In the spring of 2012, I received a couple of summer wedding invitations from friends back home – one in Vancouver, and one in Toronto. The Vancouver wedding invitation was from Justin, one of my travel companions in Vietnam the previous year, who had since moved from Beijing to BC to start a new life with his fiancée. In Toronto, a mutual friend of ours, Glendon, was planning on getting married the week after, so I put together a quick two week trip to see family, as well as attend a couple of weddings. I knew Justin and Glendon from university, and we later played on the same Ultimate team for a few years in Toronto – Nicole, from my Singapore trips, also played with us. The guys and their fiancées were kind enough to extend a last minute +1 for their upcoming nuptials, so in June of 2012, Ashley and I packed our bags and headed back to my home country together for the first time in our young relationship.
Vancouver is a beautiful city, situated on a broad peninsula by the Strait of Georgia, bordered by the North Shore Mountains and the Burrard Inlet to the north, and the Fraser River to the south. It is consistently ranked within the top 3 to 5 most livable cities in the world, scoring high on healthcare, culture, environment, education, and personal safety. Furthermore, it is also one of Canada’s warmest cities, and this combination of climate, livability, and natural beauty has, over the years, convinced a number of friends from Toronto to move across the country.
Justin’s wedding gave the rest of us non-Vancouverites a reason to book our own tickets to the west coast, and it was a sweet reunion with many friends that I hadn’t seen in the last 2 to 3 years. The ceremony and reception took place on the University of British Columbia’s beautiful campus, beneath the backdrop of a brilliantly blue sky. It was a joy to see long-time friends arriving in ones and twos, catching up and reminiscing as we celebrated our mutual friend’s happiness. Much of the rest of our time there was spent in the company of friends, as we ate, shopped, explored, and ate some more. Of special note were our meals at Go Fish, a small seafood shack a short walk from Granville Island, Sushi Garden, a popular Japanese restaurant in Burnaby, and Samurai Sushi, an otherwise unremarkable sushi joint that offers the largest sashimi pieces I’ve ever seen (skip the rolls though)!
As a native Torontonian, I have mixed feelings about Vancouver. It is ingrained in me that Toronto is the greatest city in Canada, and one of the world’s most underrated places. At the same time, it’s hard to deny Vancouver’s charms. After being in both Vancouver and Toronto, Ashley much prefers the former, and I don’t blame her. She spent much of her life in Hong Kong, surrounded by mountains and ocean, and Vancouver ticks that box for her. In contrast, Toronto is just another large, anonymous, North American city in her eyes. When we’ve discussed the possibility of moving back to Canada, it’s clear that her preference is for the west coast, with its abundance of natural beauty and good food, its slower pace of life, and its location far, far away from the freezing winters of the northeast.
After the blissful few days we spent in Vancouver, I knew Toronto needed to step up. I still maintain that my hometown is the centre of Canada, the epicentre of culture, commerce, education, and sports, the trendsetter for the nation, the place to be and be seen. Summers in the city are glorious – food and music festivals every other weekend, ballgames at the Dome (with an open roof!), world class museums and galleries, eclectic neighbourhoods to explore, the best selection of ethnic cuisines from all over the world, day trips to the islands, and a general buzz around the city trying to fit as many patio days into its summer months as possible before the winter cometh.
This would also be the first extended period of time Ashley would spend with my family, though she had previously met them briefly when they were visiting me in Hong Kong the previous winter. We’d be staying at my family home just outside of Toronto, and we had a day trip out to Niagara Falls planned together, so it would be fairly full-on for her. Fortunately, my parents were only too happy to roll out the carpet for Ashley, and, by and large, I’d consider the time we spent with family to be a success. Ashley and I were both invested in making family time a priority, as we were well aware of how little time they would get to spend with us while we lived in Hong Kong. I’m exceedingly grateful for how she’s embraced my family, and vice versa, and we’d end up flying back for summer visits again in 2013 and 2015, the latter one our first visit as a married couple. My parents have visited Hong Kong a number of times as well, and we managed to return the favour by hosting them at our apartment during their visit last year.
I was eager to show Ashley the sights and sounds of Toronto, but I’d forgotten how exhausting it is to travel around a spread-out urban area with less than adequate public transit. We originally planned on going downtown every day, but I think we only did it twice, coming home tired and exhausted each night, before deciding to stay uptown the rest of the week. When we were planning out the itinerary, it didn’t seem like we were over-stretching ourselves, but there just seemed to be so much more walking than we anticipated. On our first day downtown, we went to the University of Toronto campus, where I spent an eventful year as an anthropology graduate student. Next, we ambled over to the Skydome (always and forever) to catch an afternoon ballgame, snagging some decent seats down the third base foul line, soaking in the Canadian sun beneath the shadow of the neighbouring CN Tower. In the evening, we met up with my parents for dinner at the 360 Restaurant at the top of the CN Tower, chowing down on prime ribs while the whole of the GTA and the Golden Horseshoe slowly revolved below us. The next day, we grabbed breakfast at St. Lawrence Market, visited Nathan Phillips Square, stopped by the Hockey Hall of Fame, and then strolled through Kensington Market. We ended the day at a free Michael Franti concert, chowing down on my beloved heavy burrito bricks from Burrito Boys.
We much preferred staying at home, actually. Certain things taken for granted in suburban North America, like having a second floor and a basement, 24-hour sports channels, large open kitchens, frontyards and backyards, and the distinct lack of car horns and random yelling throughout the night, were novel and delightful to our Hong Kong-addled minds. It was home to me, but Ashley, who had grown up in suburban Denver during middle school and lived in the Boston suburbs after college, also felt some familiar pangs, and we were hooked. We made breakfast together, watched daytime television, played the piano, went grocery shopping, and cooked dinner for my parents – it was the very picture of suburban bliss. We also grabbed dinner with our friend Pam, who had moved from Hong Kong to Toronto earlier that year. She had been a part of our small group for a number of years, and Ashley had traveled with her to Malaysia before the move. We met up at the legendary Pho 88, which was just as good as I remembered it, though Ashley was not particularly impressed. Pam would eventually move out to Vancouver later that year to study interior design, and, just last year, Ashley and I, along with a large number of our former small group, had the privilege of attending her wedding. She has since moved to Seattle with her husband, and we rang in the New Year with them a few short months ago when they were here visiting Hong Kong.
Glendon’s wedding was a massive affair, and I was glad that Ashley was able to meet some of my university friends the week before at Justin’s wedding. The friends and community that I had in university played a large part in making me the person that I am today, and I’m grateful that those friendships have persisted throughout the years. It was a fun evening, and Ashley passed all the family and friends tests with flying colours – not that it was necessary, but it was still a good feeling to see how well she got along with the people that are important to me. Soon after the wedding, she flew down to Boston to see some of her friends, and I stayed behind another couple of days with my parents. We flew back to Hong Kong separately, with no further plans to travel that year. As it turned out, we would be packing our bags again just a few months later – not to distant lands per se, but to a country just a short hop away from Hong Kong, and one that I’d be visiting for the first time.