Personal Story: On Being a Lifelong Immigrant

Immigration, the simple act of moving from country A to country B, is loaded with connotations – often negative which can have profound effects on identity. For years now, I have chosen to amplify my identity as a lifelong immigrant.


My parents are first-generation immigrants, while my brother is a second-generation immigrant. I fall somewhere in between–I’m a 1.5 generation immigrant. I was born in India and moved to New Zealand when I was six.


I learnt to speak, eat, dress and navigate the world in a different country and culture to the one I spent the next decade growing up in. 


At seven years old, I sat in an assembly watching an Indian dance performance. I don’t remember the song, or what they wore. What I do remember is my blonde-haired, usually very kind classmate laughing hysterically at the performance. I remember feeling a deep sense of shame to be associated with a language and culture that was perceived as weird or funny. Already struggling to fit in,


I did not want to be laughed at.


And so began a long journey of trying to disassociate myself from my culture and language.  I spent my formative years in my country of birth yet I grew up ashamed of my culture. 


My unlearning of this perception began when my family moved to Qatar almost a decade later where I suddenly transformed from immigrant to expat. Living in Qatar made me aware of the privilege my accent and passport provided me. Skilled labour workers who looked like me and my “expatriate” family and shared my culture were called “migrant labourers”.


My American professors were expats but, I reflected, if I were to move to America I wouldn’t be considered an expat. While I came home from an American university to a two-storey villa in a private compound, construction workers and cleaning staff were loaded into buses from the same university and driven off to high density accommodation in the outskirts of the city.


In truth we were all migrant workers, trading services for stay. But our passports and job titles afforded us different labels and those labels afforded us different privileges. 


“That is when I chose to identify as an immigrant. Not an expat, not a global citizen, not a TCK. An immigrant.”


Two years ago I moved to Australia, and after the first class in my master’s programme, a lecturer approached me to ask if I understood English. Despite my insistence that I did, he continued to point me to options to get help. While he meant well, impact is greater than intent. I choose to identify as a lifelong immigrant exactly because these kinds of interactions do not end.


I spent years replacing my mother tongue for English, erasing any trace of an Indian accent, not wanting to be heard in public speaking anything but fluent English.


But how was I going to shed my brown skin, my culture, my heritage, my religion,  all of which I also held so dear? I am a lifelong immigrant because there’s no target I can reach that will magically stop me from being an outsider. 


For as long as I can remember, my Otherness has defined not only how people see me, but what I see when I look in the mirror. I am the daughter of immigrants. I have carried my Otherness across oceans in search of a skin that would feel like home. Little did I know that I was already home in the peripheries of belonging.


Owning this Otherness, owning my eclectic mix of cultures and experiences makes me who I am.


In an increasingly global world, it is time to accept the fluidity of people’s identity and sense of belonging. When asked where I am from I want room to be able to include all the pieces and places I have called home. I am proudly bilingual. I am multi-local. And there is no short, easy or clear answer to where I am from or where I belong. 


While I can’t go back in time to tell my seven-year-old self what I know now, I feel like the onus falls on me to empower those who may be in the place I once was. My immigrant background has imbued me with resilience and adaptability.


But I had to accept myself before anyone else could accept me as I was.


I had to allow myself to be proud of my identity, to recover the years of culture and language lost. I hope that nobody else has to feel like they must shed parts of who they are to be accepted–or to be great. We are not exceptional despite our immigrantness, but often because of it. 


As immigrants, there are times when we find our lives confined within the dimensions of a suitcase: our possessions, our memories, our identities. Immigration is far more than a journey from point A to point B. Years after we have unpacked our bags, we continue to unpack our identities.



Alisha Saiyed

Alisha Saiyed (she/her) lives and works on the lands of the Wurundjerin People of the Kulin Nation. She is a designer, storyteller and lifelong immigrant passionate about socially responsible design. A graphic designer and strategist by training, she is most inclined towards working with communities, social enterprises and non-profits. When not designing, she enjoys coffee-fuelled photography, doodles, and culinary experiments. Find her on Instagram: @alisha_jpeg/@alishasaiyed and Medium: @alishasaiyed

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