Sunday, February 6, 2011

Canadian, eh?

We are pleased to be joined this week by Maria Foley, a restless repatriate who holds both British and Canadian passports (and is desperate for the opportunity to use either one.) You can read her musings on expat and repat life on her blog, I was An Expat Wife. (

I used to be English, but now I’m Canadian. More or less.

I was barely out of diapers (or is that nappies? Two sentences in, and already I’m losing my linguistic footing), when my parents decided to move to Canada. At the tender age of almost-four, assimilation was easier for me than it was for them. Not that there weren’t bumps along the way. I lost my West Bromwich accent on the ride from the Toronto airport to our new home, but other traces of Blighty remained stubbornly resistant to the twin siren songs of peer pressure and mass media.

It’s not as though I didn’t try. All kids, especially immigrant ones, yearn to fit in. When I told my friends I wanted to grow out my fringe and stop plaiting my hair, they stared at me in confusion. When I mentioned I wasn’t allowed to wear tights until I was older, they pointed wordlessly at the leotards on my legs. I resolved to learn the local lingo as quickly as possible to save myself from the ignominy of being labelled “weird.”

The only thing standing between me and true-blue Canuck status was my parents. (Yes I know, that’s two things. But they presented a united front.) Growing up with immigrant parents is a minefield of potential embarrassment. Mine were so bloody British! When my mom sent me to the store to buy fags (in front of my friends — was the woman trying to destroy me?), I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me whole. I didn’t dare bring anyone home for dinner in case it was Bubble & Squeak or (God forbid) Toad in the Hole night.

Food was a very clear marker of the cultural divide I faced. Even though they’d moved to one of the most multicultural cities in the world, my parents were still stuck in the Dark Ages (West Midlands, circa 1968) when it came to food. My children don’t believe this, but I didn’t have pizza until I was 14. That was exotic enough — forget about Chinese takeout. (Or should that be takeaway?) I knew nothing about ethnic cuisines; when my teacher said that rice was a staple in China, my first thought was, “Wow, those Chinese kids sure are lucky to be eating dessert three times a day.”

Meanwhile, my parents were slowly — very slowly — integrating into Canadian culture. They tentatively tried out new words and concepts. (“The car runs on gas. It has a hood and a trunk.”) The one thing they couldn’t let go of was the idea of England as “home.” It drove me crazy.

“We’re thinking of going home for a few weeks next summer,” they’d say.

“You’ve lived here for fifteen years,” I’d reply. “You’re Canadian citizens. You vote, you own property, you hold down jobs. For the love of God, WHEN IS THIS COUNTRY GOING TO BECOME YOUR HOME?”

Now that I have several international relocations under my belt, I have a better understanding of the power of “home.” And even though I’ll never think of England that way, I’ve come to see that my leftover Britishness is a small but significant part of who I am. I’ll always prefer tea to coffee, HP sauce to ketchup, and The Office with Ricky Gervais tothe Steve Carrell knock-off. (Although I sometimes waver a bit on that last one.)

I couldn’t help but pass my watered-down British culture to my children, and now they’re almost as useless at code-switching as their mother. I can’t take all the blame, though; they’ve also fallen prey to outside influences. I first noticed British words creeping into their vocabulary during our expat years. One minute they sounded like regular Canadian kids; the next, they were revising for tests, erasing mistakes with rubbers, and watching telly.

When my little one was about seven, she announced: “Mum, I’m going to say haitch instead of aitch from now on. Is that okay?”

“Nowt wrong with that,” I replied, almost fainting with shock on hearing Jack Duckworth’s voice coming out of my mouth.

I’m not sure if all this makes us bilingual, bicultural, or merely confused. I’ll just pop the kettle on while I try to sort it out, shall I?

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  1. This made me smile. I've been in the US for 20 years but I still talking about going "home" when making summer plans, much to the confusion of my kids!

  2. I can so relate to this. When we emigrated to Canada from the UK in our 20s I remember desperately trying to lose my "Englishness." The first day of my first job I was sent downstairs to the coffee shop to buy muffins. I couldn't see any anywhere, but the place was filled with "buns." :) Later, as an expat, I ended up as unofficial translator between my American and British friends. It was fun, but I always winced when British friends said "but you don't SOUND Canadian." Can one (there I go again) get lessons in Canadian elocution?

  3. I hear we say "eh" a lot and pronounce "about" like "aboot." Private lessons available on request!

  4. Lovely post - and fascinating that your children are carrying on the tradition into the third generation. My son told me the other day that he is going to pronounce 'Z' as 'Zed' now - because I told him that was the English way. He's been in the US almost half his life, but is very proud of being English.

  5. I love that kids make those conscious decisions: "zed" over "zee" or "haitch" over "aitch." My daughters are 14 and 16 now, and they've culled all Britishisms from their vocabulary over the past few years. But it's kind of like speaking another language; they're able to resurrect those terms when they skype with their friends in the UK.

  6. But 'haitch' is totally incorrect! Though I admit it makes far more logical sense than 'aitch', but I still say 'aitch' and have to force myself not to correct total strangers who say 'haitch'!

  7. From a Canadian girl now living in the US, I can sympathize with having to make explainations. If I hear someone say "So you're from Canada eh? one more time ,, I really may scream. I usually tell them only hillbilly Canucks say eh. Most of us make an effort not to . And I always tell them that I have never heard a single person who says aboot. I am pleased to bring my British influenced Canadian ways here to the states with me. Love the blog.


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