Hussein Kanji moved from Seattle to London in 2005. He has been living there ever since.
This is his expat story.
Tell us about your expat move?
I moved to the UK from the US in 2005. I went to graduate school in the UK and then I ended up taking a job in the UK and staying here.
You’ve probably seen a lot of change living in London for that long, how have you found it living there?
I think London has changed pretty dramatically since I’ve been here. I think looking back long ago, London was probably far more of an English town, whereas it is now a much more international cosmopolitan place. It feels like a real melting pot of different cultures from all over the world.
I find it to be one of the most diverse places in the world. Another upside of living here is that the food has gotten a lot better over the last few years.
What did you find were the best ways of making friends as an expat abroad?
The good part for me was that I spent two years in grad school here so a lot of my friends are from here, or are expats themselves. It was a very international school, it was an MBA with a business school.
People came from all over the world and a surprisingly high percentage of people ended up staying in London after studying. So that helped me and I ended up having a good cohort of friends from day one.
The industry I work in is sort of stretched California and the UK so you end up with a lot of common friends who relocated too. It hasn’t been that hard to build a community both from a work perspective and a personal perspective.
What have been some of the biggest highlights from your expat journey so far?
So I started my own business in 2013 so I left a firm and set up my own firm and that has definitely been a highlight for me. The firm has done really well. We’re investors, we invest in companies that are really fledging business.
One business that we invested in was really small at the time and working out of a tiny studio apartment, it was called Deliveroo, it was a food delivery business. That has since gone on to become a very large company, which is now all over the world, with thousands of employees.
There was a time that nobody knew what the company was and that is when we invested in it. So that has definitely been a highlight!
What have been some of the biggest challenges so far?
Yeah family and friends for sure. I think there are lots of little conveniences that you take for granted in America, and London has become a lot better, but America is still sort of the best for a middle class consumer society. For all of the pros and cons that come with it, that is how America works.
In London, you don’t really have a washer/dryer that is integrated. The American style dual machines just doesn’t exist here. You know the ones that have an exhaust system and dries your clothes in only like thirty minutes. Here, you have to take them out of the machine and dry them.
I remember a long time ago in London, I was throwing a barbecue on a Sunday, so I went to the grocery store at around 1 or 2 in the morning the night before, I thought it was a 24/7 grocery store. I googled one to find out but I didn’t read the fine print, which was that it was a grocery store open 24 hours, but not seven days a week. Most grocery stores in the US are 24/7 by default.
But now I think London is becoming more consumer-centric and staying open later. As much as the consumer culture in the US can be overwhelming and isn’t always a force for good, it makes things a lot easier to live day-to-day. Of course it does have its drawbacks too, but I think it is definitely easier on a day to day basis. The laundry machine is a good example!
How much do you enjoy being an expat in London?
Yeah it’s a great place to be. I think there is a surprisingly large number of Americans living in London so it’s not that hard to bump into other Americans. Especially in the industry that I’m in, in the tech industry, it is still very American-centric. The founder of Deliveroo for instance is American, which is not that unusual.
I would say again, London is such a big melting pot and I’ve got friends here from all over the world. Business school is a good portion for that because I think there was something like 60 or 70 countries represented. The only negative I can think of is that I have very few friends from England, apart from kind of extended family and that. The majority of my friends here are expats.
I’ve talked to other expats about this as well and it seems like we all have tons of friends but very few of them actually are English. I think this is because the English tend to keep their existing friends and don’t seem to add to the mix as much. So you may have a lot of friends in the country but they might not be from the country itself.
What sort of advice would you give to those who are considering making an expat move?
I would say again for London, it helps that it is such a cosmopolitan city. I think London is even unique in the UK because it is so different. I think the rest of the UK is a lot more provincial. So I would say that it is fairly easy to build friendships here. I also think it helps coming here for education, which makes it a lot easier.
Being in London is not the same as moving to an American town and everyone tries to adopt you and bring you into their social circles. I think English people are a little bit more reserved in nature, so you need to put yourself a little more out there.
My better half moved across from the US too and I think it took her a few years to get settled down here with friendships. She was initially at a smaller company and I think it wasn’t until she was at a larger international company that she started to really develop broader social circles. I would say if you are going the other direction, from the UK to the US, you wouldn’t need to worry as much.
The other piece of advice I would give to those moving to the UK, is there is a very strange chicken and egg scenario for those that move here. In order to rent a flat, you need a bank account, in order to get a bank account, you need to have a flat, in order to get a cell phone, you also need a bank account or flat. So somehow or another, you have to break the circle, because you need one of those things to get the other. Nobody tells you this when you move here.
You turn up and you are just in this endless loop of trying to get things but needing other things to do so. I don’t really remember it as much myself since my grad school helped me out quite a lot when I moved here, but every friend I know who did it by themselves tells me of the same struggle.
They have told me of the absurdity of the situation, of “I can’t get this without this, and I can’t get this without this. So what do I do?” I think there are a couple of start-up companies trying to make this easier. It is a known problem and if you can make it easier before you move, I would suggest you do. I actually don’t know what the solution is myself but almost everyone I’ve spoken to laughs about it and views it as absurd.
Nobody tells you about it! Everyone figures it out over time but when people are telling their stories, you speak to 50 people and probably 45 of them have gone through the same thing. They are stuck in limbo for weeks and then they solve it and forget about it.
Would you recommend an expat move in general? And would you recommend an expat move to London?
Yeah I think it’s great to move out of the US for a couple of years. It is nice to get a taste of something different.
I think when I moved here, I thought this would only be for a few years, I didn’t think I would end up staying here. I think a lot of expats will say the same thing, they are surprised by the time they spent living here. You get a different perspective of the world from being abroad and sometimes you might not come back.
So remember that you might end up staying for longer than you had planned. Suddenly before you know it, 3 or 4 years have gone by and you might want to stay longer to get a passport, permanent residency, etc. One thing leads to another and you end up sort of building a life overseas and settling down.
You end up being so used to your new country that you don’t ever go back to your home country. I think if you make the move in your twenties, you are probably more likely to return to your home country. I think if you make to move later on in life, you might be more likely to end up staying in your new country and putting down roots.
Finally, how would you summarise your expat journey in 10 words or less?
I would describe it as an unexpected and unintended adventure!