The various works of Michael Ondaatje entail themes of identity. Ethnicity is often incorporated as an essential property to identity in the works. These frequent occurrences may be a product of Ondaatje's immigration from Sri Lanka to Canada in 1962. In living the immigrant experience, Ondaatje is able to recognize the importance and presence of culture in one's up-bringing. Through a critical examination of Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient, it is apparent that nationality and ethnicity are integral to the nature of identity.
Two main characters from both novels realize the importance of their ethnic background in the most unlikely of places. Patrick Lewis, a tunnel worker, bridge builder and leather cutter, discovers the meaning of being Canadian in the Macedonian community of Toronto. Patrick's cultural liberation happens while attending a play put on by Alice Gull, his lover, at the Waterworks, a theatre. The play demonstrates the language and cultural barriers experienced by immigrants to the city as they mouth the words of the actors to themselves in order to learn English. It is through this experience that Patrick realizes the notion of multiculturalism and its importance to his Canadian heritage. In the same fashion as Patrick, Kirpal Singh recognizes his ethnic background in the western community of the Italian villa in The English Patient. Kirpal, a Sikh, comes to the villa to defuse bombs planted around the area by the Germans during World War II. He is taken in by the residents of the villa and begins to develop their cultural tendencies in living. Upon hearing news of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Kirpal realizes that western aggression still exists and furthermore, recognizes the awareness of his own cultural heritage. It is after this incident that Kirpal chooses to return to Asia and his roots. Through the examination of these two characters and their relation to their surroundings, the importance of nationality being prevalent in identity is realized.