Irish expat Aisha says it was her early experience of moving across the Channel to live in Britain, that first opened her eyes to the wonders of the expat experience, but it wasn’t until many years later that Aisha got the opportunity to choose the expat life for her family.
Aisha’s thoughtful expat blog at Expatlogue details her family’s experience moving from the UK to Canada, a place she and her husband had never previously seen.
As they say, there’s nothing like jumping in the deep end!
Fortunately Aisha has clearly demonstrated her expert expat swimming technique, and now two years into the experience she takes up the Moving Story for our expat life series, in her own words…
1) Why did you move from your home country, originally?
After settling in the UK as a child, I was always eager to see more of the world, and for years I had to make do with living vicariously through travel novels and expat memoirs. Predictably, once sufficiently weighed down with mortgages, a family and a large book collection, the opportunity to emigrate presented itself.
My husband is part of a global engineering consultancy, who sought to redistribute its staff when the recession hit Europe. We saw this an opening to experience life in another country and when Canada made us an offer we swiftly negotiated a relocation package. Six months after we first aired the idea at the dinner table we touched down in Toronto to start life in a country neither of us had ever been to, where we knew no one. Who could have guessed that the map insignia on the bottle of Canada Dry on my parent’s drinks trolley that I gazed at as a child, (hey! It was the 70’s…) would have such significance in later life!
2) Can you remember the time before you left and what your concerns about moving were? What did you think your biggest challenges would be?
Hmmmm, that’s a tough one. I didn’t know a thing about Canada – it didn’t feature on my wish list at all so I had no preconceptions. Logistics were the hardest part for us – we weren’t selling up so deciding what to leave and what to take, filled me with concern, as did what we were leaving behind. We’d just completed an extension and total refurbishment of our house, creating our dream home, and I’d already envisioned the children growing up there. That was hard to say goodbye to, despite telling myself I could come back if I wanted to.
I hoped the children would take the move in their stride and was watchful for any signs that they were feeling insecure. My eldest daughter was five and my son was two so I was optimistic that they would transition smoothly. My youngest was just a couple of months old, so I was concerned about registering her for healthcare and staying up-to-date with her immunisations.
3) What did you think you would miss most about your home country, apart from family?
I knew I would miss my house - rental property is never the same – and I was sad that I wouldn’t be there when my neighbor had her first child. But as for everything else, I was too excited and filled with curiosity about what things would be like in Canada to feel sentimental.
4) Have you been surprised by what you really have missed about your home country?
I never expected to miss Sainsbury’s (British supermarket) so much! Then again, it was a bit like a second home…
When I look back it’s very hard to untangle the effect of post-pregnancy hormones from the inevitable culture shock. Also, I was experiencing a kind of mourning after my husband’s family rejected me just before I left, telling me, in no uncertain terms, that they had never liked me. For a while, after the honeymoon period was over, I lost all sense of balance and perspective. Everything seemed primitive, ineffectual or just plain silly compared to how it was in the UK. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t do everything in Canada the way they did in Britain, it just seemed so much better! I must have driven my new friends nuts! Of course I know now that this is just one of the stages of culture shock.
Two years on, I can say the things I really miss are proper chocolate and decent public transport.
Everything else you either learn to live without (truly refreshing and empowering once you’re over the uncomfortable bit) or find an alternative, and the wealth of new experiences more than makes up for all the things I’ve parted with.
5)Do you see your old age in this country or in your home country, and was moving a ‘for life’ decision or ‘for a while’ decision?
When we moved we had both possibilities going through our heads so we had the majority of our furniture shipped over. It seemed better to cover the costs with the relocation package, than have to find the money later on if we decided to stay.
Now, I can see myself settling here, it’s a beautiful, culturally rich country with a great quality of life and the children would get a sound education. But I still feel wanderlust; if other opportunities came up I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t give them serious consideration, so who knows where we’ll end up!
6) What positives about life in Canada can you tell us about?
The fear of crime here is much less than in the UK and some people still go to sleep without locking their doors. They leave their cars unlocked and have all sorts of decorative items and nice furniture on their porches that never gets pinched. Women feel safe walking alone or out running in the evening. Teenagers and young adults are polite and respectful and do volunteer work as part of their education; I think this gives them a feeling of pride in their community, making them less inclined to vandalise it and more aware of their standing in society. There’s no obvious binge-drinking culture so outdoor events with beer tents are much more enjoyable and people really enjoy the great outdoors here; there are endless forest trails and picturesque lakeside walks filled with families, dog-walkers, cyclists, hikers… barbecuing down by the lake is de rigueur!
For us though, the biggest positive is the unquestioned acceptance of all races.
I married a Pakistani man so our little family is a multicultural medley. The rising tide of blindly wielded governmental political correctness back home coupled with badly handled immigration issues makes the UK a prickly place even for British-born Asians. The thing I noticed, within the first few days of being here, was that non-whites were as comfortable and confident as anyone else, unlike in the UK where they’re a little more guarded.
7) Were the challenges the same as you envisaged or not?
Car insurance for expats is astronomical, as most companies won’t accept driving history from abroad, so we didn’t have a car for the first year. Internet grocery shopping would have cushioned the blow but that isn’t available here, either. I’ll never forget that first 25-minute walk back home in the snow with a box of Pampers under each arm because there was a great money-saving deal at the store!
8) What surprises have you had – good and bad – setting up your new home in Canada, and what snippets of been-there-done-that advice would you give would-be expats?
Canada is full of surprises. It’s a land of extremes – there’s lots of fast food but the fresh produce is better quality and there are heaving platters of freshly prepared fruit in the supermarket. Butter and yoghurt are costly but meat is cheaper. The winters ARE cold but the summers can be scorching. People are easy-going and polite UNTIL they get behind the wheel.
I’d advise any would-be-expat to read up on culture shock so they can recognize it when it happens and to put themselves out there, talk to people, arrange to meet for coffee and slowly begin the task of easing themselves into their new community. Above all, keep an open mind.
9) If you experienced conflict between you and your spouse about moving, or aspects of resettling, how easy did you find it to resolve them?
We both entered into this with our eyes open, and I knew I had the option of staying in England if I wanted to. My husband had worked abroad before and life apart was so hard on all of us that I resolved we’d stick together in future. If one went, we all would!
Whenever things were tough, I’d remind myself of this and it has got me through!
Also, when you begin an adventure like expatriating, you quickly come to realize that all you’ve got is one another. It forces you to be more mature and set aside personal grievances to work out the problems with open lines of communication.
10) When you think of home, which country comes to mind now?
My house in England still comes to mind, but that’s only because we don’t own a “home” here. I would probably feel differently if we did.
11) In what ways do you think your family life, and your relationship/marriage, has become stronger after undertaking this adventure?
Expatriating throws you all together, to sink or swim as a family unit. You’re forced to pull together. In the beginning it feels like your little family against the world as you try to make sense of all the new and unfamiliar ways. How you cope with that either makes or breaks you. It’s essential to share your feelings; suffering alone just breeds negativity and resentment, which taints everything else. We would discuss our “Likes & Dislikes” of Canada, taking it in turns to air our views around the dinner table, supporting one another when things seemed overwhelming. I wanted the children to feel that they could verbalise the good AND the bad, and to see that we all had these feelings and could count on one another for support.
We’re a close family, no subject is off limits and the maturity that my husband and I learnt in those early days, is (for the most part!) still with us.
And if you do have any questions about coping with culture shock, or life in Canada please ask away in the comments pane below, and a question for the expat commenters:
How did you cope with culture shock in the first few years of your expat adventure?