Despite my best efforts to be open-minded, uncharitable thoughts still abseil into my head with the stealth and speed of a crack SAS infiltration. You know the kind: the incredulous “You wanted that unsightly plug to stretch your ear like a perished Y-front waistband?” or the terse, “bugger off!” behind a fixed smile when the Jehovah’s Witnesses doorstep you in the middle of dinner.
Now that my eldest children ask for a drink of ‘wahdurr’ and append a querying ‘right?’ to statements of apparent certainty, I’m ashamed to admit I sometimes think, “There’s still time to get out of Canada before they start calling trousers pants, and pasta noodles.”I know, right? (See what I did there?) Aren’t I awful?
When we first arrived here hairdressers, bank tellers, supermarket cashiers and restaurant wait staff all went gooey whenever the kids opened their mouths. “I just LOVE yur cute Briddish aahksent” they’d croon, pressing lollipops and transfer tattoos into small hands, with adoring smiles.
But the day finally came when J complained, “Whenever England gets mentioned in class everyone stares at me – I don’t like it.” My attempts to remind her of the upsides of being a little different landed on deaf ears: assimilation was underway. I began to understand losing the old J wasn’t something I could avoid. By coming to Canada I’d instigated the changes, not only would I have to accept them, I was going to have to help cement them too.
A good example is when I help J prepare for her weekly spelling test. To her, ‘neighbour’ will always be ‘neighbor’. When I saw that something inside me crumpled. Does my youngest child notice yet her speech and language therapist says ‘laaaff’ as she holds a flashcard of a chuckling child, while we say ‘lahhhf’ at home? Is she confused when a taloned bird of prey is labeled a ‘haahk instead of a ‘hauk’?
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I dislike the Canadian accent – when we first moved here I worried I’d be fighting a constant battle to stop my knees weakening when any reasonably attractive male spoke to me in that soft, sexy, Canadian drawl. Listen to Jian Ghomeshi and you’ll know what I mean.
No. It’s something more than that.
I suppose it’s part of understanding what makes you ‘You’ is no longer the main influence in what makes your children who they are. When I imagine them speaking with full Canadian accents (we’re not there yet but they’re making good headway) it’s as though there’s a part of them instinct can’t guide me on, a tract within them my footprints have never mapped.
It reminds me of how, when they were still small, people asked if I was their child-minder – my fair complexion and their latte skin and dark chocolate hair belying our kinship. The first time it happened was like a punch to the gut; the sudden realization that we could be viewed as separate entities.
As I write I realize this is a separation all parents endure, but this clearly audible departure just makes it seem so much more immediate, emphasizing my powerlessness to slow the pace.
Both my husband and I are Third Culture Kids (TCK’s) and spent a significant part of our developmental years in a culture other than that of our parents. We don’t really ‘get’ patriotism or feel a strong need to pass on a particular cultural identity to our children. We’ve developed a sense of relationship to both of our background cultures and melded aspects of them into a unique family identity. Now that our children are going through the same thing you’d think I’d be better able to handle it, so why do I find myself biting back sarcastic comments or imitations?
I know I can’t fault them. I understand their desire to ‘fit in’ – it was mine once. An eight-year-old expat fresh off the Dublin to Holyhead ferry at the height of ‘the Troubles’ (that palliative euphemism for the signature nail-bombs and knee-cappings of IRA terrorism), I quickly learned to develop an English accent; it’s surprising the motivation a brick thrown at the head can provide.
So I suppose, in a way, I’m raising bi-lingual children. Children who squeal ‘ahhhsome’ and call each other ‘Bud’ yet still put things in the boot of the car and eat biscuits with their milk.
I’m just going to have to tell myself they’re demonstrating a resilience and adaptability that will smooth their path through life’s many changes, and remember it was a gift I gave them freely. I hope their experiences teach them to speak with compassion, thoughtfulness and honesty. I hope they know when to speak up, when to speak out and when to not speak at all. If they can do that, who cares what bloody accent it’s in.
by Aisha Ashraf.
Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a freelance writer and author of the popular blog EXPATLOG – a collection of irreverent observations from her experiences as a "cultural chameleon". It's where you'll find her, strung out on caffeine, humorously dissecting the peculiarities of expat life for her own amusement and the benefit of future generations."
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