Childhood Is A Foreign Country

Irish baby in walker


“The Past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”

The Go-between, L P Hartley 1953


At five I played ‘Ring-O-Ring-O-Roses’ and ‘What’s The Time Mr Wolf’. I went to birthday parties, passed the parcel, ate cubes of pineapple and cheese off cocktail sticks without ever wondering why, and danced unabashedly to ‘The Birdie Song.’

At six I devoured Ladybird books, crawling into small spaces to lose myself in tales of beanstalks and giants, pirates and treasure. I counted the interminable minutes before children’s TV started when I could watch Sesame Street, Bosco and Tales of the Riverbank with Hammy the hamster (which spookily, was a Canadian series*). Most of the time I was outdoors with just my sister and our imaginations, making mud pies and playing cowboys.

At seven I remember rainy day despair turning to excitement when my mother pulled a cardboard treasure chest of colouring and dot-to-dot books from nowhere, and how the wet afternoon melted into insignificance outside the warm yellow womb of our farmhouse kitchen. Any book by Enid Blyton unfailingly had the same effect.

At school I minded my ‘P’s and Q’s’ and covered my mouth with my hand when I coughed or sneezed. I wrinkled my nose and squeezed my brain to extract the right words in Gaelic to ask the teacher permission to go to the toilet. Like everyone else, I lived in fear of being caned by the headmaster.

At eight I became an expatriate when my family moved to England. Suburban roads replaced the single-track lanes of rural Irish farmland and I mourned the home from which I was ‘untimely ript’ in pillow-soaking nighttime vigils for many, many months.

At nine and six my sister and I walked the mile to school together, crossing the main road with the lollipop lady. Knowing she looked out for us we sometimes took an alternate route, coming from the left instead of the right, just to catch her out.

I learnt my Green Cross Code, waiting for the green man before crossing the road. A succession of skillful teachers brought to life Guy Fawkes, Henry VIII and Isambard Kingdom Brunel; characters and scenes from history indelibly graven on my minds eye. I drank my free school milk and got ‘seconds’ of my favourite school dinners (spotted dick and custard!).

Breaktime meant playing in the sandpit and moving the jumpers the boys used as goalposts when they played football on the field during lunchbreak; but I never was any good at handstands, no matter how much I practiced. After school I’d call for friends and we rode around on our bikes, dammed streams, and climbed trees. My favourite ice cream was a ‘Feast’ or a Cornetto.


washing a children's wagon


Growing Up Worlds Apart


Here in Canada, when little legs tire of walking they ride in a wagon. My kids read ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear’ and The Magic Schoolbus. In Kindergarten the teacher says ‘criss-cross applesauce’ and they know she wants them cross-legged and quiet for circle time where they learn to count from books that list, ‘One pine tree, Two bear cubs, Three hockey pucks, Four geese, five peewee players…’

They stand silent and still every morning while the familiar notes of ‘O Canada’ filter through their consciousness, alternate French and English lyrics pouring into the room through the school tannoy system.

They’re taught to sneeze into the crooks of their elbows and know the difference between the hand sanitizer and the soap dispenser in the washroom. They’ve picked up the Canadian habit of answering a ‘Thank you’ with ‘You’re welcome,’ high-fiving is a reflex action and they shout ‘Aaahh-some’ like they were born here. ‘Agadoo’ and ‘The Birdy Song’ would never cut it, it’s ‘Gangnam Style’ all the way.

The dinnerlady and her HUGE stainless steel pots straight out of a giant’s scullery, along with school kitchens, is now extinct. Kids eat packed lunches boomeranged home to minimise school waste and make mums feel sick if they forget to include a bag for the banana peel and messy yogurt pot. Those who prefer have meals made and delivered by the ‘Lunch Lady.’

Breaktime is now recess. Kids play hockey or fill every crease in their bodies and clothes with rasping migratory grains from the sandbox. Football has become soccer, the headmaster a principal, and I’ve had to google ‘cooties’, ‘doozy’ and ‘duotang’ just to be able to understand dinnertime conversation. Their ‘T’s’ have become ‘D’s’ and it’s hard not to laugh when they count to ‘ninedy-nine’ or enthuse about Silly ‘Puddy’.

They teach me about the Battle of 1812 and Terry Fox on the walk home, pausing only to say ‘Hi’ to Glen the crossing guard as he sees us safely across the road. On larger roads the white walking man signals we can venture across six lanes of traffic with minimal trepidation.

Days brim with sports, art classes and playdates. There are pool parties and outdoor movie nights, and no one leaves a birthday celebration without a bulging loot bag or swag from a piñata. They’ve ridden Harley’s and swum in the Great Lakes. They shoot hoops in the backyard and decorate the drive with sidewalk chalk. On hot days they pester me for Freezies or Fudgsicles and never fail to find happiness in a box of Timbits.

Yesterday I overheard one say to the other, ‘D’you know what booty is?’ ‘No’ came the reply, and I tensed as we both waited expectantly. Pushing thoughts of Beyonce and J-Lo from my mind I wondered if anyone heard me gulp. The answer came back clear and guileless, ‘Pirate treasure.’ Aaaaaand exhale….

Countries and experiences may change but the magic’s still the same.

Child chasing gulls 

* other childhood favourites originally from Canada include The Littlest Hobo, The Beachcombers and Fraggle Rock


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. A lovely piece. It resonates with me because I grew up in the Middle East (half Arab half British) and am now living in England with my husband and two children. I already look at them and feel slightly mournful about the fact that their childhoods will look very different to mine – no glorious hot beaches, no sand, no palm trees, no beautiful near-equator sunsets. As you say though, there’s still magic there. And I can look forward to taking them to my childhood home when they get old enough to appreciate it 🙂

  2. I recently moved back to the UK after 5years abroad bringing up my first son. I now also have a younger son & the experience of living in the UK with them has triggered wonderful nostalgic memories of my own childhood of things I can’t think I would ever had remembered by any other mechanism. I enjoyed the time with my first son overseas for the experience it was & feel very lucky to also have this other more usual experience of re-living ones own childhood, but made all the more precious by the fact that I can compare it to not having experienced it with my first son the best of both worlds.

  3. You’ve captured it beautifully, Aisha! It’s a sweet pain watching your children shun your own traditions while gathering new ones of their own.

  4. This was so wonderful to read as I’ve been a SAHM Expat Mama for 6 years in North Africa! Everything was so different & I felt like the kids & I missed out on so much! I did my best to embrace the local customs as well as bring as much of the UK into their childhoods as possible! We just relocated back to the UK & I’ve never seen them both happier! I am living like a tourist in my own country now & appreciate all that is has to offer from childrens libraries, soft play & free farm visits! Thank you for sharing this! It made me realise that even thought at times I felt so alone I clearly wasn’t & there were other Expat Mamas feeling the same as me! 🙂 Andrea x

  5. You had me at Freezies and Fudgsicles! Terry Fox was a major role model for many Canadians in the 80’s…especially for our family, as my sister lost her leg to the same type of cancer that Terry had just a few years after his passing. I’ve never forgotten so many experiences navigating my childhood in Canada. I spent a significant part of my youth growing up in Vancouver and your article reminded me of fabulous sleep-overs with friends and wondrous adventures in the forests near the UBC campus where my father taught. My parents watched their children experience a childhood different, in some ways, from their respective cultures and now I have had the joy of watching my own child navigate a childhood in Hong Kong and Switzerland. I connect very much to your image of childhood as a foreign country. Thank you so much for publishing this great reflection piece!

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