30 things I miss about life in Toronto, despite their (sometimes many) faults

Discovered while cleaning/packing: Toronto media feels.

A photo posted by Karen K. Ho (@heykarenho) on

  1. The TTC, even waiting for the streetcar at 1 in the morning
  2. The LCBO
  3. Hipster bars like the Press Club (which is about to close anyway)
  4. My Parkdale apartment
  5. Trinity-Bellwoods Park in the summer
  6. Biking around the Island
  7. The abundance of Goodlife gyms
  8. The TIFF Bell Lightbox
  9. Kensington Market
  10. J-town
  11. Going to the CNE
  12. Big-name Broadway shows at a Mirvish theatres after buying a ticket on sale
  13. The variety of ramen shops
  14. Inexpensive high-quality Vietnamese, Cantonese and regional Chinese restaurants, especially in the suburbs
  15. All the media outlets
  16. The people I know who work at those media outlets
  17. All the events in the city about the media
  18. St. Lawrence Market
  19. Porter’s flights from the Island Airport
  20. The Rock Oasis (even in its new location)
  21. Grand Electric
  22. The Momofuku complex, especially its sculpture outside
  23. The restaurant scene in general
  24. The Toronto Reference Library
  25. Architecture gems like the AGO and the TD Towers
  26. The number of concert venues, big and small, for indies and superstars
  27. The overwhelming number of festivals every weekend in the summer
  28. Word on the Street
  29. The house I grew up in back in Scarborough
  30. My family

*Note: This list is not in order of importance.

A Dot in the Knife: My First Four Weeks in Yellowknife

Some days, it feels like I never leave.

Some days, it feels like I’m always here.

“It’s 11:30 pm, Karen, and we are leaving.”
“But I still have so much to do!”
“You can do it tomorrow. We’re going to get a beer.”

It’s the night before my first deadline day filing for both NWT News/North and Nunavut News/North, and I’m trying not to panic. In a few hours, I have to file four more business stories and two collections of briefs. I am still desperately emailing people for interviews for the next morning and already imagining giant holes in the paper. But at this point, my brain is already fried and my handling editor, Josh, has other ideas.

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A Dot In The Knife: Packing, Airports, and My First 24 hours in Yellowknife


People look at you funny when you have all your possessions splayed out next to your car.

Six hours before my flight, I was still packing. And I had to do it on the floor of a parking garage.

After my sister and mother helped me scramble to vacate my Parkdale apartment, I realized I wouldn’t be able to finish packing unless I did everything next to my car. Both it and my sister’s red Veloster were both full of things I had kept or planned to put in storage from my apartment. Earlier in the week my cousin had already taken another SUV full of stuff away. And just before 6 p.m. I had shipped three boxes by Canada Post. After a week of sorting, culling, giveaways to friends, packing and more discarding, it still felt like I could never get through enough of my possessions.

On top of everything, one of the zippers in a new suitcase had broken and I had to transfer everything to a new piece of luggage that night.

For the next four hours, I didn’t sleep, I just focused on the five suitcases laid out on the floor next to my car. I rolled and packed two grocery bags filled with clean laundry; took out out four other bags worth of clothing from my suitcases I figured I didn’t really need or could put in storage; and carefully filled my carry-on around a rice cooker my parents had insisted I take with me.

When my sister and Mom came down at 4:45 am to drive me to the airport, we scrambled to dump my luggage into my car and everything else into my sister’s Veloster. We headed out of the garage just before 5 a.m., my flight scheduled for departure less than two hours later. With my sister at the wheel, we made it to Pearson International in 17 minutes.

Soon after we arrived, my dad met up with us. My parents helped wheel the two full luggage carts to the Westjet check-in queue. The staff had to wave me down to get my attention. “I’m sorry, I haven’t slept, it’s really early,” I said. “It’s too early,” a woman replied with a grin.

“I’m really sorry, I paid for three luggages but I have four,” I said at the counter.
“That’s no problem,” the woman replied.
“I have a lot because I’m moving to Yellowknife,” I said.
“Are they full of food? A lot of people bring food up.”

Two of the luggages were overweight – 66 and 63 pounds, respectively. Only the 30-inch duffle I bought last-minute at Canadian Tire didn’t exceed the limit. While I was very grateful the airline didn’t charge for the extra weight or the extra piece, I regretted not cramming more stuff in.

After my dad helped load them onto the belt, the Westjet staffer gave a worry look to my four other bags – a medium-sized Paul Frank duffle, a MEC reuseable tote filled with extra warm clothes or the plane, and two large backpacks, one entirely crammed with tech gear. “I’m going to consolidate,” I told her quickly. I ended up giving up a small backpack to my sister, who promised to ship it to me later.

Saying goodbye to everyone was hard. I couldn’t help the two lines of tears on my face, so I hugged and kissed each person in my family twice. “I love you,” I told them. “I’ll call and Skype.” “Don’t cry or you’ll make me cry,” my mother said, smiling and tearing up at the same time.

On the flight to Edmonton, I ended up sitting next to a couple visiting their daughter, based in Fort McMurray. Maureen and Ijaz Ahmad were kind, wonderful people, reassuring me I was going to be okay, offering their own stories about living in a small town and what it was like getting questions about their mixed-race kids. They seemed so proud and happy of their how hard each of their three children had worked to build each of their careers and how many grandchildren they had. I passed out for 45 minutes out of sheer exhaustion, but having their company made the four-hour flight pass quickly and reminded me about how travel introduces you to some of the best people. After walking off the plane, we hugged, exchanged details and promised to keep in touch. “Come see us in Mississauga when you visit,” they said with big smiles.

In Edmonton, I boarded another sold-out flight with many tourists from Asia. A guy from mainland China sitting next to me manspreading the entire time, so I tried to sleep the entire two hour journey.

The airplane’s descent towards Yellowknife itself was odd. Vast amounts of flat, snow-covered land and then all of a sudden the town appears. I walked out of the plane directly onto a ramp and then into a small airport, where Walter, the photo editor from my paper, was waiting. All the tourists took photos of the taxidermied polar bear and seals at the middle of the luggage carousel, so I did too.


When in Yellowknife…

I soon learned that after the creation of Nunavut, none of the great white beasts are actually in the territory anymore, save for the area’s distinct license plates.

After dropping off my luggage at my hotel, Walter and I bought groceries. I felt stupid for giving my sister all my PC gift cards before leaving, since the store was part of the Loblaws grocery chain. Only a few products were more expensive than Toronto, with most of the other prices pretty much the same. However, milk is sold in jugs here, and for a moment I felt a little silly for missing Ontario’s plastic bags.

Since we had a car, I also received a quick tour of town. I saw Yellowknife’s bars, house boats, the infamous Snow King castle, “the suburbs” and Old Town. Driving on one of the city’s ice roads definitely felt a little surreal.

After dinner, I received word the Northern Lights were out. After putting on some extra layers and heading out to a lookout spot, I could see various waves of green light in the distance swirling around in the sky. It was cloudy and the moment was over in about ten minutes, but I couldn’t believe I had seen them on my first day.

The next morning, thanks to the great Iqaluit blogger Anubha Momin (who was in town for a press trip for Finding True North), I learned there is a wonderful all-you-can eat breakfast in Yellowknife at Thornton’s. It’s hard not to have fun meeting new people over great eggs benedict and fruit-stuffed french toast.


Anubha also helped me pick a name for the section of my blog that will chronicle my Yellowknife adventures: “A Dot in the Knife”. It references my hometown of Toronto (aka the “T-Dot“), the new city I’m in and how I feel so small in such a distinct, northern location of Canada.

Choosing which ball to drop

(Photo credit: Karen K. Ho)

From the Museo de la Revolucion in Leon, Nicaragua. (Photo credit: Karen K. Ho)

I got a new job a few weeks ago. After the initial period of worrying I wasn’t learning fast enough and trying not to have panic attacks all the time, I’m finally starting to feel like things are manageable.

But in the seven weeks since I started, I realized I have a lot of uncomfortable questions about how to be an early-career writer with a pretty-consuming day job in media, and no one seems to have a really good answer for them.

For starters, I made the switch from writing in print to online and then to broadcast. While my job in live television is full-time (40 hours), it involves very little writing.

And even though my ability to generate interesting ideas hasn’t gone away, I do constantly worry my writing skills are getting rusty from lack of daily use. I’ve quickly realized I miss it and need to write outside of work.

The problem is figuring out where to fit it in.

At my job (which I am very grateful to have, let’s be clear), I’m paid by the hour. If I’m sick or request vacation time, I don’t get paid. I don’t have health benefits. So I spend a lot of time cooking my meals at home to save money, exercising to reduce stress (I’ve been grinding my teeth again) and trying to sleep at least seven hours a night so I can have enough energy for my job. Slide in a desire to regularly do laundry, spend time with my family, see friends, learn languages, read books and occasionally date – the hours fill up fast.

So now I have to make the uncomfortable call of figuring out what I need to do to be able to write more.

Do I see my family less on the weekends, even though they generously support me in pursuing what increasingly feels like a rapidly-shrinking industry? Do I go to the gym less? Do I sleep less and drink more coffee to make up the difference? Further put off studying Mandarin again? Give up trying to date for a few months? And do I have a certain milestone of clippings in mind when I can start picking things up again?

I also know whatever choice I make, I have to be productive with the “extra time” because I’m actively sacrificing time doing something else I’d really enjoy to work on my writing.

Sure, I don’t have to worry about the basic necessity of paying rent and buying groceries because of my day job. And what I do is strongly related to the kind of writing I want to pursue. But I realize I do still have to make some sort of sacrifice to fit writing in my life. And much as I’d like to believe it’s possible, I really don’t think it’s something I can’t avoid through time-management or “leaning in”.

Like a lot of other driven people, I don’t know if the sacrifice or any of the work will actually pay off. But I’m consoled by the fact that I’m not alone, and there are lots of other people trying to figure this out too, even years into their careers.

Ultimately, we’ll all juggling stuff. Now I just need to choose.

When you suddenly realize you are running out of money

The fear of being broke creeps in slowly. Stress about what you can and can’t afford, the “daily deals” emails you automatically delete, the sudden tendency to never leave the house because then you won’t be at risk of accidentally spending something extra while wandering through a grocery store.

That used to be my favourite way to kill stress. On a bad day, I would walk through the aisles of a No Frills or FreshCo discount supermarket, picking up sale items. Grabbing a container of coconut Liberté was my favourite indulgence. The bill would rarely top $40 and I figured the whole exercise was better than if I had wandered through a mall for the same shopping high. I could consume everything I bought. I couldn’t do that with a sweater from the Gap.

But ever since I realized I had been out of work for more than six months and that my attempts at freelancing consisted mostly of sending out emails and job applications with few replies, my pile of savings started to look much smaller than I remembered.

The other day, I wondered if I could afford $2 protein bars or a $3 pack of Oreos I’d normally give to my sister.

“Did I eat too much just now?” is something I now often think to myself. “Should I have saved that for later?”

When you are worried about money, you can no longer be as generous to others. When I had a job, I tried to live frugally so I wouldn’t think twice about giving money to my local food bank, buying chocolate for my mother or baking cookies for an event.

“I get it,” my roommate said. “You’re in survival mode.”

I know I am one of the fortunate ones. I have parents willing to help me out while I try to figure out what to do next. But I am embarrassed by how much they pay for. I recently turned 27 and feel like I should be trying to pay them back by now for everything they’ve done for me. Instead, they worry about how I’m continuing to pay my rent.

People tell me not to give up on my aspirations of a long-term career in business reporting, to keep trying to pitch and apply to jobs, and that things will eventually turn around.

But I wonder if there’s a point when I’m going to be tired of struggling to make writing and reporting the thing that enables me to pay my bills, maybe get married and have kids.

One journalist advised me, “You’re young! It’s okay not to be making a lot of money now, just get published in lots of places.” Another one suggested I move back home to my parents’ house in Scarborough to save on expenses. But I know I would be even less productive if I relocated to my childhood room.

I’ve been told that in normal circumstances, I would be qualified enough to get hired in a newsroom. “But nothing is normal anymore,” said a man who offered to connect me with the publisher of a major national newspaper for further advice.

I  have thought about “writing for exposure” to build up my clippings. But this increasingly looks like reporting entire pieces on spec. Even if my pitches are accepted and these stories are published, I don’t know how much that helps beyond making me look great on paper. So many places I know have hiring freezes and whatever positions are available can expect to receive hundreds of applications.

Toronto writer Shawn Micallef recently revealed on Twitter that he had temped for a while to make things work financially. He said a good person at an agency could find him interesting jobs that still had a loose enough commitment that they allowed him to work on writing and art projects. It was a lesson I wished someone had taught me in journalism school: “If you freelance, it’s not uncommon to do other things to pay rent.”

All I know is, I have to try and keep busy. I try to have a daily routine where I work at pitching and applying to jobs. I keep trying to work on the magazine piece I got a contract for a week before I was laid off. Sometimes I think about other careers. But now I always carefully count whatever money I have left.



Shimaneko and I are here to tell you what’s up. (Roppongi Hills, Tokyo)

In mid-August of last year, YourMississaugaBiz.com and its sister site YourHamiltonBiz.com were both shut down by Star Media Group. Fifteen people, including myself, were laid off.

Soon afterwards, all of the news articles were removed, leaving no online archive available for the general public or subscribers. As a result, I have uploaded more than 200 articles I wrote for the online business subscription news service here using the tag #yourmississaugabiz.

Since the layoff, I have had the opportunity to become a part of the Asian American Journalists’ Association through their national conference in New York, as well as go on a eye-opening month-long trip to Hong Kong and Japan.

I am now freelancing full-time and available to work on projects. For inquiries about writing, editing or fact-checking, feel free to email me at karen [at] karenho [dot] ca.

What can you expect from a continuing education class at UTM

This story was originally published on YourMississaugaBiz.com.

Local entrepreneur Bill Smalley has been teaching a business course on negotiating skills in the University of Toronto Mississauga’s continuing education program for the past three years.

The president and CEO of Oakville-based consultancy firm Route Five International Inc. has a background in sales and marketing, teaching leadership and team building, as well as 13 years of experience as a corporate trainer and professional speaker.

Smalley explained to YourMississaugaBiz.com why more business professionals should sign up for con-ed classes, and what they should expect once they’re on campus.

Your classmates can come from all over

Whether it be cultural experience, ethnicity, industry or career stage, Smalley said the variety in peers will give additional, unexpected value to a class. “I’ve had people exchange business cards and keep in touch afterwards and help build their networks,” he said.

It’s normal to have low expectations

This is a common thing in Smalley’s course evaluations. “They’re often surprised at the quality of the content and how useful and relevant it is,” he said. “How much it helps them.”

Pursuit of education is a big trend

“More and more we’re seeing people who realize it’s a competitive environment out there, careers and jobs aren’t a static situation, it’s a fluid environment and there are always other people that are learning and growing around you so you need to keep your skills sharp and stay relevant.”

It’s not like when you were last in school

“It can be fun,” Smalley said simply, contrasting it with his own experience in school as being incredibly boring. “[As an instructor,] you want to make it fun, you want to make it engaging, so it can be a really enriching experience.”

It looks great on your resume

A specific course or program might give you skills particularly relevant to your particular industry, but Smalley said pursuing additional education also helps someone stand out in the hiring process.

“Employers look for people that want to better themselves,” he said, explaining the inclusion of continuing education shows someone’s initiative, desire to grow themselves, and be better. “That will definitely give you an edge.”

Some results can happen right away

“People go back to their existing jobs and do better,” Smalley said of some of his past students, who passed on news of promotions or other kinds of professional growth as a result of his class.

It might not cost you anything

Many of Smalley’s students actually have the cost of their classes reimbursed by their employers. It’s worth looking into if your workplace has some sort of education subsidy or other program that can help offset class fees.

However, Smalley said for students who were responsible for all of their fees, the benefits always far outweigh any financial costs. “I have never had any student say to me that they rejected the investment or the time invested,” he said.