Category Archives: “Canada, eh?” for International Students

A Korean-Canadian Transition

March 15th, 2013! (Picture from

Tomorrow, March 15th, 2013, marks an important day for me.

Looking back to only a couple of weeks ago, I have a lot to say about the psychology of a Ph.D. student faced with the monster called the General Knowledge Exam (a.k.a., comprehensive exam). Through the ups and (mostly) downs of the GKE process, I have accumulated a few pages of venting in my diary and random post-it notes. But all of that is over, and I had my happy ending — for now (there’s the research proposal defense coming up soon).

But today I am going to look a little further back than just a couple of weeks.

Like… Way~ back.

Picture from:

Tomorrow, March 15th, 2013, would mark the 13th anniversary of me and my family’s very first day in Canada as landed immigrants.

I didn’t think much of it at first. Every March 15th, I’d smile, thinking back the first day we landed in Canada. Some years, I think I forgot about it.

But this year, I realized for the first time (or at least it feels like the first time) that I have spent almost as much time in Canada as I have in Korea — 14 years in Korea, 13 years in Canada. This realization just kind of hit me with a bit of a mixed feeling.

For a while now, I have accepted myself as a person who is very much Canadianized (some people would equate this to the term “white washed” but Canada has very colourful demographics). I go back to Korea once in a while, and by that I mean once in three years or so, and I have less than a handful of Korean friends here. But now that I feel super comfortable living in Canada (and have been for a while), I feel this sudden urge to look for the next challenge. The next continent/country to live in. It feels as though I need to move around and immerse myself in a completely new and different environment every decade or so, just to keep me challenged and not settled in an overly comfortable state.

At some point, there was definitely a transition where, when someone asks me “where are you from?” I used to answer “I am from Korea,” and then started to say “I’m from Ontario” or “I’m from Canada.” When did this transition take place? I am not so sure.

I can still remember the night my family landed at the Toronto Pearson Airport. During the 12+ hours of flight from Seoul to Toronto, the flight attendants of the Korean Air we flew with were super nice to us, listened to my parents’ story of ‘en route to the mysterious and giant land of Canada’ and gave us a deck of playing cards with Korean Air marked on it.

Holding onto pretty coloured sheets of paper with the Government of Canada imprinted on it, my family waited by a special customs area with lots of other coloured people I had never seen in my life. We must’ve picked up a few Welcome to Canada brochures that was meant to be a super short version of a survivor’s guide to Canada. But despite its length, they were all written in English so I didn’t understand anything other than the word Canada — easy to pronounce, easy to spell.

Wendy’s burger combo reminds me of my very first night in Canada 13 years ago. Picture from

We had landed in the evening time. By the time we passed through the customs/immigration and found my father’s former colleague who welcomed us to the country, it was all dark and the entire family super hungry. So we made a quick stop at a Wendy’s on highway 401 on our way to my father’s colleagues’ house in London, Ontario.

It was perhaps the very best burger combo my sister and I had ever tasted in our lives. The fries were super fat and long (I swear they were bigger back then than they are now) and the burgers were giant compared to what I think I was used to from Korean fast food restaurants.

When I took my first bite of the burger, I thought to myself that Canada and I could get along just fine.

Contrary to my hopes and dreams that night, the first handful of years of my life in Canada wasn’t as beautiful and delicious like the first bites of the magically tasty burgers. Many immigrant families and international students will probably tell you the same. I mean, I think I have more embarrassing, depressing, and humiliating stories to tell than I can actually remember. And I think I lived as though I was always on my toes, because I felt that something ‘tragic’ (as tragic as a 14 year old girl’s life can be) could come hit me from whenever and wherever, and I always felt the need be ready for it.

But because of all the downs of moving to a new country, the little wins from day to day brought with them epic joy and a sense of victory.

Being able to speak in English comfortably used to be considered one of my biggest victories of life. People commenting that I don’t have an accent used to make me feel victorious. But when I realized I had spent enough time in Canada, both victories were to be taken for granted. Now that I think about it, having published papers (although co-authored) as the first author of a handful of papers could seem like a great life’s achievement looking back at where I came from. But then again, I’m in academia and been in Canada for over a decade… what do you expect, right?…

Anywho, I now have this weird unsettling feeling sitting in my tummy. I am really comfortable here now. I feel too comfortable. Is that a good thing?

I guess deep down, I’ve always associated myself as more of a Korean than a Canadian — I don’t have my Canadian citizenship yet anyway, although I could get it any time. It somehow feels as though my Korean roots would be threatened if I end up spending more time of my life in Canada than in Korea. I am not sure if I understand myself fully. But that’s not that important I guess. At the end of the day, I grew up, came this far from where I was, and Canada is definitely a happy part of my life now. For that, I am very thankful. And that makes the anniversary something to be celebrated.

In a way, I am envious of my younger self. I feel like the past me was more brave and stronger in facing various ups and downs of life compared to my present self. Perhaps it was more difficult of a transition than if my family had settled down in Toronto or Vancouver (rather than Barrie), where more Korean community could have supported us. But I am glad that I went through that process precisely because, when challenging time comes, I have my own experience from the past to refer back to and help shake things off my shoulders.

Mind you, a lot of my courage came from the fact that my family was always with me. We went through the same struggles together as a unit. And now, my family has changed quite a lot, but still as a unit.

Demographics in Vancouver is quite skewed, and is very different from that of the city of Barrie 13 years ago. Today’s technologies make the transition easier in a sense as well. But I understand that life’s struggles of being new in a place (perhaps as an international student) is very much difficult and different from person to person.

For those of you trying to “become comfortable” in Canada and going through the ups and downs of the process, cudos to you. I hope your journey is as funny, meaningful, and full of good stories as mine, but with less tears and more hugs.

What to pack before coming to UBC – if you’ve heard about Whistler…

A year and a half is a long time.

In August 2009, I arrived in Vancouver with my sister, eager to start my research adventures at UBC. My sister flew out here to help me settle down and carry the luggages that contained essential items to last me for the upcoming two years. Belonging to a highly non-athletic individual, my luggages did not contain anything that looked like sports-wears or equipments. The sportiest item I brought out to Vancouver were a pair of yoga pants. These were purchased for occasional stretching at home and much more frequent rolling-around-the-house type activities.

Some people choose to come to UBC because of its outdoor beauty. I certainly didn’t pay much heed to the outdoors section of Vancouver tourism handbooks, and I have my reasons.

Being a landed immigrant who lived in the snowy Ontario for about a decade, moving to Vancouver didn’t relate to ‘more outdoors’. In the geographically small country Korea, where I am originally from, the weather throughout the country is pretty much the same. From one tip of the country to the other, you normally see about a couple degrees of temperature differences, and maybe a bit more rain or wind over here compared to over there. Obviously, Canada is a bit larger than Korea – only about a hundred times bigger (100,210 km^2 [Korea] vs. 9,984,670 km^2 [Canada]). So you would expect more climate variances across the country, right? Well, I expected it, but didn’t realize the climate differences between Ontario and British Columbia even after my first visit to UBC in December of 2008. Why? Because on it started snowing the moment I landed in Vancouver, and what I saw in Vancouver weather was quite similar to what I was used to from Waterloo, Ontario. So I thought Vancouver is just another snowy city in Canada – typical, cold with slushy roads in the Spring too cold for me to go out and enjoy the outdoors.

Quite fortunately, I was wrong.

Vancouver is nature-loving, outdoor-lover friendly sporty city. In the summer, you have a handful of beaches to choose from (feel free to be picky about where you get your rays of UV), more than a handful of places to go hiking, not to mention a long list of places to bike to and from. Winter is never boring either. If you enjoy snow sports, you can hop on a bus heading North to Whistler and get your fill of snowy slopes. This is something that I am beginning to realize only a year and a half after my arrival in Vancouver.

After a lot of convincing from my labmates, I decided to go skiing to Whistler. Convincing was necessary because I am the kind of individual who has attachment issue with my laptop. Activities that does not involve my laptop scares me a little. And ski is no sport to be enjoying with a laptop on your hands.

Anyway, I figured that if I am going to graduate from a school in Vancouver, I might as well make sure that I go to places that make living in Vancouver much more epic. Whistler was an obvious choice due to rumours and other word-of-mouth obviousness.

So yesterday was my first time going to Whistler, and my first time skiing in about a decade. What I got out of it was epic-ness, aching of muscles to satisfy my need to exercise, and an immediate wiping-out of work related thoughts from my brain – in a good way, of course. The cellphone pictures here totally don’t do the justice of what Whistler view can offer you. It was too snowy for the camera to capture the snow-covered trees all over the place, and too white and bright for the camera to not resist white-balancing the picture and make it look rather grim. But trust me. It’s beautiful up there.

With about 130+tax, you can hop on a bus leaving the Vanier Place residence on campus, or the UBC North Bus Loop heading to Whistler, rent all the gears you need, go up the slopes on the lifts, and get a ride back to UBC on the same day. At first, I thought it’s pretty expensive. It still is. But the following epic-ness is worth it.

Obviously, my yoga pants weren’t going to be too appropriate for skiing. So I had to borrow my friends’ and labmate’s ski-wears, all of whom are male and are not as small as me. I will spare you the joy of laughing at my funny outfit for the day, and will also spare you the stories of how I got so many blisters from my skiing experience yesterday – which are healing very nicely, thank you.

But the point I’m trying to get across to you is this: For those of you who are planning to attend UBC, I think you should consider the things that you might end up loving – like skiing, or swimming. Because you might end up with one pair of yoga pants in your luggage, and wish that you had your ski jacket/pants/equipments with you for the next two/four+ years of your stay in Vancouver.

To make up for my lack of photographing skills, here’s the kind of picture of Whistler that I was trying to take: