patriotic kind to boot.

And now I realize I haven’t been asked where I’m from in a long time now. I probably still have an accent in both English and French but again, so do a lot of Canadians. People aren’t that curious about my background or maybe I just don’t look so exotic anymore. I also feel Canadian. I don’t receive notices from Citizenship & Immigration but voting cards from Elections Canada. I travel with my Canadian passport, I understand cultural jokes and have friends from all walks of life.

I adopted Canada and it adopted me. Most of the time, we get on well.

Looking back, it happened just like that. I had become Canadian.


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. I thought you could never stop being an immigrant. That you aren’t exactly french anymore but you aren’t exactly canadian neither. Right in the middle!
    I guess I was wrong. 😉 Anyway, I truly admire the path you have taken, I think I could never fit in Québec as well as you do in Ontario!

  2. I will always remain an immigrant, most immigrants in France never become truly French.

    Personally, when I’m travelling when people ask where I’m from I will say I live in Paris but will follow with “I am Canadian”.

    • When people ask me, I sometime say “I’m French AND Canadian” but half of the time, people understand “French Canadian” and make some joke about Quebec accent or something. 😆

  3. Ah, I so can relate to this post. I’ve been living here in the United States for 6 years now, as a student. My cultural background, given my history as being part of the diplomatic corps, is quite varied, that I do not fully identify as a Filipino. So yeah, given how I act, I’m not a foreigner, but I am not an American either. Quite bizarre, this limbo-like existence, but somehow, I think I’m fine with that. It’s a unique situation, but it definitely gives me a lot to talk about over coffee!

    • I never really see you as a Filipino, and I actually have to remind myself that’s where you are from! I don’t see you as an American either, mostly because you occasionally mention your visa issues and all. So I guess I see you… as a linguist!

      • That’s exactly what I mean! I see stereotypical Filipinos and it makes me think: hmm, these are what Filipinos do? Interesting… There’s just a lot of cultural norms and stereotypes that typical Filipinos do but I don’t, and that is enough to sort of draw the line. It brings rather interesting experiences whenever I find myself in Manila every now and then…

  4. “Where are you from?” is often an awkward question in Canada – at least to me. Sometimes people mean to ask “where are you REALLY from?” and other times they mean “which city in Canada do you live in?”. Quite interesting, eh?

    • I know exactly what you mean! I find that when people ask me where I’m from, they actually mean “which city” and not “which country” because they seem surprised when I say “France”.

  5. My time to kiss the ground and shout “it’s mine too” will come up soon (I guess in 2 years). I’m applying tomorrow.
    (PS: Can I steal that phrase??)

    • You can totally steal the phrase. And congratulation on applying! Two years, that long in Toronto? In Ottawa it takes about a year from the application to the oath.

  6. This is an interesting question! I’m happy to hear the process went so well for you – it’s nice to see people here who are so excited to be Canadian!

  7. jonsing phoenix on

    Hey ZHU
    What a great post. I enjoyed reading your article; it highlighted the migration process pretty well. I admire how you picked up the language and puns quickly as it reflects in your experiential writing. After reading this wonderful article it made me appreciate and embrace my Canadian citizen status to a high agree. Thanks for re-educating me on what’s like to be a Canadian again.

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