Just over a year ago, I sat in the EVA Airways VIP lounge, having porridge (well, congee, since porridge in the UK means oatmeal), waiting for my flight. I felt so nervous and uncertain about what was going to happen next, as I was about to board a one-way flight to London, knowing literally nothing about the city – the people in the city, the food, the crime levels, the job market, the areas – none of it. If people asked me, “why London?,” I had no answer, because I literally knew nothing about London, except that it is expensive.
A year later, after fully settling into London, some friends have asked me, “What do you think of London?” and I find myself with a deep, rich story of love and affection for this amazing city that created the greatest change I’ve experienced in my life thus far.
But this blogpost is not about me and my story of change. It is about London, and the amazing, unique experience of living here that you won’t get anywhere else in the world.
What do I think of London? It’s a fascinating city.
The first unique aspect of my experience in London was that I approached it knowing nothing about it, so while I was searching for it to give me an answer, it gave me none.
This is the beauty of London and an aspect I find so intriguing, so fascinating about London – it doesn’t tell you who it is. Instead, you tell London who you are. It asks you who you are.
This was very confusing for me, as the last time my brain was stretched was when I lived in Milan. Milan tells you exactly who it is – this is the city, this is how things are done (this is how we eat!). Los Angeles – even more so; in fact, if you’re a hopeful Hollywooder knocking on doors, LA will also attempt to tell you who YOU are. You better be strong enough to establish yourself within it without getting lost.
London said to me, “Who are you? Are you strong enough to live in a big city? Show me how you express your strength to live in a cosmopolitan, international city of nine million other people from all over the world.”
I came to London with very limited resources, so I didn’t have time to figure out who I was – I just had to get a job ASAP, so I was very, very focused in the first three weeks, looking for a job so I could find a place to live.
I had two options here – my profession, which was marketing and copywriting, or restaurant work. One of my fondest memories of first arriving to London actually were the first times I rode on the tube and saw the advertising. It was so good – it was witty, entertaining, and thought-provoking. I thought I love this place, as I love the marketing in London. I worked pretty hard job searching in advertising, however without success. Thankfully, I landed a job as a waitress, in the nick of time before my finances dried up.
I had prior experience as a waitress in both the US and Taiwan, so combining Asian diligence with American-style service, I had something I could focus on building. As they never trained us on service style, I realized I was pretty much doing my own thing, and as the only American staff, my style seemed to stick out like a sore thumb. To my surprise, I was being rewarded greatly for the way I was different.
This was extremely unusual for me. I had just moved from Taipei, where sticking out excluded me from employment opportunities (except for a few lovely clients who appreciated the different way I worked). Daily I was complimented by the locals for my attentive service, and received regular accolades (and tips!) from my customers for my American-style service (which is currently not common in London, believe me!).
Being rewarded for being different made me realize that London was a very unique, special place. While there were some unspoken standards in place (hence not landing copywriting opportunities), I essentially could play out my own character, and it would pay attention to me, and shape itself around me, finding the right people, places, events, employment opportunities that would match who I was.
While the free-for-all was nice in helping me get started, it came with its challenges. I had to be extremely disciplined to find order within that chaos. The chaos is difficult to navigate in, as even in the city, one out of every few people usually don’t speak a word of English.
One of these memories was early on, I was in a rush to get to work one time, and at some point, the bus driver, speaking poor English, was attempting to communicate to an insistent, persistent family who spoke no English. They held the bus up for a good five minutes, and being new in London, I didn’t understand this behaviour. Now I understand that it’s the way the city doesn’t demand you to be in a certain way, and will shape itself to fit the mold of the person before them. This is why people can live for six years in London, and literally not speak a word of English (this is someone I personally know).
Which while it’s like, great, London is so welcoming, it is absolutely mind-boggling to me, and being honest, I feel frustrated about it, as I adore the English language to no end, and I’m in love with the UK because it is where this beautiful language originated.
The other difficult aspect of this free-for-all energy is I sense people can feel a little helpless within the chaos. I imagine being a local, native UK citizen, having the city continually shape and change based on external factors can feel unstable, and possibly as if something was being taken away. For whatever reason, the British don’t impose and ask people to adapt to their local ways, unlike Italy or Taiwan, where I’ve lived. According to people I spoke to, most native locals who used to live in London have moved out of the city to the suburbs, as it got too expensive and too many non-British people had moved in (London is also the city with the fifth largest Italian population. I can attest to the fact that my Italian served me more than my English early on).
Now I’m not saying that this city is a you can do whatever you want place and there are no rules and anyone can make it – American Dream 2.0! No, that is definitely not the case. London is a tough city – it’s a highly competitive, international market, and its beauty comes with a high price to pay if you’re living in the city. It is still bound to the economics of supply and demand, however, you have a surprising level of influence in shaping how that supply is delivered, and how people receive what they’ve demanded. And you watch things shape and change as you push your energy into it.
A city like Los Angeles, in contrast and in my experience, is much more unyielding with its existing structures – you either make it or you don’t, and there’s not always a place for you. It’s also pretty standard to expect, especially if you’re in the labourforce, that you would know English, so you can communicate for things like healthcare and our favorite – visiting the DMV.
Closing the discussion up though, what I have really, really appreciated so much about London is that I’ve been able to be self-expressive, while at the same time learning to adapt. I’ve had to adapt to surviving in the city (with my personal flair!), and I had to do a lot of adapting (and am still adapting) to the global job market, which has changed so much from hiding out in Taiwan.
What I have come to use as a guiding force in navigating living in London has been to be grateful for being appreciated for being me, and in turn, take that as a responsibility to follow through with integrity and work with greater principles to make London a better place. I’ve chosen only to do what is truly aligned, and slowly build whatever influence I can have to grow the city in positive ways.
Other things I find fascinating about London:
- Customer service is really, very bad here, and I’m not entirely sure why. In part, it could be the more reserved culture, or the fact that it’s hard to establish a standard with so many different cultures perceiving the service without context (if you’re coming from a particularly economically poor country for instance, it is a little off putting to experience that warm American, enthusiastic customer service…you might even get scared off I suppose).
- People use credit cards a lot less compared to Americans. I noticed this when I was working daily taking up to hundreds of payments a day, and most Londoners were paying by debit card. Could definitely say something about the culture compared to the US as well, where we have ten credit cards for all the different retail stores we frequent. But my hypotheses are definitely inconclusive – it could mean they have massive credit card debts already as well!
- There are these ethnic, cultural huddles – one of my friends here says he hardly gets an opportunity to speak English, because he’s living with people from his country. His situation is definitely not uncommon, as I know multiple other people who live in this manner in London and feel they never get to speak English.
- And of course the standard expectation – it’s expensive here. Just imagine everything you’d see in dollars in central Los Angeles (or Irvine), but in pounds instead. It is expensive here. Rent is comparable to what I saw in Los Angeles a few years ago – not sure if it’s gone up by now though.
So there’s a little insider look into what my thoughts of London after having lived here for a year. These are just my own experiences and how I’ve perceived them, and I’m extremely grateful to be here. I’ve been able to establish my own little world through my discipline in my work life in London, having gone from knowing literally no one to having such beautiful friendships and connections, and a fantastic job in the industry I love. Having done this in a work context, I’m excited for the next piece I write on what I think about London – Relationships & Dating Edition. 🙂
Super happy to be writing and publishing another blogpost – the first one of the year! Now if I can get my goals together, I’ll put together another piece on my 2020 goalsetting – though the year is already coming close to being 10% over! What a January it’s been yeah? Let’s see what’s in store for February 2020.