Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Who you are, where you come from, when you moved to Canada, etc.
My name is Aisha Ashraf and I’m a freelance writer with a passion for smashing stigma and defending the underdog, currently based in Ontario, Canada with my husband and three children.
A perennial misfit, I’ve crossed geographical, cultural & religious borders in a life that reads like an Amazon bestseller, and give a frank account of the journey on my award-winning blog Expatlog, where I cover topics as diverse as censorship in Islam, mental health taboos and cross-cultural relationships.
Early experiences sparked a fascination for travel and psychology that drives much of my work today. I grew up on an isolated Irish farm, the daughter of a bi-polar farmer and an ex-nun. I escaped an abusive home, mastered Borderline Personality Disorder, changed my name, my religion, married into a different culture and have made the expatriate leap of faith twice over; first as a child, from Ireland to the UK, and now as the “trailing spouse” of a civil engineer in a global consultancy. We’ve been here just over two years.
When and why did you decide to start blogging about your experiences?
A year after arriving in Canada I had a “light bulb” moment while browsing through the expat blogs I’d begun following. Reading them showed me that the gamut of emotions I experienced was a natural response to expatriation and helped me make sense of both the unfamiliar situation and my reaction to it. Then one day it struck me, “Hey, I could do this…”
With three young children, my life had revolved around bowel movements and naps for quite some time. The move to Canada brought the realization that I was craving something more, some sense of greater personal achievement than making it out of my pajamas before noon. And so Expatlog was born. It began as a way of sharing our discovery of Canadian life with friends and family - a way of bringing them with us on the journey, but gradually grew to encompass my other interests.
Do you have any favorite blog entries of yours?
With the variety of topics I cover it’s hard to pick a single favorite, but here’s a few of the things I’ve really enjoyed writing about…
I told the story of leaving my homeland as an eight-year-old, when my parents decided to move to the UK. My first taste of expatriation was a HUGE event in my young life and one that took me a long time to fully adjust to. My sister and I cried together about the home we left behind in the darkness of our shared bedroom for many months afterwards: A Farm-girl’s Reluctant Farewell.
I wrote about the disappointment of discovering that all those rumors about chocolate being different in America were true! Dear Dairymilk.
As a white muslim, I write about the reality of everyday Islam, as an antidote to the twisted monstrosity that appears so often in the media. Here’s my explanation of Ramadan: The Good, The Bad & The Hungry; Once Upon A Time In The Hijaz.
And as someone who was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, I try to shed light on what it’s like live with mental illness and its stigma: Living with Borderline Personality Disorder; How BPD made me a better expat.
Tell us about the ways your new life in Canada differs from that back home. Did you have trouble getting used to the new circumstances? Did you experience culture shock?
After the honeymoon period wore off I was assailed by culture-shock, or perhaps “assaulted” is a better word. I lost all sense of balance and perspective. Everything was primitive, ineffectual or just plain silly compared to 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! My new friends must have thought me insufferable and secretly plotted my demise in the dark watches of the night. Fortunately, after six months, it passed and I knew I had no desire to go home. My friends all swear they’ve forgiven me and I haven’t been deported thus far so I’m inclined to believe them.
Life in Canada is very different from our life in the UK. We didn’t sell up back home, so financially we’re spread thinly with commitments on two continents. For the first year we had no car because expat insurance is astronomical here with most companies refusing to acknowledge foreign driving experience. In a country designed with drivers uppermost in mind, this contributed to my culture-shock; I used to feel a pronounced “Us and Them” attitude, watching people drive around and airily pulling into drive-thrus while we walked for miles and hefted home groceries for a family of five, limited by what we could carry. Thankfully, we have wonderful friends and neighbors whose kindness, help and empathy brought real warmth to our new life, but an accurate comparison with life back home was very difficult to make.
Surprisingly, it was all the small things that conspired to undo me. The unfamiliar brands, names and social cues all contributed to a feeling of being afloat and untethered – at once liberating but also unsettling, like a prisoner who has earned their freedom but is completely lost on “the outside”. I think being an expat is the closest you can come to seeing things with the fresh, uninformed eyes of a baby.
Do you think you were fully prepared for what awaited you in Canada? If you could, would you change some decisions/preparations you made?
I don’t think any amount of planning can fully prepare you – events will still transpire that threaten your sanity. We had to pay for the privilege of having our shipped goods opened and inspected by Canadian customs because our removal men had neglected to write “artificial” next to “Christmas Tree” on the manifest and customs thought it was a real one!
We had no preconceived notions about Canada. We’d never been there and knew no one. It was never somewhere I’d considered visiting. If anything, I suppose I suspected it was no warmer than the UK and very probably a good deal colder. My greatest discovery has been the near-tropical summers we have in Toronto…. Oh, and hot tubs!
I think going into it with an open mind and a sense of adventure has served us well and our only regret has been that we didn’t bring all our DVD’s with us!
Every expat knows that expat life comes with some hilarious anecdotes and funny experiences. Care to share one with us?
Who would have known that language differences would still create problems in an English-speaking country? During our first week here, I remember asking for a plaster at the hotel reception – I had cut my finger and it kept catching on things. The receptionist gave me a blank stare before asking if I wanted an elastic band!? I showed her my finger and reiterated my request, “Oh! A Band-Aid!” she beamed.
Oh, and if you’re ever looking for swede in the supermarket, it’s called Rutabaga here…
Which three tips would you like to give future expats before they embark on their new life in Canada?
- There’s no such thing as online grocery shopping here – you need to be prepared for that body blow!
- You will require nerves of steel on the highway; people drive with carefree abandon and no regard for lane discipline or safety – collisions and fatalities are daily occurrences.
- Lastly, just do your best to keep an open mind; Canada’s a beautiful country with very warm, genuine people – allow it to make an impression. (Also, don’t forget that beds, mattresses, and subsequently, linens are different sizes here and the voltage and plugs are different!)
How is the expat community in Canada? Did you have a hard time finding like-minded people or fellow expats?
Canada’s population has a high proportion of expats and immigrants, so plenty of people can relate to expat issues. Almost everyone you speak to has come from somewhere else – it’s one of the first conversations people have when meeting for the first time. We’ve steered clear of expat clubs, preferring to join the community rather than limit ourselves to a clique.
How would you summarize your expat life in Canada in a single, catchy sentence?
Expat life sharpens your senses and makes you feel fully alive – you’re a nomadic ninja, travelling the world, living on your wits!