You may be wondering how a Canadian woman and Filipino man working in South Korea ended up getting married, having a son and traveling all over most of Asia and beyond. It’s a bit of a long story but here is how we got to where we are today!
How we Ended up in Gwangju, South Korea
After two years of living and studying in Japan, Danny had returned to the Philippines and was working for a Japanese company in Cavite. He wasn’t planning on going abroad again but his older sister had paid a recruiter to find her a job in South Korea. Nearly a year went by and the recruiter wasn’t able to find any jobs for women, so Danny agreed to go in her place. He joined the Employment Permit System (EPS), and studied Korean for 10 days. He passed the language test and training programs and in October 2006 he was off to Gwangju, South Korea.
In 2005 I had finished my university degrees. I had planned on teaching in high crime, low income neighborhoods in Toronto, Canada. My brother and his wife were living in the Middle East and my family encouraged me to try working abroad for a bit. I sent my resume out all over the world with no set destination in mind and was contacted by an art and design university just outside of Seoul. The job was to teach English but I figured it would be a way to combine my degrees in art and education so off I went (I never ended up teaching any art there!).
It was a fantastic job but the program shut down after just the one year. I had enjoyed my time in Korea though and decided to come back for another year. My next job was in Gangnam, Seoul the famous wealthy neighborhood that Psy sang about in the viral video Gangnam Style. The school started losing money though, there was a bunch of drama and I moved in April 2007 to Gwangju, South Korea to start a new job.
How We Met
I went home to Canada for my summer vacation that July. While I was away on vacation a group of Filipino migrant factory workers had started visiting a local expat bar. When I returned in August a group of friends and I went to that same bar to celebrate our friend’s birthday. We walked in the door and I’m told I said something along the lines of “There are a lot of hot guys here tonight, but that guy is mine!” It’s not the kind of thing I had ever said before but I walked right up to Danny and introduced myself.
We danced all night and just before he was about to leave I gave him a quick kiss. Danny was already pretty worried about his English skills and nervous about speaking to the second Caucasian woman he had ever met. The little kiss completely shocked both him and his friends. We completely forgot to exchange phone numbers! The next weekend he returned to the bar though, and we exchanged numbers properly this time. About 4 months after meeting we were officially engaged.
The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth
We were young, naive and in love. When I met Danny I knew nothing about the Philippines, or any restrictions its citizens might have. This was the man I loved and I didn’t care where he came from, or how much money he had. Immigration Canada on the other hand did.
We planned on getting married in Canada in August but a month before the wedding Danny’s visa application was denied. As a migrant worker Danny had been sending most of his paycheck home to his family each month and immigration felt that he did not have sufficient funds to visit Canada.
Upset but determined we decided to get married in the Philippines instead. Since we were only in the Philippines for a couple of weeks, there was not time to plan anything big. We were married in a courthouse with around 5 witnesses. A $10 wedding dress, his family cooked the food and we all ate in the backyard of Danny’s brother’s place. The majority of the guests were family and neighbors and we had a surprise visit from 2 of Danny’s best friends from college. I wouldn’t have wanted anything else.
Newly Married Life
Before getting married Danny had lived in a small shared room at the factory where he worked on the other side of the city. I had my own apartment near my school so it just made sense that he moved in with me. He was being asked to work from 8am – 10:30pm every day though. When he got off work the busses had stopped running so it would be a $10 taxi ride to come home. In the morning he would get up and leave by 5:30 am to get to work on time by bus.
At one point he worked 14 or 15 hours a day, Monday to Friday and 8 hours a day, Saturday and Sunday for 3 weeks straight without a single day off. I contacted the labor board about it. They told us that he was only legally required to work 16 hours of overtime a week but we should not say anything to them because if he refused his boss might beat him!
We decided to just see each other on weekends. For 5 months we saw each other Saturday night and Sunday during the day. The arrangement was wearing us down. Danny tried to find work someplace else but couldn’t find anything with better work conditions. We thought that maybe he should just quit his job and go back to school. He decided to continue studying Japanese.
We spoke with the foreign students’ department at a local university and they told us that to enroll he would have to take both a Korean speaking and written test. The speaking test was done informally and he passed. He would have to come to the university at a set time and date to do the written test. There was no way his boss would let him have time off work to write the test. He would have to quit his job to take it.
Once he quit his job he would have only about a month to find another job, enroll in a school or leave the country. The university assured us that the written test was only a formality and he would be admitted to the university. With that promise Danny quit his job. (The man who replaced him in the factory lost his fingers in the press machine a month later)
Danny did the writing test and the university told him he failed. They would not let him attend unless he first took Korean language classes from them for an additional $4,000. We felt completely betrayed! They knew we would be in a very difficult position if he quit his job without a backup plan. We didn’t have that extra money to spend and we felt tricked so we decided that he would not attend the university.
With only a month and a half before he would be required to leave the country, we made a plan to change Danny’s work visa to a dependent spouse visa. We contacted immigration and at that time dependent visas in South Korea were not as common as they are now. Our local immigration office wasn’t exactly sure what we needed to do. We were running back and forth to the immigration office and on the phone with them constantly. They kept asking us for paperwork from our home countries which doesn’t exist.
We also had difficulty getting through to the Philippine embassy in Korea. I would call and say something along the lines of “Hello, I’m calling to get some information about getting a spouse visa.” The woman on the other end would scream at me “YOU CANT JOIN YOUR HUSBAND IN KOREA!” and hang up. After several tries I called back and quickly yelled “I’m Canadian!” before she hung up the phone. She had thought I was a Filipina wanting to go live with my migrant worker husband who worked in Korea which is not allowed.
We had to leave Korea and come back to get a dependent visa. Our approval from the immigration office came only a couple of days before our flight. We would end up celebrating our 6 months of marriage back in the Philippines.
Before we left I called the Korean immigration office in the Philippines to make sure I had everything I needed. The switch board put me through to an officer and she started to list off things I needed. I paused for a moment as I wrote the information down and then the phone went dead. I called back and the switch board put me through again. I explained that the phone had gone dead. The woman said “I know. I hung up on you because I didn’t hear you.” I had paused for only a second.
She started to list off again what we needed. She said that I needed an invitation letter from my place of work. We had never been told this. I asked her what the letter had to say. Her response: “Just an invitation letter”. But what does it have to say? “They just have to write an invitation.” I could just imagine us going all the way to the Philippines to find it had been done incorrectly!
I asked her if there were instructions in Korean that I could give to my boss. She started to get rude with me. I told her I didn’t understand what was required. She said she already told me. I asked if I could maybe speak to someone else because I was confused. She said I couldn’t speak to anyone else because she had already told me.
She was being very rude and I asked to please have her name. She replied “What’s your name?” and hung up on me. I called again, explained what had happened and they put me through to another person. The first woman had been telling me the wrong information. An invitation letter is only required if you don’t have the visa number and you are applying from the Philippines.
When we finally got to the Philippines we went to the Korean immigration office. You needed to fill out the paperwork one day and the visa is ready to be picked up the next. It was a madhouse in there and a worker gave us the paperwork to fill out. A pile of 6 papers (3 for each of us) and told us to go fill them out…Except mine were all in Korean! I asked her how I was to fill them out and she just shooed me away. So we asked again and she told us to just ask some Korean.
We asked a woman who was there to do some visa stuff herself and she helped us out. She helped me fill out two forms and then she double checked the title. We were filling out the wrong forms! We were filling out the ones to apply for the visa and we had already been approved back in Korea. The woman who gave us the forms hadn’t bothered to look at our paperwork or listen to what we said when we came in.
So we went back to the front desk and the lady who had been helping us told them that they had given us the wrong form. She then gave us the right form. ONE PAGE! We filled it out, but when we went back to the counter and they told us "You're too late. We only accept applications for visa's from 9-11am. You have to come back tomorrow". Coming back tomorrow would mean that we would have to wait until Monday to get the visa and have to stay in the hotel 2 more nights.
I explained that we had been on time but she gave us the wrong forms. She didn’t care and she left. I was at my breaking point. We asked everyone we could for help, the volunteers, security guards, immigration officers etc. and eventually someone from the visa department. They took the paper and the passport and told us to come back tomorrow. Except for a long wait, we got it the next day without a hitch.
You may think that we were now free from visa problems but that was not the case. We came back to Korea and went through immigration. I went through first and then Danny was to go through. The immigration officer kept looking at his visa. Because I had already gone through they wouldn’t let me come back to help out. For the next 5 years or more he would always go through immigration before me because of this.
The man eventually called me back and asked Danny if I was his mother (possible language problem). We said “no wife”. I showed him that my name on my passport was also on his visa. He looked at it, smiled, laughed and then sent me back out and sent Danny to be interrogated.
They took Danny into another room and I couldn’t see what was going on. There was the immigration officer for pilots and diplomats near where I was waiting and he asked why I was there. I told him that they had taken my husband in for questioning. He asked where he was from. I told him the Philippines. He asked if it was his first time to Korea. I told him he had lived here for two years. He assured me that they were just double checking and not to worry.
In the meantime an immigration officer was looking at Danny’s visa. She then asked to look at his ear. We have no idea why. Then she asked who I was. He told her that I was his wife. They continued to look through his passport for about 20min more. I was out in the immigration area of the airport crying and asking anyone I could to please tell me where my husband was. Finally all the immigration officers came in to where he was. A young officer asked those inspecting Danny’s passport what kind of visa he had. They said “F3”. The officer told them “It’s fine! Let him go through” and that was it.
Once we returned home Danny decided that he would study Japanese on his own at home. This “studying” was often turning into hours of video games. We realized that this wasn’t going to work long term so we looked into formal education opportunities again. I asked him what he would like to “be”. This was something he had never had the opportunity to consider before.
Eventually he decided he liked cooking. Our friend found a two year Hotel Cooking and Nutrition program locally. Despite being past the application deadline they let him apply and in March he began his classes. At the end of the year when they held a program wide cooking contest, Danny won!
Our First Real Vacation Together
When we first got married we planned on going to Canada the next summer to celebrate with my family. During all the changes for Danny’s new visa, our visa renewal date in Korea had gotten changed as well. When we went to apply for Danny’s tourist visa to Canada we found that he couldn’t get one. For him to apply for a Canadian visa his Korean visa would have had to have been valid for more than 3 months past the month we would have been traveling. His Korean visa expired in August and we were going to Canada in August so it wasn’t 3 months. We could only renew our Korean visas one month in advance so we wouldn’t have gotten our Canadian visa back in time.
Visa Troubles Lead to Vacation Plans!
We were very depressed because we couldn’t go to Canada yet again because of visa issues and decided to use the money that we had saved up for Canada to travel to another country. We chose Cambodia because we had just seen a great Discovery Channel program on Angkor Wat, our friends loved it when they visited and because though I needed a visa to go, Danny FINALLY didn’t! All of our visa troubles lead to the beginning of our travels.
We went for 3 weeks and traveled right across the country for about $20/day including accommodation and food. We stayed in some really interesting places. Some good, and some bad. It was a really defining point in our relationship as this was the first place that we had traveled to together for no reason other than just to travel. That same year I started to study Tagalog (Filipino) and in January I started my Masters in Education with a specialization in TESL online. Danny completed his degree.
To Canada Finally!
The summer of 2010, we attempted yet again to go to Canada. An immigration officer at the Canadian embassy had told us that in the eyes of Immigration Canada, Filipino citizens are viewed as guilty of wanting to stay in Canada illegally until they could prove they were innocent. He would have an easier time immigrating to Canada than getting a tourist visa they said. With that in mind we created our case and submitted a tourist visa application an inch thick…and were finally approved! We renewed our vows in Canada and had a lovely pot luck lunch with many of my family and friends.
The highlight of the trip (other than seeing family) had to be visiting Niagara Falls. Karaoke (videoke) is incredibly popular in the Philippines. There you can find machines everywhere! Often on these machines they show a background video of Niagara Falls. Growing up it was the only place Danny ever dreamed of visiting and it finally came true!
The Next Big Trip
Since I was working on my degree we stayed close to home for the next little while. In July 2011 we made a small trip to Palawan, Philippines. We were talking about starting a family as I finished my course requirements in the winter of 2011. As a reward for all our hard work and as a last trip before we “settled down” we headed off on a trip of a lifetime to Northern India. My grandmother’s family had lived in India for generations as part of the British Colonies and so I had always wanted to visit. We visited Delhi, Varanasi, Arga, Jaipur, Johdpur and Jaisalmer in a little over 2 weeks in February 2012. By March I was pregnant with our son.
And Now There Were 3
Being new parents in a foreign country with no help from our families was harder then we could have ever imagined. Traveling with our son though was surprisingly easier than we thought! In August 2013 when our son was 8 months old, we took our first trip together as a family to Phuket, Thailand.
We wanted to take advantage of infant ticket prices while we could so we traveled to Japan in January 2014 to visit Danny’s sister and her family. That summer we visited Canada in July and later the Philippines in August. We introduce our son to as many family members as we could before his ticket cost would increase when he turned 2. It quickly became clear that rather than ending our travels, our son was contributing to our travels!
Our son grew to be an incredibly active little guy who loves to explore and be outdoors and our life in Korea was starting to feel like it wasn’t the best fit anymore. The air quality was getting increasingly worse each year and we often had to keep him inside. The school system in Korea is also notoriously stressful. We looked at moving to the Philippines but in the end decided against it. If something were to happen to Danny there we would all be in a difficult position.
We then looked at moving to the Middle East but again Danny’s visa issues made it all but impossible. All of the visa problems over the years had made me very worried about what would happen to our family if something were to happen to me or Danny. We ended up choosing to move to Canada where there would be more safety nets. Danny could eventually apply for citizenship which would provide another layer of protection. We made one last big trip together to Indonesia before we would submit Danny’s permanent residency application in March.
The Last Time is Never the Last
If you haven’t noticed there is a bit of a pattern with our “last big trip” not being our last big trip! There was a mix up at my work in the spring and we weren’t able to submit our application in March 2015 as planned. Having a bit more time in Asia we headed to the Philippines again in the summer and submitted his permanent residency application in August. While waiting for approval we headed to Myanmar to visit the country where my maternal grandmother had been born and grew up.
At the end of June 2016 Danny’s permanent residency application was approved but he was required to go to Canada to officially “land” before August. There was no way we could pack up a decade of our life in Korea and just go with such a short timeframe so he went alone, officially landed and then came back to Korea. We decided to make the move together the following year and set off on a trip to Vietnam in the summer.
Now that a year is getting closer though it looks like it will be another year. Eventually we do need to move or he will lose his permanent residency so we are trying to visit all the places we still want to visit in Asia. Then, someday in the near future our adventures will shift to North and South America. In the meantime, I guess we are just a family of accidental travelers heading out on our next adventure together.