"Leaving America" is a series of articles on experiences and observations of Americans who choose to live outside of the country. Call them ex-pats (ex-patriots), global citizens or just world travelers, these folks have crated-up their belongings and their loved ones and emigrated outside our borders to live. Here is a Q&A with Chad Jennings who recently left America for a life in London.
What drove your decision to move from the United States?
My wife, young daughter and I moved to London just last October from the Bay Area. We live in the Arlington Square neighbourhood of Islington in central London (N1) near Regent's Canal and not far from what is referred to as the Silicon Roundabout where many of London's newer tech companies and located. My daughter gets to take a fabled double-decker bus to school and I take the tube to the office.
I'm VP of Product and User Experience at EF Education First where I lead several of the Digital Learning teams primarily focused on language learning both purely online and in the classrooms. EF is the world's largest private education company with over 30k employees worldwide, many of whom are teachers, so it's quite a shift from my previous life in start-up land. Digital and distance learning has long been a juicy problem space that's intrigued me, so on a professional front it's easy to come into work everyday.
Our decision to move to the UK was primarily a personal one. My wife and I had long dreamed of living abroad before our daughter was too old (making a move more difficult) and last year circumstances started to make it look like our dream could be a reality.
I had recently left a successful start-up I cofounded seven years prior, Blurb (blurb.com), and had a rare opportunity to take some time off to recharge, reconnect with family and friends, and work on personal projects. My wife was also looking for a change of pace and potentially career, so we found ourselves having a cocktail one night at our favourite East Bay restaurant (insert shout out to Camino here)… enough cocktails to start asking those big, juicy, philosophical, turning 40 this year, type of life questions. Is it time to shake things ups bit? Is there such a thing as work/life balance? What really makes us most happy and thankful?
We'd started to talk about a recent NY Times article we'd both read on research into happiness. It found that spending money on "experiences" led to greater happiness and satisfaction than buying things. Humans become desensitised to new objects, like a new car, TV, home, etc.. it becomes the new normal; while experiences, such as seeing a performance, taking class, or travel, have a more lasting impact. Anyway, this led us to ask ourselves what was holding us back from taking the plunge and iving abroad… well.. our mortgage, school, great friendships and neighbours, family, the shear awesomeness of the Bay Area in general, and the (at the time) overwhelming logistics involved.
It's funny, but once we easily agreed that there was really little possibility we'd ever regret living abroad it was easy to push forward and make it a reality. Also, thankfully both my wife and I have worked in tech, product and design long enough that if it didn't work out we could always move back.
2. Do you consider yourself an ex-pat? (and why) A global citizen? (and why) And how are you perceived by others?
Hmm. Interesting question. I've never really thought about that. I believe in one of your other interviews someone mentioned the term "Expat" as feeling dated. Expat makes me think of Hemingway in Cuba, not an Iowa boy living in Islington. My situation is a bit unique as well in that EF Education First is a very international company. Its primary businesses are related to language learning and study abroad programs, so I tend to be surrounded daily by people from many different cultures and countries…. definitely more of a global village with a few Americans thrown in the mix. I also travel regularly for work. In that last six months I've been to Shanghai, Zurich, Barcelona, Korea and we have an offsite this fall in Rome. Also, being from SF and CA frankly carries some weight, both from a tech leadership pov as well as the fact everyone I meet in London and Europe wants to visit SF or live in the sunny, hollywood version of CA.
3. What are the adjustments and joys of living in a country other than the United States? What do you miss? What don’t you miss?
There are certainly some adjustments, but most frankly are boring and logistical. Moving to the UK is a bit "expat light" in that it's probably one of the easiest places for an American to move. Same language, (mostly) and the cultural differences tend to be more quaint (the obvious driving on the wrong side thing) and humorous (it's trousers not 'pants') than major adjustments.
The biggest adjustment for us as a family was understanding and dealing with the UK approach to elementary schooling. Reception year, basically Kindergarten in the states, starts at age 4 instead of 5 and tends to be very academic and aggressive in pushing children to read, write, do 'maths' and regular homework at a younger age than the US (and most of the rest of Europe). We're more on the progressive end of educational philosophy continuum and while there were no lack of good options in the Bay Area, there are surprisingly few in central London.
What do we miss?
Other than friends and family, curiously enough, I miss most the early morning and late afternoon light of California. I love photography and unfortunately London lives up to its reputation for being a bit grey. A real lack of long shadows and light streaming through windows does not make for good imagery.
Other than that I think the list is fairly standard for a ex-Californian: There's real lack of high quality, low and mid-priced restaurants in general in London which is what really defines the Bay Area for us. There certainly is good ethnic food, but it feels too easy here to spend a lot of money on a mediocre restaurant. And no good Korean food to speak of. It's all way out in the western 'burbs. £5 for a side of kimchi? Are you crazy?
Oh yeah… what I wouldn't give for a full size dryer. I really don't understand these washer/dryer combos and the UK weather (and small apartments) aren't exactly fit for hanging it all up to dry. Also, Sunday New York Times in print.. it just isn't the same over breakfast on an iPad.
What don't we miss
The UK and European media places a bit more context on American news and events for us now. To that end, some of the things that had always troubled us about the US – the violence and gun culture, the dysfunctional congress, screwed up health care system – seem even more troublesome and maddening when viewed from a distance and in discussion with others here.
What we love
There are amazing parks everywhere you turn all well kept and with brand new playgrounds. While London in general is quite expensive, "culture" is everywhere, top of class, very affordable and mostly free. Most all museums are free, every weekend there is a festival somewhere in the city and it's a wonderful place to just walk around and explore. One also can't discount all the cheap, short flights to all of Europe. We can be in Paris in about 2 hours on at the train. That'd get us about to Sacramento.
There's also the family-friendly pub culture. In the states, especially in th midwest where I grew up, the "bar" was not a place for kids. Here, pubs really are a centrepiece of neighbourhood life full of families having Sunday roast and people spilling out into the streets sharing pints on warm days.
4. Would you ever move back to the United States? And if so/or not, why?
We plan to some day. We just began this wonderful adventure and plan to see it all through for at least a few years. I imagine the desire to be closer to our extended family and long term friends will draw us back to the west coast eventually. On the bright side, San Francisco will feel utterly affordable compared to London. On a professional level, London does have an active and maturing tech sector, but it's easy to argue that the Bay Area is the place to be for tech innovation, product and design.
5. Tell us a story of your first day after you moved. Did your world seem changed? Did it feel like another day? Like you were simply on vacation? Or did it feel like your world had changed?
Looking back, the day we sold and moved out of our house in Oakland had the biggest impact on our sense of the world. At that point we'd jumped-in head first to a new life even though we hadn't moved abroad yet. Our first few months in London, even after finding a more permanent home, did feel much like an extended vacation with work in between. It really only hit us when we were coming back "home" to the UK from our first "holiday" in Spain. All of a sudden we were truly living here and not on an extended leave from CA.
6. What more would you like to share?
It's easier than you might imagine to move abroad. Especially if you have a few years of experience in the tech industry. The Bay Area is ground zero for talent and experience, so companies abroad are hungry for product, design and management folks and even start-ups in the UK and Europe budget for and expect to relocate people and families for top talent.
Our biggest concern, totally unfounded, was how our young daughter would deal the move. She was five at the time and especially at that age it's so easy to make new friends and adapt to a new culture. When she's grown I hope she'll look back on our time outside the US as a unique, inspiring and world broadening experience.