‘The sun will come out… tomorrow’ – patience & expat life


[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ometimes all that’s required for things to work out is patience. When we came sight-unseen to Canada our quality of life took a nosedive while we got ourselves established.

Living in a fantastic country & too broke to see any of it!

Keeping our home in the UK meant financially we were stretched across two continents, with no lump sum to kick-start a new life. Our strategy was to start with nothing and add things once we knew we could afford them. With no phone, TV, internet, car, gym-membership, etc. things were very different from back home, giving the inevitable culture-shock a whole other dimension of deprivation.

We worked through the tough times by supporting and confiding in one another, reminding ourselves this was our decision and in reality we were very fortunate, we’d just made different choices from most people we met. Passing up the freedom to eat out on a whim or spend without thinking was how those choices manifested themselves day-to-day.

Climbing every mountain & fording every stream takes time…

Tough times bring out the best and the worst in us. There were times I’d gaze out the window and feel resentment for all those people gliding effortlessly by in their cars, “In my other life I drove a Merc – look at me now… “

But other times found us rising to the challenge. When most Canadians wore snow boots and frost protective jackets, we made do with sturdy walking boots, extra socks and plenty of layers. I thought of Scott and Amundson, George Mallory – all those heroic explorers of Earth’s most inhospitable corners equipped only with the most basic kit by today’s standards. We pretended we were on our own arctic expedition – fortunately we were never forced to eat the imaginary huskies.

Snatches of Cherry Apsley Garrard’s autobiographical account of ‘The Worst Journey In The World’ swirled inside my head as snowflakes swirled without:

“In Antarctica you get to know people so well that in comparison you do not seem to know the people in civilization at all.”

And it was true – our hardships, while bringing us closer together, simultaneously increased the gap between us and the average Canadian. It was harder to relate to inhabitants of one of the world’s most affluent countries, for whom the purchase of kit worth hundreds of dollars for recreational activity was nothing untoward.

Same country, different planet

We felt incongruous when conversations about Glee or Mad Men sprang up. K was notorious at work as the Englishman who cycled through ice and sub-zero temperatures when car-driving colleagues couldn’t chance the treacherous roads. We trudged through blizzards to buy groceries, the pushchair far exceeding its recommended weight on the return journey, the juice and babywipes that accompanied us frozen solid.

But you know what? We have the BEST memories of those times. They might not have been fun, but we came through them together and stuff like that binds you like glue.

Like the day we walked 10km to the nearest Walmart (don’t worry, it was summer) only to arrive too tired to shop – we ended up arguing over nappies and coming home in a taxi.

Or the sleety winter morning K decided to cycle there. There were some things our local supermarket just didn’t stock. I worried about him the entire time he was gone – Canadian roads aren’t cycle-friendly and neither was the weather. After three hours of visualizing myself widowed in Canada with three children and no clue he returned, icy and triumphant, with a weighty rucksack full of corners that jabbed him in the back the whole way home. Among the items was a teapot for me. He was so relieved it was unbroken – just remembering that makes me smile.

I’m reminded of that day every time I spoon tea-leaves into it.

They say Nature abhors a vacuum and our losses left room for unexpected gains. We had some great conversations on those long walks – it was real quality time together that we have to work harder to achieve now our lives are less Spartan.


Slowly things improved – K got a cell-phone through work, an internet connection allowed us to stream TV and movies, giving our handful of DVD’s a much-needed break.

One year in, I’d just written my first blog post and we finally got a car! I’ll never forget the exhilaration of flying along familiar routes that took ages to walk but flashed by in seconds outside the window – the tree with the rusty key tied around it, the fire hydrant with the graffiti face, the bush T did his first alfresco pee behind on a bright snowy day, all blurred into obscurity, lost to us in our new high-speed life.

A month ago we bought family membership at the Abilities Centre, a new local facility delivering sports, arts, music, and life skills opportunities for all ages and abilities. Now our kids enjoy extra-curricular activities just like their friends, and K and I get some time alone together.

And last weekend a long-awaited trip to Ikea (three years people! How’s that for patience?) meant I finally got the bookcases that stopped our house looking like a mismatched, half-finished book depository. You know that thing when the furniture from your old place doesn’t fit the dimensions of the new one? Yeah, that.

But wait, it doesn’t stop there – this weekend we’re getting cable TV! I’m excited though skeptical the enjoyment of Canadian programming can outweigh the frustration of looped adverts every few minutes. After three years without a media mouthpiece in the room I’m loathe to succumb to the brainwashing. Still, I’m sure the younger family members will feel one step closer to the rest of the human race. And we’ll have “Everyone loves Marineland” imprinted on our brains once again…

So, it looks like things are finally coming together. You know what’ll happen next though don’t you… an opportunity to take a post abroad and start all over again!

Expat life – it’s neither good nor bad, it just is…

By Aisha Ashraf

An autistic Irish immigrant in a cross-cultural marriage, Aisha Ashraf is the archetypal outlander, writing to root herself through place and perspective. Published in The Rumpus, The Maine Review, River Teeth, HuffPost and elsewhere, her work explores the legacy of trauma, the nature of being an outsider and the narrow confines of belonging. She currently lives in Canada.


  1. Patience. It is indeed a virtue as my grandmother used to say. I really appreciated this post, as it reminded me of our first couple of years in Jamaica, when nothing really seemed to make much sense and (like you) funds were short. It started with Hurricane Gilbert two months after our arrival! But as you say, these experiences do bring you closer together. You have to support each other, and wait for things to fall into place. I am generally very impatient, but when called on it is amazing – you find these reserves, don’t you? Enjoy your cable TV when it comes!

    1. After reading your post about Chantal yesterday and seeing the pictures from Gilbert I have an idea just how crazy your emotions must’ve been in those early months. I think being an expat has made me more of a fatalist, inasmuch as I believe things will always work out, you just need time… to adapt, grow and understand.

      And if anyone has any TV recommendations, now’s the time to air them 🙂

      1. Yes, it was a very stormy time – literally and in our heads! A difficult period but somehow we got through. I agree, it has made me something of a fatalist, too. Time is an extraordinary thing. It puts things firmly in their place – not always the place you want them to be. But…yes, like you I think we have adapted, grown…understood!

  2. The tough times sure have their benefits – without them how would we learn to truly appreciate the little things that improve our everyday lives? Glad to hear that life is improving – a sense of accomplishment comes across in this post 🙂

    1. Thanks Kim – and you’re so right, without the bad the good would be just… meh! You still chastely wrapped in Urfa? Been following your adventures…

  3. Aisha, this is a wonderful story! I so admire your attitude- keeping it together for three years without IKEA, for example, is a testament to what focus can do. I am so happy that your transition is progressing. What you have shared with all of us makes us feel part of your story, like we’re rooting for your success. Thanks so much for sharing the good along with the hard. Best to you and your family as the journey continues! Go girl!

    1. What a lovely comment, full of good wishes, encouragement and reader insight. Much to take away from this one – thank you Jonelle, all the best to you and yours.

  4. I hear you! We’ve just bought yet another fixer-upper, and six months in I am having to remind myself that my 1950’s kitchen would have made me really happy when we lived in Nairobi, so I shouldn’t be swayed by the luxurious ones inhabited by my friends here in San Francisco. Somedays contentment comes easily – others, I find myself longing for the material things that ( I have learned the hard way ) won’t work in the next house / country / continent. But you are right, the things that make me smile when I look back are not the Kitchenaid mixer, but the cooking by candlelight when the power went off every afternoon at 4pm or eating rice pudding for breakfast because the food had run out and we still had another day to go before we passed a shop.
    Maybe shares in Ikea should be part of every expat financial plan..?

    1. Your comment reminded me of a thought I often have – something along the lines of, “I’m fine with minimalism and make do & mend and coming up with innovative uses for stuff that would otherwise be thrown away. But when you live in a society that idolises the newest, latest, best, on-trend, etc. all your best intentions for a simple life puddle into patheticism beside them.” Location imposes changes on how we measure contentment just as it does to the more obvious things like wardrobe and language. What was perfectly comfortable in one place becomes a source of shame in another. Expats spend their lives trying to stay on the connective line that bisects all the changes, in some countries we’re a little above, in others a little below.
      By the way, that idea about shares in Ikea got me thinking – they should offer Expat Club membership with discounts (I know so many who’ve kitted out homes only to sell it all at half price a year later when posted elsewhere) and deals on international shipping, for those Ikea items that aren’t available in your new location. And maybe airmiles…

  5. Another fab and frank post about the realities of choosing to walk the expat path. Thanks for sharing. And I so get the simple joy of a new teapot. In Shanghai, we’d take a nine subway stop ride to buy up all the limited availability cans of Irn-Bru (Scottish equivalent of Coca-Cola) from a posh international supermarket and savour each over-expensive one. Not as challenging as cycling in the snow but a ritual mission nonetheless!

    1. Aahhhh! Irn-Bru – now that would make my husband’s life complete! 😉 We just picked up a couple of cans of Heinz Baked Beans today ($2.17 each!!!) from the international Foods section at Walmart to feed his addiction. Who would have guessed it’s the small things that have so much sway over our emotions.

  6. Wonderful post! Every week when I make egg sandwiches I tell myself I should buy an egg slicer. It’s one of those simple little gadgets that you never buy when you keep moving around, because, heck, you can chop eggs with a knife, right? But then I tell myself I’ve lived without an egg slicer for at least 10 years, so why buy one now? If anyone’s looking to buy me a really cheap birthday present … 😉

    1. That’s soooo weird, I was hunting for our egg slicer the other night, forgot it broke and we chucked it. You’re right though, the expat mentality is responsible for our love of the multi-functional – anything too specialised just feels insanely decadent. Hark at you and your bourgeois egg slicer ambitions!
      OK! *addresses crowd* Who’s going to make Judy’s dream come true…?

  7. Three years without cable? Wowsers! That shows some patience. It’s funny but the little things in life – trips to IKEA, connecting the TV, family membership at the local gym – they’re the things that end up mattering. They connect you and root you in you environment. Enjoy these moments of integration 🙂

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