London, Part 2

South of the ThamesThis is the second installment of my irregular Minority Report. Part one was “Expatriates and the Patriots” and the full series contains dispatches from Seoul as well.

I’ve lived in Central London for almost two years. During this time, I’ve experienced plenty of situations to dispel many of the preconceived notions I had about life in the UK. It’s not as if I’d never been here before; I spent a few months studying at a university in the mid-1990’s and have visited on dozens of business trips since then. But it’s one thing to visit — it’s another matter to live somewhere with no intention to leave, which changes your mindset and what matters on a daily basis.

    • Here’s a tip: tipping may not be expected, but it’s quite common.

When paying by cash in black cabs, the round up to the nearest £1 still applies. But who pays with cash anymore? Card readers are installed in almost all cabs and although I’ve encountered the rare cabbie who claims that his reader is broken, it’s the fastest way to pay. I haven’t seen any studies on whether riders are leaving more tips by using plastic, but it’s been proven in the US.

12.5% Service ChargeIn restaurants, tipping has taken a more passive-aggressive approach. Many restaurants add an “optional 12.5% discretionary service charge” to the bill without asking. But does that actually go to the staff? Maybe, maybe not. So if you really want to do the right thing, ask for the optional charge to be removed and leave cash instead.

    • It seems that many of the service workers in Britain aren’t British.

A visitor might stop into a pub — perhaps a Red Lion, Black Horse, or Green Man — and seek to refresh oneself with a proper pint of basement-temperature cask ale. Sure, you’ll find a stout wooden bar and old musty carpet, but the drinks on offer? Most likely a lineup of AB InBev brands. The person serving you? Probably not British either.

The bar at Dishoom Kings CrossAccording to Ben Judah’s 2016 book This Is London, “at least 55 per cent of people are not ethnically white British, nearly 40 per cent were born abroad, and 5 percent are living illegally in the shadows.” A related book that dives deep into the world of low wage Britain is James Bloodworth’s Hired, which illuminates much of the tension that exists in pro-Brexit UK.

    • Not-so-special deliveries.

Inside this box is the biggest LEGO set ever produced — the UCS Millenium Falcon. But why is it wet and ripped? Because the the delivery person opened the outer and inner boxes, removing all of the valuable eBay-able minifigures!

Package deliveryIn another lower stakes example, I ordered some socks and they were promised with free two-day delivery. When they weren’t delivered on the expected day, I called the delivery company. They said they I should request a refund from the brand and they’d file a claim against the driver. File a claim? Yes, because the driver was technically a contractor to the delivery company. Speaking of tension in low wage Britain, this issue represents one story of many that reflect the global capital vs. talent crisis that’s well underway.

    • Has brick-and-mortar retail been impacted? You bet.

Globalisation has made its mark here and any American would be hard pressed to feel homesick in London, with retail therapy available to soothe any sadness of what was left behind. Take a walk down Oxford Street and you’ll find Niketown, Disney, and The Gap, in between Selfridges, John Lewis, and Debenhams.

Credit: BBC News http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22934305In smaller towns, you won’t find a Starbucks on every corner but you won’t find a pub on every corner either. Every high street seems to have estate agents, newsagents, a cafe or two, maybe a Tesco Express, some hair salons, and always betting shops. It’s Las Vegas in convenience-store format and the lure is addictive.

    • Sorry, some things haven’t changed, thank you.

One element of stereotypical British culture is its politeness and a recent study claims Britons say thank you more than anyone in the world. After spending a week driving 2,394 miles through nine different European countries, I absolutely noticed the difference in interactions when returning across the channel.

How to be BritishHowever, it’s important to not judge other cultures too quickly as “rude” or “inconsiderate” — rather, it’s more instructive to reflect on one’s personal inclinations and how that perspective shapes expectations of others.

Expatriates and the Patriots

Expat living in London is easy. But of course, not everything in the UK is the same as the US, beyond the typically cited differences.

Expat living in London is easy. Almost everyone speaks English, you can watch Westworld on Sky Atlantic, and Ocado brings groceries right to your front door. However, this isn’t enough for some people. In which case Starbucks inhabits every other corner of the city and NFL GamePass allows you to watch “American” football teams like the New England Patriots, live every Sunday evening. The incessant spread of capitalism has created a commercial monoculture in which an expat can find the comforts of home, until realising that the sameness is terribly boring.

Of course, not everything in the UK is the same as the US, beyond the typically cited differences: driving on the left instead of right side of the road, replacing many z’s with s’s, Boris Johnson’s hair vs. Donald Trump’s hair, et al. If you haven’t lived in the UK, you might not know that:

  • You often pay for consumer service calls.

"calls charged at 7 pence per minute"

I needed to change the mailing address on my British Airways Executive Club membership from New York to London. This wasn’t possible online due to technical difficulties on BA’s side. After exhausting all free options, I called the service center. About £15 later, my account address was finally changed. “Business rate numbers” can cost you 6p to 51p.

  • You can usually withdraw money from any ATM without a fee.

On a more consumer-friendly note, when you have a UK bank account you can withdraw money from almost any UK ATM without paying additional bank fees. This is unlike the US where you might go to a bank’s ATM advertising “free” withdrawals, only to have your own bank charge you a $1 or $2 service charge. I was surprised to find that even the ATMs at Heathrow Airport — which seems like a place ripe for price-gouging — were indeed free of service fees.

  • The tax year starts on 6 April.

The current tax year runs from 6 April 2016 to 5 April 2017. Not the calendar year. It’s been this way since 1800.

  • You need an annual £145.50 ($180) TV license.

You can check whether you need one, but basically if you intend on watching a moving picture on any screen, you need to pay £145.50 every year to the government. While this may seem odd to Americans who are used to watching PBS for free (and taking this for granted), the visibility of this fee seems to make many UK residents defensive and proud of the diverse programming the BBC offers.

  • Mobile phone pricing is competitive.

I pay £60 ($75) per month for a wireless data/text/minutes plan for four iPhones that cost $160 from AT&T for similar service levels. The UK and US have roughly the same number of large carriers, but regulation seems to have reduced prices more in the UK consumer’s favor.

  • Transferwise is the best option for normal people to transfer money across borders.

Despite the number of Britons who live and work abroad, banks still charge hefty fees on foreign currency transfers. Some of these are transparent (e.g. “wire fee”), but there are absolutely hidden costs buried in unfavorable exchange rates. I’ve found that Transferwise is the best option for getting rates close to public quotes, wth clearly outlined fees.

  • Contactless payments are a thing.

In the U.S., it appears that chip-based credit card transactions have finally caught on. However, some retailers I visited over the holidays had handmade signs over their chip readers indicating that cards could only be swiped. But just when the US seems to be catching up, the UK is already far ahead as chip-and-PIN payments are ubiquitous and contactless is accepted almost everywhere you’d need it — the Underground and fast food outlets, in particular.

Life as an expat is full of looking for similarities and appreciating differences; for Americans, life in the UK can lull one into a false sense of familiarity, which is when frustration or something a pleasant surprise usually finds you in situations like these.

Minority Report: Chapter 3

tower_bridge_2

In mid-2014, I left Austin to work and live as an expat in Seoul. In late 2015, I repatriated to New York. Now, it’s time to start a new chapter of the minority report, this time across the Atlantic Ocean in London.

I’m taking on a new role at LEGO, leading digital consumer engagement. I grew up with LEGO and everyone I meet has positive impressions of the brand. Starting today, I’ll be leading our global team to help connect with individuals and build the brand across digital channels.

So we Brenter in the midst of Brexit, trading pennies for pence, AT&T for BT, Chelsea for Chelsea, and so on. Let Chapter 3 commence.