Aisha Ashraf, a British expat in Canada
Aisha Ashraf is originally from Ireland, then moved to Britain and she now lives in Canada with her Pakistani husband and their three children. If you would like to know more about Aisha, read her blog Expatlogue.
How would your friends or family describe you?
I’m enthusiastic, determined and a little too empathetic for my own good! My husband says I’m kind and according to my four-year-old son, I give good cuddles.
Where do you live? Where are you from? If those are different, can you tell us a little about what inspired your move?
I am originally from Ireland, brought up on an isolated farm in Co. Kildare, but my family moved to the UK when I was eight years old. We swapped farming life for a home in the ‘Burbs, and moved frequently after that. I’ve lived in various parts of the British Isles from Portsmouth in the south to Edinburgh in the north and a fair few places in between. Two years ago my husband and I decided to consider work abroad. He works for a global engineering consultancy and after he “put out some feelers”, the Canadian arm made an offer which we accepted. We now live on the shores of Lake Ontario, twenty minutes’ drive from Toronto.
We had always wanted to travel but thought it would be more of a challenge if we waited until we were up to our necks in mortgages and kids!
How has your family adapted to living in a new country?
I think we’ve been incredibly fortunate. All three children took it in their stride (although my youngest was only three months old when we arrived, so was never really going to make too much of a fuss!). Neither of the older two has ever said that they wanted to go home. We discussed the move with them and involved them in it, researching the country before we came and comparing experiences once we were here. We would take it in turns to share what we liked and disliked about Canada around the dinner table in the evenings. I work from home and I think it probably helped them immensely to have at least one parent around while they settled in.
Apart from a period of culture shock about 12 weeks after our arrival that coincided with winter, I have enjoyed the expat experience, although my husband less so. As someone who likes to be challenged by his work, he found it difficult sitting on the side-lines until clients became more familiar with him. Business in Canada is still done on a “who you know, not what you know” basis, so despite being more than capable, he had to get his face known first.
If you would describe yourself as multi-cultural, tell us a bit about what culture you most identify with and why. If you have kids, what culture do they most associate with?
We are a very multicultural family. My husband is from Pakistan, I am Irish, our daughters are both English and our son was born in Scotland, so our cultural influences at home are very mixed. I have as many shalwar kameez in my wardrobe as western clothes. I learnt Urdu when I got married and taught some to the children when they were little. This has largely diminished now that contact with my husband’s parents has lessened (they spoke little English), but although we speak English at home, it’s peppered with Urdu words. Our musical tastes stretch from Irish Ceilidh to Bhangra and you have a good chance of finding us dancing round the kitchen to anything from classic Bollywood hits to Muse!
Can you describe a typical day for you?
My day usually begins with the dawn prayer. I converted to Islam before I married and try hard to practice my obligations. I go for a short run (except in winter – I tried it in minus temperatures but my lungs took a while to recover!) and when I get back I wake my six-year-old so she can dress for school. Her brother, who is four, doesn’t start kindergarten until this coming September but he won’t be outdone by his sister so he usually gets up too. I make them breakfast, then make my daughter’s packed lunch, before freeing my youngest from the confines of her cot.
School is just a five minute walk up the road. If my husband is still at home I can leave the other two with him while I take my daughter. If he isn’t then we all walk up. Once we’re back home and breakfast has been cleared away, I pour a coffee and scan the paper before succumbing to the pull of my email inbox, and social networking accounts. Facebook has become an integral tool for staying in touch with friends and family back home and I also have a page for my blog there too.
Once any notifications and new emails have been dealt with, it’s time to get down to work. As well as keeping clothes in drawers, dinner on the table and the mess levels down, I also write, so the hour or two of calm while the children are amusing themselves is an opportunity to get some good stuff down, interrupted only by the children’s mid-morning snack. After lunch I might get another hour of work done before the day is broken up by heading out for school pick-up.
Weather permitting we’ll spend some time outdoors. It naturally tends to be less in the winter as the younger ones can’t handle the cold for too long (with windchill we sometimes reach temperatures of minus twenty or more). During the summer we might spend the rest of the day down at the lake which is a twenty minute walk away. The temperatures then can climb well into the thirties so we cool off by swimming and paddling. My husband’s office is on the lakefront so we all head home together at the end of the day.
With dinner out of the way and the kids in bed, we relax with some TV. We don’t have cable (its EXTORTIONATE here!) so we either watch a film or work our way through one of the many TV series you can stream through the internet. At the moment, we’re enjoying the rumpled investigations of Colombo!
What kind of food do you cook at home? Did you incorporate the local cuisine at all?
We eat a mixture of South Asian and Italian food, with some British dishes making an appearance now and then. It might be dhaal and roti one night and fish’n’chips the next! Because Canada is largely comprised of immigrants it’s difficult to define “local food”. I never had Perogies until I came to Canada, then I found out they were Polish! Many families seem to eat the same kind of food that was common in the UK: pasta dishes, roasts with vegetables, steak and salad, etc. There is a lot of convenience food available, from the ubiquitous Kraft Dinner (macaroni-cheese in a packet) to pre-prepared salads. Poutine is a Canadian dish – chips smothered in gravy and cheese curds. Although it doesn’t sound particularly appealing I would give it a try! I have it on good authority that the best poutine is made in Quebec, so I’m waiting until we take a trip there, this summer.
Fast food restaurants are very popular here with big chains like Swiss Chalet, Kelsey’s and Applebee’s to be found everywhere. It’s harder to find (outside of cosmopolitan Toronto) independent restaurants that serve well prepared, imaginative fare. We quickly tired of burgers, wings and pizza once we moved here, but it seems we are in the minority. I don’t want to do Canada a dis-service, but I wouldn’t say it’s a foodie’s destination!
What is the best part of living in your country? The worst?
The best part about living in Canada is the accessibility of nature and the common understanding of how pleasant it can be to experience it. Back in Britain if you went out for a walk without a dog, you felt a bit conspicuous. Here, everyone appreciates the great outdoors. There are miles and miles of walking and biking trails and lots of parks and splash-pads for children. Most open-spaces have amenities, for example, on our lakeshore there are public toilets, changing rooms, picnic tables and barbeque facilities. During the summer whole extended families will come down with a ton of food. They’ll find a nice spot, get cooking, then sit and chat while the kids amuse themselves in the park or on the beach. It makes for a great vibe! Canada is a very family friendly place.
The worst part of living here is the heavy emphasis on car use. Everything is done with drivers rather than pedestrians in mind and Toronto’s transportation system is very limited and basic compared to those in Europe’s major cities. Drive-thru’s for food outlets, banks and pharmacies are everywhere! Many places are accessible only by car, with no footpaths/sidewalks and busy, multi-lane roads that are not cyclist-friendly. Many drivers feel bicycles should be for recreational use on trails and have no place on the roads.
Tell me about your favorite holiday, and what cultural traditions you practice to celebrate on that day.
Canada Day (July 1st) is fun. There are fairs and amusements for the children, the majority of which are free, then firework displays go off everywhere at sundown. Last year my husband took our two older children to see them while I stayed at home with the baby and watched four simultaneous displays from our balcony.
Our main celebration, as a muslim family, is Eid ul Fitr, the celebration following the month of Ramadan when muslims fast in the daylight hours and try to be mindful of their behaviour. We decorate the house, dress in our best clothes and cook delicious food, starting with sevian in the morning before the Eid prayer. It’s a sweet dish made from vermicelli, almonds, raisins and milk. During the day we’ll go out and do something special together as a family before coming home and eating a lavish meal, the likes of which we won’t have had since before the start of Ramadan.
Describe a favorite typical meal from your country
We prefer to eat meat only once a week or so, therefore, most of our meals are vegetarian. A favourite is daahl and roti, with achar (pickle) and some sliced cucumber and tomatoes drizzled in lemon juice on the side. Whenever we’ve eaten western food for a while, it’s always great to get back to even the most simple of South Asian dishes. Nothing compares to them in terms of flavour!
What’s something that visitors are often surprised by when getting to know your country/culture?
That we actually have four distinct seasons here and are not submerged in snow all year round!