Being an Expat Parent: What I Want For My CanBrit Kid
BY ALICE LAWLOR
Nov 1, 2017
The great thing about Canada is also its most challenging for expat parents: It’s very comfortable to live here if you’re not born here. Canada has accepted dual citizenship since 1977 — one of the first countries to do so — and many people live here as permanent residents with dual citizen kids. It’s easy to see why: this is a country that embraces other nationalities without demanding assimilation. Which means, in my case, that I’ve never felt that big push to go “home,” or get serious about my son’s (other) cultural education.
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It was down to us to teach him the English things…and beyond a love for cheesy Wotsits and the word “trousers,” we weren’t exactly doing a brilliant job.
I’ve been a dual citizen of England and Canada since I was a teenager living in the UK, wondering about the land of maple syrup and moose that my mum described with such affection. When I arrived in Toronto in 2005 — with my English partner, Amy, two huge backpacks and one job interview between us — there was an instant feeling of being welcome.
A fast nine years later, the moment came to start a family and we were unexpectedly settled in a place that neither of us had grown up in. And that was fine, until baby Freddie became an inquisitive 3-year-old. At daycare, he learned to sing “Skinnamarink” (I’m still confused), recognize the Canadian flag and talk about the fall colours. It was lovely, but something niggled at me. It was down to us to teach him the English things…and beyond a love for cheesy Wotsits and the word “trousers,” we weren’t exactly doing a brilliant job.
But what was it, exactly, that I wanted to teach him? I wasn’t bothered about the words to “God Save the Queen,” or the intricacies of a class system I was happy to leave behind. The most important things to me weren’t things at all; they were experiences. The feel of drizzly rain, the squelch of muddy country walks, the vinegary taste of fish and chips, the grandeur of a stately home. In short, he needed a sensory education.
For the first instalment, we decided to spend a few days of our summer trip to the UK doing quintessentially English things. A friend told me about a country hotel that “felt like sleeping in Downton Abbey” — Cliveden House Hotel in Berkshire — and I was sold. We boated on the Thames, ate proper scones, picnicked by the river, and admired the exquisitely manicured gardens (or ran through them with joyful abandon, in Freddie’s case).
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When you’re staying in a house built in 1666, you can’t help but feel a sense of history. For Freddie, this translated into a mix of curiosity and confusion. The clock tower (or “ding dong”) was a constant source of amazement. And “do you want a cup of tea?” became his common refrain, a sing-song version of the question he was hearing at every turn.
I expected changes to his accent — water became “wahter,” and so on. But what I didn’t anticipate was a complete overhaul of his imaginative play. As well as offering pretend cups of tea, he drew the “tunnel of trees” forest, captained an imaginary boat and chatted about castles and knights.
It’s not the everyday England, I thought to myself as we drove away, past the ornate fountains and landscaped lawns. But what’s wrong with a little bit of fantasy? I’d shown my son a few of the things that made me love where I was born and, I realized, that passion was what I really wanted to share with my CanBrit kid. The drizzle and the mud will just have to wait.