Sunday, March 31, 2013

Love & marriage & kimchi

In my last blog post 2 weeks ago, I talked about the many changes going on in my life: the passing of my cats, the ending of my job, the moving from my home.  Little did I know I should have waited another few days to post that write up of big changes because another big change was about to happen.

Fabian liked it, so he put a ring on it!

Fabian proposed, and of course I said yes!  We had been talking about our future for quite some time and we've both thought from very early on in our relationship that we were the right ones for each other.  We have so much in common (from both hobbies and interests, to the important things like beliefs and values), but when we differ on things we are always able to respect each others differences and find a compromise where we can both be happy.  I knew that an engagement was coming at some point, but I really didn't know exactly when.  Not being one for surprises (I'm too much of a planner to enjoy uncertainty), the knowing it was coming, but not when was fine for me!   He did a good job too: a romantic trip to one of our favourite little inns in the area and just before going down to a very nice dinner, he asked me to be his wife.  I couldn't stop smiling the whole night.

And of course, the ring!  It's a vintage style, with an emerald as the center stone, surrounded by diamonds.  It's so elegant and delicate but unique at the same time.  I just love it!

I'm grateful to him for proposing before I left.  While it would have been very romantic to have done it while we were in Switzerland or touring Hagia Sofia, we're now able to celebrate this moment with all of our family and friends.  Celebrating a year later, while doable, would have kind of sucked all the newness and excitement out of it.  

One idea I had had about my upcoming time in Asia was to have a wedding dress made while I was over there.  I mean, the tailors in Hoi An alone are famous for their work.  But I also wanted to have the quintessential mother-daughter bonding moment of wedding dress shopping.  So, thanks to Fabian's proposal timing, I asked my mom, grandmother and great aunt to come to look at wedding dresses with me and just get an idea of what looks good on me (often what looks good in a picture or on a hanger looks very different when on a body).  After trying on a few different dresses, I tried on one that changed everything.  It was elegant and glamorous, with just the right amount of drama and sexy.  As my mom said "Andrea, it's just so you".  Even though it was nothing as I imagined it to be in my mind when I thought of my wedding dress, I knew it was the perfect dress for me.  My mom asked me how I would imagine Fabian reacting to seeing me in it, that's when I started to cry.  That's when I knew it was the right dress - I knew he would love it.  After we all cried a little (yes, that does happen in real life, and not just on "Say yes to the dress"), I made the very extremely impromptu decision to buy it.  I was in a state of shock for the rest of the afternoon.  Who plans to move to a foreign country in just a few weeks but buys a wedding dress as a last minute purchase?  Crazy ol' me, that's who!  Of course, since I know Fabian reads this blog, I can't post details about the dress, but I promise in due time to post proper pictures.

So I suppose you're wondering, how does this all change your plans for Korea, Andrea?  Well, to put it simply, it doesn't.  I am still going.  The proposal was not Fabian's desperate ploy to try to get me to stay.  It is a show of our commitment to each other and to making this work.  Now, whenever I am feeling sad and alone and am questioning the 10,000 km between us, I just need to look down at my hand to be reminded of  the wonderful man I have waiting for me, patiently, at home.  And when I go to leave and say goodbye to the (hopefully) many wonderful friends I make while in Korea, I will also look down at my hand to have those feelings of sad goodbyes replaced with the excitement of my reunion with him.

So while some of the wedding planning is underway (we have a general idea of where and when - details TBD), our engagement will be a bit prolonged because of my trip.  On the bright side: lots more time for planning! Coincidentally, one of my favourite hobbies!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


For years, my life felt static - my job was the same, my home life was the same - I felt like I was in the same place I was 5 years ago. I had seen many of my friends get married and have kids, move abroad and just move into the next phase in their lives.  I admit I was envious of their progression in life.  For all my complaining, 2013 has certainly delivered on being a year of major life changes so far!

I found out at the end of January that my two cats, Bubbles and Moosh were much sicker than I realized. I had brought them in for their annual check up a couple of weeks before bringing them to their foster home (a great couple agreed to look after them while I was in Korea).  They were both diagnosed with serious illnesses.  I was in shock to say the least.  I had known for some time they weren't in the best shape, but I did not expect the severity that was reality. 

I struggled for a while to decide what to do: get them treatment and hope they get better, or say my final goodbyes to them while we're all still together? I had to make the agonizing decision that it was in their best interest to say goodbye.  I knew their conditions would worsen once their lives were turned upside down.  A new home and losing their "mom" would put a stress on them, would be that much harder for their foster parents (they didn't sign up to look after 2 sick cats!) and would be so painful for me to watch from afar, when I know I would want to be there with them as they struggled to just survive.

R.I.P. my two little guys

 Bubbles 2000-2013

Moosh 2002-2013

**Photos courtesy of Matt K.**

I am forever grateful to the Bytown Cat hospital for their home care service.  They were able to come to my home and save the cats the stress of travelling in their final moments.  Saying goodbye to them was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, but I believe it was the right decision.

I had mentally prepared myself for months to say goodbye while I was gone overseas, but I just thought it was temporary.  I my mind, they're just at their foster home and I'll see them later.  The constant realization that they're not there and I'll never see them again has really been the hardest part.  It's like a reoccurring brick wall I hit every time I think about them (which is a lot).  After having them in my life for over 10 years, it was a real blow to lose them. Their deaths was the first time I experienced real grief.  I don't look forward to more losses like theirs.  

While I had said a tearful goodbye to my boss in December of last year, I didn't feel like that part of my life had ended just yet - I knew I would still talk to him regularly, just we had always done. The death of the cats were the first real big change I would experience this year.

I was glad for the timing of my impending departure: I packed up and moved out of my apartment just days after the cats' deaths.  I couldn't stand being in an empty apartment without them.  I had always planned to live with Fabian for my final two months in Ottawa (to spend as much time together before I left), so really, the timing of it all worked out well.

Last week was another big change: the end of my time at the Senate.  It took me days to go around to say goodbye to all the staff that I had worked with over the years.  I did my best to say goodbye to them all personally.  It certainly was bittersweet - I was looking forward to a new challenge but I know I would also miss the place I've loved working for the last 10+ years.

Now that I'm unemployed for almost 2 months, I find myself spending time with friends, preparing for my trip and obsessing over completing the Aeroplan Star Challenge (if I can do it, we'll be able to fly Fabian over to visit me in Asia twice!)

My life has been anything but static in 2013.  My job is gone, my home is gone, my two guys are gone.  They're all changes both good and bad.  I can only imagine what other changes this year will bring for me!  I can only hope for more of the good!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Working girl

Jobs.  We all need them.  Those that don't have them, want them.  And those that do have them, are usually looking for a better one.  As my boss's retirement approached, I was constantly getting asked what my new job would be.  Even when I said my plan was to teach English overseas, I would regularly be asked specifics about a job I hadn't even started to look for.  For months, a guaranteed question in every conversation I would have with my mom was "did you find a job yet?"

I had heard and read a lot about the great demand for English teachers overseas, so I wasn't really worried about finding something in the end.  I felt it better to take my time to prepare, in what I felt to be the "proper way".  I wanted to get my TEFL teaching certificate first, then sort out exactly where I wanted to go, and then I would worry about finding an actual job.  The first two steps took a bit of time (see previous post for my story on those), but finally in November I was ready to tackle step three.  I've previously gone into why I've decided to do this, but now let's talk about the how. 

Over the summer, I met many people who shared their previous experiences of teaching in Korea with me.  All of them had been good.  When I asked them how they found their jobs, most just told me that they had looked online (places like Dave's ESL cafe and the like).  I had looked on the job board on that site and was completely overwhelmed.  I didn't know what offers were considered good, which were bad, which came from reliable companies, or which from the shady places you read about on the net.  During one of these conversations in September, I was speaking with a friend who had previously gone over to teach in Korea and he recommended Canadian Connections to me.  They are a recruitment agency based out of Toronto that deal exclusively with teachers going to Korea (and not just from Canada, so don't let the name fool you!)  I read over their website and looked at some of their online videos.  Seemed like an ideal way to really kick-start this adventure.  I thought with their experience and contacts, they would help make the job search and everything leading up to actually starting the job much easier to manage, and hopefully much less stressful.  Turns out, I was right!

I sent them my ESL teaching-geared CV (it's meant to be a different layout that your standard CV), within a week, I had had an interview with one of their recruiters and had 4 job offers by the following week!  I considered them all carefully, since they each had their own pros and cons.  To live in Seoul but work in a private institute or live outside the big city but work in a public school?  Ultimately, I made my decision to be at a public school just outside of the capital in Incheon - Korea's 3rd largest city, home of the country's major airport.  Being 3 times the size of Ottawa, and only a 1 hour subway ride from Seoul, I thought this was the best option for me.  So, as of April 21st, that will be my new home for a year!

For those considering teaching in Korea, I do recommend Canadian Connections.  They've been great to work with and have been very patient with all of my questions.  I also recommend taking a chill pill while going through this process. It can take a while for the paperwork to go through and no matter how organized you are, there's only so much you (and the recruiters) can do.  Right now, I'm playing the waiting game for my contract to come in.  I had sent all of my documents in back in December hoping to speed up the process, but so far, no such luck.  I just hope it comes in soon!  Once it does, I have to go to the Korean Embassy to apply (and get) a work visa.  All this before I leave in just over a month! 

It's so hard to believe that I have such a short time left at home!  I will miss my friends, family and Fabian - indeed my whole life here in Ottawa - so much while I am gone!  I hope to spend as much time with them as I can before I leave!  They say time flies when you're having fun.  This one time, though, I hope that expression doesn't hold true!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Why Korea? You don't even like kimchi!

In my previous post, I talked about what prompted me to decide to move to Korea.  My job of 8 years was coming to an end, and I felt I wanted to experience something different.  Having been in the same job since I graduated university, I felt that I learnt all that I could from this position; I didn't feel challenged by it anymore.

Don't get me wrong, I loved the job, my place of work and heck I even loved my boss!  But when I can fill out a travel claim in my sleep, it's time to try something different, don't you think?  I knew working for another Senator wasn't an option.  Not only would it mostly be doing the same things, I'm not sure I would have found a Senator that was as great a boss as my previous one.  No offence to the many great Senators I've gotten to know over the years, but my old boss was a truly great man.  I think they would agree with me too - every one always loved him.  Over our near decade of knowing each other,  we had gotten to know each other and our families quite well.  He certainly has become like a father figure to me.  I have tremendous admiration and respect for him and I know that that won't go away now that I no longer work for him.  I will always be grateful that he took a chance on a very young and inexperienced fresh-out-of-school girl to essentially run his whole office.  It was a big leap of faith on his part, and I hope that I did my best for him.  I certainly hope that I can one day come back to the Senate under a different role in administration because it has become like a family to me.  I will miss walking into Parliament and feeling the history and privilege of just being there.  But just as a baby bird must someday leave the nest, I had to spread my wings a try something new.

When beginning my research into teaching abroad, one of the first things I looked into, was getting a TEFL certificate.  While some people I spoke to said it was unnecessary  I thought it was important for a few reasons:
1) Having no experience teaching made me nervous.  Sure, I've done lots of public speaking and am very comfortable talking to people, but having to create and execute an actual structured lesson plan? Nothing.  So, while not as in depth as an actual teaching degree (by far! this was only a 60 hour in-class, 40 hour online program) I thought it would be a good "crash course" on how to teach.
2) Both of the programs I was looking into offered help with finding an overseas teaching job for all of their graduates.  From everything that I saw and read, finding a job in Korea (or anywhere for that matter) is stressful at best and extremely overwhelming.  Job boards are filled with ads and it's difficult to know exactly where to start.  So if some one was going to offer to help me, of course  I'd take them up on that offer!
3) Usually having a TEFL certificate, again while not being a Bachelor of Education, shows the employer you're serious about the job and will help when you get hired when you have zero experience, and might even push you to a higher pay bracket.  Of course, for some people doing this, money isn't everything.  Not that it is for me either, but a girl's got bills to pay!  Being able to live decently and have a bit of money to put aside at the end of the month was important to me, so this little piece of paper just helped me that much more.

After a few weekends this past summer, I had my certificate in hand and was ready to start the official job hunt.  But where did I want to go? China? Japan? Korea?  The answer was still a question mark at that point.  I had been on vacation in China the previous summer and really loved it so it was high on the list.  I had been to Tokyo briefly and thought it was an interesting option too.  To make a decision, I had to ask myself why I was actually doing this.  Why did I want to give everything up for a year, and move to the other side of the world?  This was an important question and one I've had to remind myself of the answer many times over the last few months as the nerves have started to set in.

I want to move and teach overseas because I want to have a different experience.  I want to experience living in a different country, in a different culture, with different challenges.  As strange as it sounds, I even want to experience culture shock. (Please remind me of this statement when I am sad and questioning my decision to move overseas and want to come back early!)

Of course, all of the countries would easily meet all of these criteria.  I was interested in each of their cultures, although admittedly, I love dim sum and sushi far more than I like kimchi.  In the end, my choice of country boiled down to the benefits.  Each country will fly you there and back.  China and Korea both provide free accommodation to their teachers, Japan gives you an allowance and you're on the hook for the tab which can eat into your savings when you're in one of the most expensive countries in the world.  China pays about half of what Korea does, so in order to save a bit more money, Korea won the battle for my new home.  Since the decision was made, I've done all that I can to embrace the Korean culture: taking language lessons at the Korean Embassy, dinners out at local Korean restaurants, and had a 4 hour marathon karaoke session Korean-style (isn't karaoke the national sport over there?).  I hope that doing these things to prepare will lessen the severity of my culture shock that I know is inevitable.

Every one I've talked to who has gone over, and everything that I've read online, has told me that there is a pattern that happens when some one moves to a foreign culture:
Phase 1 - the honeymoon phase, where everything is exciting and new.  I've been told this may last for the first few months after my arrival.
Phase 2 - culture shock hits, you're alone in a strange land and all you want is to be home with everything familiar.  I've been told to keep myself busy when this stage comes, as sitting at home sulking will only make it worse.  I've also be advised to avoid alcohol and becoming a regular at the local ex-pat pub during this time as some who have never left this phase congregate there and will try to bring me down with them.
Phase 3 - acceptance of the life and culture of this new land and the ability to enjoying it for it is: a beautiful experience.

I fully expect to go through each of these phases, and I'm sure it won't all be easy or pretty.  I hope you, my friends and readers, will all be there to experience the highs and lows with me!