Friday, August 29, 2014

Camping With Russians

Aaaah, camping. Feel the stress and grind melt away as you pull on to a dirt road flanked on both sides by green forest. Take the seatbelt off  and crack a beer as you pull in to your camping spot. Quickly get the tent up, get the fire going, get the food out and get several beers in ya. It's the beginning of the most economical vacation possible!

Camping is popular all over the world, and everyone does it a little differently. Here in Canada it is a national pastime (for those who's families don't own an expensive waterfront cottage). I learned to camp at a very young age: my mother was an avid camper and I could build a fire and put a tent up by the time I was 5 years old! Okay, not quite so young, but I knew how to roast marshmallows and get in to the groove of camping. By the time I was 10 and in Scouts I was able to camp like a pro.

In Korea camping is different. One time my wongjang-nim (school director aka "boss") took me "camping" with his family to a spot in the Korean mountains about an hour outside of Daegu. I was very curious to see how Koreans camped. It turns out this particular "campground" came with motel rooms, sauna and restaurant. The only thing camplike about it was that a large group of Korean youth evangelists were having some type of revival trip, and they had a giant bonfire going and had brought along their obligatory noray-bong (karaoke) machine. Seeing me, I was forced into singing a rendition of a Beatles song in front of 100 Korean Christians all wearing red t-shirts and cheering a bit too over-enthusiastically. 

That night my host (aka "boss) took me to the jimja-bong (spa) where I had to strip completely naked and get into a hot tub with 20 other completely naked guys. I was happy to put on a comfortable pair of cool and baggy Asian-style pants, to go sleep in a common room where more than a hundred other Koreans (women, children, old, young) were all sprawled out on little mats sleeping. 

The next day my boss' wife made a freakin' delicious samgyetang lunch. It was the first time I ever had it and holy fuck was it good! It's basically a whole mini-chicken stuffed with rice and ginger and boiled to perfection. It's served in a chicken broth (her's had baby bok choy floating around) and a side dish of rock salt. The chicken is so tender that it flakes off easily for your chopsticks, you dab it in the bowl of salt and chow down. Yumm! 


So while the Christian revival, the spa, the communal sleeping room and the samgyetang were all interesting experiences, they most definitely were NOT camping!

Sam-gye-tang, one of my favorite Korean dishes

After several years in Korea I returned home to Canada and one of the first things I did was to go camping with some friends on the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario. REAL camping. It was such real camping that we had a special zone in the forest for shit which was marked by a toilet paper roll on a branch. We dug little pits in the ground, pooped into it, and buried it up, making sure to stick a small twig in the dirt to mark the spot. 

Compared to camping in Korea, it was pretty hardcore.

Fast-forward 7 years and I'm living with a Russian in Victoria, British Columbia. A Russian, I might add, who has never been camping before. 

Now, from what I understand, Russians camp pretty much the same as Canadians but with a few distinct Russian twists: they usually go in large groups and it's usually something that younger people do. In Canada you will find campgrounds are filled with people of all ages. I never visited a campground in Russia so I'm only going off what my Russian wife and Russian friends have told me.

Katya and I needed a vacation, and I had a week off work for vacation, and we didn't have enough money to go to Cuba, so we opted instead to go camping! Katya had recently met a rather large Russian community in Victoria filled with expats and immigrants from the motherland, so she invited a couple of them to join us. Although I was in Canada, I was suddenly going camping with a bunch of Russians!

BC Parks is an amazing service with very low rates and pristine, beautiful campgrounds. I was able to book everything I needed on their well-designed website (the British Columbia government has fully embraced web 2.0 and almost all services can be accomplished online). With a group of Russians in a small convoy of cars we set out. I was, ironically, the only native-English speaking Canadian amongst them. Even more telling, I was the only one in the group who had been camping before! 

We only went for four days, to a site just west of Nanaimo (I don't remember the name). I ended up setting up my own tent, and then realized that the other groups were having trouble with their tents, so one by one I helped everyone set their tents up. Although there was a half-dozen or so in our party, I realized that while I was setting up people's tents, nobody had started a fire or even started collecting wood! Not only that, but all the Russian women in our party had been busy bees, fussing and chattering and moving in a flurry of activity from the moment we arrived....to decorate the picnic tables and spread all the food out on them!

Seriously, there were two picnic tables and by the time I had finished setting up the second tent, both tables had tablecloths spread out on them. All the food had been emptied from coolers and placed in ceramic bowls and dishes. Someone had even brought a vase with some flowers in it for the centerpiece! 

I just shook my head and continued to set up the last tents, then drafted two of the Russian men to come with me to pick up some firewood and gather twigs and branches for kindling. After 90 minutes or so I had the entire camp set up and a fire going. I cracked a beer and sat in my camping chair and then casually asked the ladies what they were planning on doing with the food when the bears and raccoons picked up the scent. 

"Bears?" Katya asked me. 

Katya had a blast on that particular trip, and learned pretty quickly how to camp. She had her first-ever roasted marshmallows and fell in love with them. "I've only seen these in movies!" she declared, her mouth stuffed with chewy melted marshmallow. "They're awesome!"



 Fastforward another two years, and Katya and I are camping again, this time with my siblings in sunny Ontario. 

We had chosen a park on the shores of Lake Huron, MacGregor Point (10 minutes south of Port Elgin). My sister Anni, her boyfriend Steve, my brother Yakob and Katya and I all went. My family are experts in camping so there was no silliness like flowers and four-course meals. Beer and meat on a fire were our staples this time. Katya had a great idea before we left: shashleek.

Shashleek is an Uzbeki food which is wildly popular in Russia, and for good reason. It's a kabob, basically, but with huge pieces of deliciously marinated meat on a skewer, sometimes eaten with a soft flatbread. We bought a huge piece of fresh pork tenderloin from the butcher and then Katya and I prepared the marinade. We let it marinated in the fridge for 48 hours before we went camping.

Ironically-enough, this time I was the one who needed help setting up our tent. I picked Katya up after work and we drove the 2 hours to MacGregor Point, so it was dark by the time I started setting up the tent. I have no problem putting a tent up in the dark, but for some reason this time I was all confused. It didn't help that Katya and my brother had both jumped in as well and were jamming tent poles everywhere and pegging things down while I was trying to get everything organized. We ended up having to tear out all the poles and pegs and start again. 

The rest of the trip was great. We got rained out our first day, but that didn't stop us from getting wildly drunk and wandering around the local beaches with cups of rum and coke. My brother set up a dartboard (he lost most of the darts in the forest behind the tree the dartboard was attached to) and a curious raccoon circled our campsite day and night. Poor little guy; we didn't leave anything out for him. This was a full-service campground with modern washroom and shower facilities nearby and fresh water taps dotted all over, so we even managed to stay clean!

The day we left my siblings piled into my brother's car and set out early for the long 8-hour drive back to Ottawa, while Katya and I, with a 90 minute drive ahead of us, zipped up to Port Elgin and hung out on the beach for most of the afternoon. The water was cold but once you were in it grew bearable. 

Katya absolutely loves camping now. I've had the unique privilege to camp with Koreans and Russians and, while I certainly enjoyed the food both of these cultures bring to the table (pun intended), for sheer relaxation and goofy camping fun, I prefer the Canadian way!


Our Russian shashlik, made in Ontario!





Monday, August 25, 2014

Canada: Worth The Wait


3 years ago Katya and I had to spend nearly a year apart in order for Katya to receive her visa to Canada. Never before in my life had I thought that I would be sponsoring somebody to immigrate here, nor did I ever know anybody who had been through it. It was something I heard on the news, especially whenever the government made little tweaks to the system or some big boatload of illegal immigrants was intercepted off the coast of British Columbia.

Like many an armchair general, however, I had some type of opinion on the matter, believing the few fragments I heard on the news qualified me for expertise. It wasn't until I was immersed in the immigration system itself that I learned how it really works.

Let me say, first off, that Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) and its attachments in Canadian embassies around the world are doing a Herculean job of managing the more than 1.5 million people who apply for immigration every year, and the 250,000 applicants who are given visas every year. (*source cic.gc.ca)

Another thing I should point out, straight off the bat, is that the system isn't necessarily broken, per say. There are definitely areas where things can be streamlined, and country of origin regulations could be implemented (so that somebody from, say, Pakistan goes through more background screening than somebody from, say, Australia). The bureaucracy is operating on overdrive and could use some cleaning out, probably some modernization and maybe a better system to differentiate solo-applicants from those being sponsored by family/spouses.

Because the way the system works right now is full of little inconsistencies which, taken as a whole, create a frustrating experience for a Canadian citizen sponsoring a spouse to come to Canada.

My wife is Russian, and as a Russian she is not eligible for visa-free travel to Canada. This I can understand from a security perspective, as Chechens and other groups with extremist elements also carry Russian passports, and the level of corruption in the Russian government makes it impossible to tell if a Russian passport is genuine or some bureaucrat was paid off. For this reason CIC does extensive background checks into every Russian applicant, even if they just want to visit Banff for a week or go to school for a year.

And unlike in the US (with their H1 visa) or UK, Canada doesn't have a special visa for spouses who are awaiting an immigration decision. To apply for sponsorship, I had to prove that I had a residence and a source of income in Canada. As my residence and job was in Russia, I was forced to return to Canada, find a job and a place to live, and then apply to sponsor my wife. Because she couldn't come to Canada, she had to stay behind in Russia. The result was that we spent nearly a year apart while we waited.

Sponsorship

I left Russian on Valentine's Day, which sucked but for some reason that day had the cheapest tickets. For a year I had been tossing around the idea of immigrating myself to Russia: I loved the country and Moscow in particular. I had a network of friends there, my job and my students were awesome, and I could get around to all parts of Moscow on the train, metro and bus with relative ease. I knew which store and restaurant chains were good, which domestic brands I liked and even had my own mobile, cable and internet accounts with Beeline. 

In Moscow I was in good shape (not like now), was surrounded by amazingly stunning women and was in love with the culture, museums, galleries, historic buildings and night clubs. I knew, however, that I wasn't getting younger, and eventually I would get old and have very little to fall back on. Russia's social safety net is miserly compared to Canada's, and old people get it particularly rough. Pensions are tiny and costs are skyrocketing. Schools and public infrastructure are neglected and education in Russia, once of the highest quality in the world, is rapidly sinking into a black hole of bankruptcy thanks to government corruption. I knew, in short, that Russia was not the place I wanted to settle, raise a family and retire.

Katya didn't really know what Canada had to offer aside from what I had told her. She had heard from other people that Canada was a land of plenty, with beautiful houses for everybody and everyone had great high paying jobs. She knew Canada's more traditional stereotypes, of peacekeepers, Mounties, hockey and a vast wasteland of snow and ice. She could name Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver as Canadian cities, but that was about the extent of her knowledge of Canada until she met me. 


This is important, because some people have been outright rude and ignorant when they learn that I sponsored a Russian wife to Canada. One guy I met at work said "How much did she cost?" I shoved him and threw down but other people jumped in before it escalated any further. I've heard the whole mail-order bride thing (a phenomena of the early 90's. Today there are more British women looking for American husbands than Russian), the "She only wanted a visa to get out of the Soviet Union" thing (there is no Soviet Union, jackass) and the whole "What. You couldn't get a girl in your own country?" (I could, and I have, and after my last relationship I swore off western women forever. In fact, I had sworn off all women, but in Russia that is an impossible vow to keep).

So I returned to Canada on a cold, snowy night. The taxi picked me up at Katya's place around 10 pm. There were tears and terrible feelings of foreboding, but the gears were already set in motion.  I boarded my flight at Sheremyetova Airport and was off to Halifax.

My mother was living in Halifax at the time, and I had no idea where I was going to stay or find a job, so it was as good a choice as any. I landed at Halifax International in the morning, my mother picked me up and we went out for brunch. 24 hours before I had eaten at a Chokoloditsia cafe near Novoslobodskaya station in central Moscow. Now I was sitting in some greasy-spoon diner in downtown Halifax, eating eggs benedict with bacon. World travel is surreal that way.

It took me some time to prepare all my documents for sponsorship, and it took some time to find a job in Halifax. My mother said I could bunk with her and her partner while I got set up. I decided "Fuck it." and chose Halifax as my base of operations. 

It took me a month to find a job, at a call center in Dartmouth for Eastlink Cable. It didn't pay very well but it was a job, and it fulfilled the first requirement of sponsorship: full time income in Canada. 

Before Katya can even apply for her visa, CIC has to first ensure that I meet the requirements for sponsorship. I sent them a thirty-page form, copies of my ID and proof of citizenship, details about my job and address, an RCMP police background check, supporting evidence of our relationship and, of course, a $75 fee. 

I had been scouring the internet to educate myself about the process. A few different sites helped, including the CIC site and the Canada Visa forum. I had tried to arm myself with as much information as I could, and as a result I felt fairly prepared for the process that was to ensue, and when things did happen, I was able to meet them head on. I strongly recommend that anyone going through a sponsorship do the same. You don't need an expensive "Immigration Consultant" if you can read English or French. Just stay organized and on-task and you can save a ton of money.

CIC had recently streamlined the process slightly, whereby I could send in both my application AND Katya's visa application. Once my application was approved, CIC would send her visa application off to the Canadian embassy in Moscow directly for processing. This means that Katya had to print out and fill in a giant application package. We spent many a night on Skype going through her application to make sure she understood each question. They wanted not only her background information, but also her family's. Information about her mother, father, sister and sister's husband was all required. When we had applied to be married we had a heck of a time getting all my documents translated into Russian; now we had to do the same for Katya's documents, but into English. She also had to go to an embassy-approved doctor and get a full physical and a chest x-ray taken. The doctor wouldn't tell her anything, but sent his diagnosis off to the Canadian High Commission in London, England, where it would then be pulled by the embassy in Moscow when it came time to process her visa application. Canada wants to make sure that any new immigrants won't be a strain on the health system.

It took Katya about a month to get all this done, and then she sent the entire package to me via DHL. DHL in Moscow asked Katya to fill in the value of the contents (forms), and Katya put in the price of the application (her visa application was nearly $600, which I was paying). As a result, when the package arrived in Canada, customs charged me a %10 tariff! For a bunch of forms! DHL in Halifax wouldn't release the package to me until I paid them $60, which I did. Then, when I tried to get it corrected and refunded by the Canada Revenue Agency, I was denied! Oh well, that's $60 down the tube.

For supporting documentation I sent in a complete print-out of every text message we had sent each other in 2.5 years of our relationship, every email and a ton of pictures. It seemed like a bit of an invasion of privacy, but thankfully we're not really that kinky so there was nothing incriminating there, aside from stupid lovey-dovey messages. 

I got that all together and sent it all off to the CIC processing center in Mississauga, Ontario. And then waited.

The Wait


It took forever for this to be processed, and as I understood it, between 50% - 75% of the waiting game is taken up by the sponsorship application. In that time, I received a job opportunity in British Columbia. My friend Shanana sent me a text one day while I was at my call center job saying "We really need At-Sea Observers here. Interested?" I though about it for an evening and then jumped on the chance. You can read about my fun times at sea here

Now I was moving across the country, from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast (a much nicer coast, in my opinion). I notified CIC of my address change, to which they notified me that they needed further supporting documentation of my new job, address, etc. They then returned the ENTIRE PACKAGE to me!!!

Here is where things got insane. As I learned, CIC will no longer take mail from couriers. This means no FedEx, Purolator, UPS, etc. They will only accept registered packages from Canada Post. Why this is I don't know, but it's retarded. As it happens, Canada Post and the letter carriers went into a labor dispute at that exact moment, and a lockout ensued. I was stuck with our package of documents, no processing was being done and the damn postal system was locked out!!

Katya and I had been apart for 4 months by now. We were both frustrated and missing each other. We met almost every day on Skype and we both had international texting on our phones, but it wasn't the same. Katya was immensely sad, and I could understand why. I was the one galavanting around Canada, going out to sea on boats and making friends while she was stuck in the same place, surrounded by our memories of us together in what had been our bedroom. I understood the system in Canada while she did not. The labor strife was a panicky moment for her, while for me it was a frustrating annoyance that I just wanted to end. 

The lockout lasted for three weeks before the government legislated both sides back to work, and I finally sent in that package. 

For the next two months we waited. I went out to sea for a week at a time, where there was no signal, and Katya gradually began to detach from me. 

In late July we met up in Ukraine, 6 months after I had left Russia. We went to Katya's grandparents in Bobrovitsa, and then spent a week in Kiev.

In October of that year I dislocated my knee while on board the world's biggest fishing trawler. I ended up back on land for the next four months in physiotherapy and hobbling around on a cane. I was in beautiful Victoria, had a social network and bought myself a vehicle, so it wasn't that bad. In fact, I look back on those days with fondness, although at the time the constant waiting for CIC to process our forms was stressful and frustrating. 

Finally, at the end of October, I logged in to my account at the CIC website to check the status of my application, like I did every day. Instead of the usual "Processing Application" status, it read "Application Approved. Visa being processed at embassy"!!!

The Visa Application

Finally! It was amazing news! I quickly began reading all about the visa application, now that the sponsorship application had been approved. This is the last step in the entire process. The individual visa applications are sent off to embassies in the respective country where the applicant claims residency. Depending on the volume of applications, some take longer to process than others. China and India have the largest volume of applicants for immigration to Canada, while Japan has the lowest. Countries with greater security risks require more background checking, so applications from, say Afghanistan are going to take longer than ones from Ireland. Also, spousal sponsorships sent by CIC to the embassy are prioritized. Russia falls into the middle of the pack for timeliness, with moderate application volume and moderate security risks. 


I sent Katya an email with the good news, but her response wasn't that hopeful: "Great. So now we just wait another 8 months?" 

Katya's Frustration

For her part, Katya was becoming frustrated and depressed. She began to flop back and forth between wanting to come to Canada and just saying "Fuck it all" and staying in Russia. At least in Russia she had friends, family, a job and a home. She was a Russian, and had married a Canadian expat who left her after only a couple of years. In her words, I had abandoned her. 

Katya was not a happy camper, and her first frustrations with the Canadian government were occuring before she was even in Canada! In Russia the bureaucracy is so slow, outdated and inept that most people simply avoid it where possible. Government and citizens exist on two separate plains in Russia, whereas in Canada government is in your face and life every day. Regulations, fees, forms, police, taxes and red tape tie up nearly every interaction a person makes in Canada, while in Russia people just do what they want, buy what they want, get a job wherever they're qualified and live their lives with as little to do with the government as possible. The trade-off, of course, is that the government will continue to ignore you when you get sick, injured or old. whereas in Canada the government will cradle you from birth to death. I don't know which system is better. Can't there be a compromise between the two?

Anyways, Katya was depressed, was losing hope and was feeling abandoned, and she was blaming me. I was so far away and feeling helpless to change the situation. Unlike CIC, the embassy didn't have a web page where we could check status updates, so we just had to wait for a phone call.

Approved!

The phone call came in late November. I received a text message from Katya around 11 pm Pacific time.

"I got a call from the embassy. I got my visa!"

I didn't believe the message. I stared at it for a while, then wrote back a clever "What?"

"I'm approved!" was the reply.

Suddenly it all hit me, including the enormity of what this meant. "Awesome!" is my reply, when I look back at those messages today.

Katya had been approved after just over 6 weeks. It took nearly three-quarters of a year for CIC to approve my sponsorship, but once they did the embassy worked incredibly quickly on Katya's application. Katya took the next morning off work and went down to the Canadian embassy, behind the Kremlin, and handed in her passport. The next day she went to pick it up with a shiny new Canadian visa in it! 

I began making plans to go to Moscow and bring her back to Canada. My sister was getting married in Ottawa a week before Christmas and I was in the wedding party, so I couldn't go to Russia before then. Because I had already booked the time off work for the wedding, worker's comp allowed me to go. I informed them that I was also going to Moscow and they said they couldn't cover me for that, which was fine by me. I wanted to get back to work anyways and was tired of being on comp. 

I went off to Ottawa, where I had a great time with my family (my brother and I got drunk around noon, and stayed that way until well past 3 am). A few days later I flew off to Moscow from Toronto.

Katya and I had spent nearly a year apart, from February to December. During that time our patience was stretched, and our relationship only survived out of sheer commitment to it. CIC and the Canadian embassy in Moscow did a wonderful job of processing our applications and I have no complaints. I've heard stories of people waiting years for their visas, so 11 months is nothing really to complain about in that perspective. For us, being apart so long and hoping so hard, it felt like an eternity.

Today we don't really think about that period. It's like a time that didn't exist, although I do enjoy remembering my autumn in Victoria, hobbling around on crutches and hanging out with Shanana and her then-bf, Bear. Now that Katya and I have been together in Canada for a couple of years, and have moved from Victoria to Ontario, it seems like that was a lifetime ago. However, the simple fact that we are together, living in Ontario, means that our application, despite the hangups and the waiting, was a success, and I commend the Canadian immigration authorities for their hard work and diligence in bringing families back together in this safe, clean and beautiful country.