How to Deal with Cultural Differences in Countries and Relationships with Stephanie Cook
In this episode of the Expat Empire Podcast, we will be hearing from Stephanie Cook. Steph was born in Germany and started learning English at a young age. She left for the UK for graduate school where she met her husband, and together they moved to London to work. In 2010, they moved with their two daughters to San Francisco, California, for her husband’s job. After tiring of the Silicon Valley culture, they moved to Austin, Texas in 2016. Steph wasn’t too happy in Texas at first and decided to move back to London to see if she could get back to her old life there, but she quickly realized it wasn’t meant to be and returned to Austin to give the city another try.
As someone who has raised two daughters as third culture kids, lived in several cities and countries, and dealt with more culture shock than the average expat, Steph shares a lot of deep insights and interesting experiences in this conversation!
LEARN in this episode:
✔ What aspects of life can give you culture shock (even within the same country!) and strategies for managing it
✔ Tips for making an intercultural marriage work as well as for raising third culture kids across multiple countries
✔ What challenges you’ll face if you try to return to your old life back home and why it often doesn’t work out
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Welcome to the Expat Empire Podcast, the podcast where you can hear from expats around the world and learn how you can join them.
Hey guys, before we get to the interview, I want to remind you that we’re offering free 30-min consulting calls to anyone interested in moving abroad.
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Send us a message at https://expatempire.com to schedule your call today!
With that said, let’s start the conversation.
David McNeill: [0:00:46] Hi Steph. Thanks so much for joining us today on the Expat Empire Podcast.
Stephanie Cook: [0:00:50] Hi David. It’s good to see you again. It’s been awhile.
David McNeill: [0:00:53] It was a pleasure being on your show quite some months ago by now, but it’s good to catch up again. It gives us a good chance to get reacquainted.
Stephanie Cook: [0:01:00] Absolutely. I’m sure we have more topics to cover as well that we didn’t get around to addressing when you were on my show.
David McNeill: [0:01:07] Yeah, definitely. Obviously, I know a bit about your story and you’ve been to a lot of different countries and even more importantly perhaps, is many different cities. I know you’ve seen a lot in your time living abroad. I’m really excited to get into that today.
Stephanie Cook: [0:01:22] Yeah. Me too.
David McNeill: [0:01:24] Cool. Well, let’s get into it. I would first like to just ask you to tell us a bit about your overall background. Where you’re originally from, where around the world you’ve lived so far, and where you’re living right now?
Stephanie Cook: [0:01:34] Okay. I’m Steph, originally born in Germany and that’s where I spent the first 20 odd years of my life outside of Munich, a beautiful place, beautiful area. I always had that kind of travel bug and the curiosity about other countries. I studied languages and then decided to spend a year in the UK once I was done studying in Germany and that year turned into 12.
I started in Kent in the Southeast of England where I went to university. I met my English husband there and then we moved to London. After 12 years he got a job offer in California. Obviously when someone says, Hey, do you want to live in San Francisco? You say, yes, especially when you’re someone like me, who’s always curious and ready for new adventures. Then we moved to the U.S. in 2010 and started in, as I said, San Francisco. A few years after that moved to Austin, Texas. Quite a difference but at that point I think I was getting a bit homesick for Europe. I decided that I wasn’t going to stay there and we relocated back to the UK for a year. Realized that we had changed lot. I’m sure this is going to be a big chunk of our conversation today and went back to Austin and that’s where we are now and have been for five and a bit years.
David McNeill: [0:03:10] Excellent. Yeah. It’s good to get the overview and especially, I think if I’m remembering correctly, although forgive me previous guests if I’m missing something, but you might be the first expat that I’ve talked to that’s gone to the United States, as opposed to leaving the U.S. for somewhere else or just being in a different country. For me as someone from the U.S. and of course having lived in San Francisco, having go to University in Austin, Texas, I’m very familiar with those spots. At least the way they were when I lived there. It’s really nice to just hear your experience about all of that. I’m excited to jump into it.
Stephanie Cook: [0:03:44] You know, I always love that when I talked to expats who now live in Munich, when moved to Munich from the UK or the US, or from other places, and I love to hear their perspective. It’s always really interesting, isn’t it? When you kind of, you look at a place that you know through different eyes.
David McNeill: [0:04:04] Yeah, exactly. So I guess when you were kind of growing up and thinking about what was next for you and especially in your university years, what was the maybe thing that got you to decide to maybe look outside of Germany? I mean, did you have some formative experience that showed you, Hey, there’s more out there that I want to explore or was it just some conversation or a random thing, anything that happened in particular?
Stephanie Cook: [0:04:28] I think the main thing was my love for languages. I know you can completely empathize because you’re a language person too. I just really enjoyed learning languages. In fact, I taught myself English before I even had it at school. I started because I just, I knew there was something, especially with English, I learned French and Spanish too and I loved those as well and just the whole immersion into a different…because I think I, subconsciously probably, at a very young age I just felt like a language could offer you such a great insight into a culture.
It’s just something I just loved that and traveling and I spent some summers I think from age 15 onwards, probably I would go to other countries for like a language exchange program and things like that. I was exposed to it quite early on, but I always, in addition to that, want to say that I feel like there is something, some gene that runs in my family. I’ve had people in my family from previous generations who have immigrated from Germany to other places or spent some time abroad and learned languages. I very strongly feel, it’s not just me personally, but it’s just that’s a genetic thing. It was just stronger than anything else.
David McNeill: [0:05:47] Yeah. I mean, sometimes there’s something there or some story from the family, like you said, some history that drives us forward.
Stephanie Cook: [0:05:56] Definitely, yes.
David McNeill: [0:05:56] As you were thinking about where do I go to first or next I guess, how did you stumble upon or decide upon the UK as far as, of course you’ve been studying English and so on, but was that the main driver and what was your thought process especially in regards to that specific city?
Stephanie Cook: [0:06:14] I feel I just always had a connection to England or I felt that bond. The U.S. was never really on my radar. It was very much in going to school in Germany and having English. We had to almost like decide did we want a more British or more American accent and all that kind of thing. I just always felt drawn to the UK and I’d spent some time there and I saw myself going and living in London at some point. Even, I think, age 15-16, I was like, I’m going to do that one day and I did. English to me was my number one favorite language, especially British English had just such a and still, to this day, I just adore it. I love all the different accents and dialects and whether the whole of the UK really, I just love Scottish accents and Welsh accents. There is just something that, yeah, I just love it. It was obvious that that was going to be.
Then going to university in the UK from a practical point of view, I wanted to do a master’s. I studied languages in Germany at a language institute, that in the meantime has now also become, they do BAs and MAs and all that, but at the time they didn’t. I still wanted my MA title because Germany very much likes a title. I think things have changed somewhat by now as well. But at the time it was very I just wanted that and I knew I could do that in the UK within a year. Whereas in other countries, or even in Germany, I would’ve had to spend a lot more time, and the UK was like you can do it in a year so that’s what I did.
David McNeill: [0:07:57] That was your plan, was just that one year as I understood. It sounds like things took a different turn. Can you walk us through kind of what happened there and how you ended up then staying for, I think you said 12 years.
Stephanie Cook: [0:08:12] I mean, from a personal point of view, so I was in a relationship in Germany, so it was kind of, yeah, I’m going to cut that year as short as possible to be back home. But at the back of my mind, I still had that idea of living in London and I would have still loved to do that. I don’t think I made any plans, but then towards the end of my year in the UK, I met my husband and my now husband and yeah, things happened very quickly. It was kind of a whirlwind thing. I went from wanting to go back to Germany to moving in with him. We moved to London without jobs, without a place. Then, yeah, just kind of got on that whole roller coaster of a completely new life basically and took it from there. Then as you, you explore a new city and then it was all very exciting, obviously. Just had my MA, I’m in a new relationship. I’m in the city of my dreams. I just got a job. Then all of a sudden it’s 12 years later.
David McNeill: [0:09:29] Yeah. So what kind of work did you end up doing there? How did you leverage your interests and skills with languages? Or did you do something completely different?
Stephanie Cook: [0:09:38] No, I didn’t. Actually, I did my MA in literature, European literature, and I wanted to work in publishing. I wanted to work with books and that kind of thing. I didn’t really have a plan of how to get there, but I applied to a ton of jobs in all different areas where my language skills could come in handy. Then I think I applied to a publisher of hotel guides and they were looking for a production assistant. They weren’t even looking for a linguist or a writer, anything like that. The day I went for my interview their editorial manager quit and so they interviewed me. Then they said, actually, I think you are probably overqualified for the production assistant. Also looking at your skills, would you be interested in an editorial position?
And so it was kind of like, yeah, that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I started there and I mean, that was English. I mean, I obviously then found ways to get my German and French skills in there as well, because it was an international hotel guide so I was able to manage the international team. They got way more than they thought they would. That was a really nice way in, and to this day, I’m just so grateful to them also, for giving me that opportunity, because I feel like I would not have had that in Germany because I don’t think anyone not a native speaker would get an editorial position for prestigious publication and oversee the editorial in a language that’s not the native language. I mean, I jumped at the chance and it was a great, great way in. I stayed with them on a freelance basis for a long time.
David McNeill: [0:11:32] That’s amazing. I mean, that’s as you say, you’re thankful for them giving you the opportunity, but obviously you have the skills for it. It sounds like one of those right place, right time type of situations. As you said, the day of the interview, the opportunity presented itself.
Stephanie Cook: [0:11:47] How crazy is that? Yea, and I was very much like, yeah, of course I’m going to do that.
David McNeill: [0:11:52] That’s incredible. Were there any parts of adjusting to life in the UK that took you by surprise? Obviously you knew a lot about it. You had prepared and maybe you were more prepared than the average person making such a cultural jump, but were there any parts that stuck out to you that still took a while to get used to?
Stephanie Cook: [0:12:13] As you said, I was pretty well prepared, at least linguistically. I always, by having spent some time there before, I knew that the mentality and all that would suit me. I’ve always loved the humor, sense of humor and all that kind of thing. But living there is quite a different experience. It did take me a while to get used to the way things were done. Coming from Germany, which is a very direct and very often very blunt and no nonsense kind of culture to a country where people like to not say what they actually mean. I had to get used to that and in my own way of communicating to kind of say things in a different manner so that I wouldn’t come across as too direct and too blunt.
So I knew that, and I knew that the English had that view of Germans as well. I was aware of that. I kind of adjusted to that, but I also adjusted quite easily because it suited me. As a person, I’m not a very confrontational person. For me, the German way of communicating had some times been really tough for me. That kind of criticism in a way that’s just like in your face I’ve always found quite difficult to take. I kind of liked the British way of saying something that doesn’t sound quite so harsh. I mean, the intention at the end is the same just delivered in a different way. That kind of suited me. But it took a while.
David McNeill: [0:13:57] Did you have any challenges with kind of learning to read between the lines in the sense, I mean, maybe that’s not a right way to put it and I haven’t personally lived in the UK, but I get the sense of communication style as you say, not being direct. Maybe it’d be hard to pick up on some of those things, even if you have the best of intentions to adapt.
Stephanie Cook: [0:14:15] Yes, absolutely. Sometimes that same thing that I appreciate and like about it, it still drives me mad sometimes when you’re just like, come on, just say what you mean. Don’t do all this roundabout way of explaining things. But there’s this chart. I don’t know if you’ve seen it where it’s like a translation sheet for what an English person says, what they mean and what someone else hears. It’s just like, whoa, it’s completely different. It’s excellent. I think someone handed that to me and said, Hey, just take a look at this. Obviously, through my husband, having access to English people and having English people in my circle of friends, not just expats, not other Germans but more really English people, you do learn quite quickly. When people know you very well they’re not afraid to mince their words either. I kind of found my way in.
David McNeill: [0:15:17] Yeah, that’s true. It’s a very different situation when you have the family connection, and then you’re able to maybe ask difficult questions or get that insider view that you wouldn’t otherwise, and of course build those relationships as well. I think that makes the whole living abroad experience very different.
Stephanie Cook: [0:15:33] Absolutely. But also, I mean, I think my husband had to translate for me sometimes with regards to his family where I would say something or not say something, and he would just explain to them, that’s because she’s German, she’s not going to say it like that. Or sometimes when his parents would expect something from me and it just didn’t come because I didn’t realize. So it does help to have a cultural translator, if you like.
David McNeill: [0:16:02] Right. Right. I mean, not to dig too deeply, but I’m curious in your long relationship and marriage with your husband in such a cross-cultural context, and of course living in his country initially, and now you’re living in yet a third country to both of you, any advice or takeaways or anything that you could share as far as just making that work? Because I think that that’s on my mind, on a lot of people’s minds out there so any takeaways would be great to hear.
Stephanie Cook: [0:16:33] So I think it also changes when you have children. I think that throws another factor into the whole equation where you have to be very mindful of each other’s customs and expectations. Living in a third country for sure makes things a little bit easier because you’re more on equal ground. It does help to escape to a third one and then you can kind of, you can juggle it all, but I think it’s really communication and trying to share as much about your own culture with the new family as you can. Not everyone’s willing to take that on. I mean the English side of my family, never in our over 20 years of marriage have considered learning German. I don’t think it hasn’t even occurred to them that that might be nice.
That’s them and that’s something I think I would have probably like, if it were me, I think I would definitely try and learn the language just to show some. I think that’s a very English thing too because Americans and English people don’t necessarily need to learn another language so from that point of view, it’s just, yeah, wow. We’ve been married for a while, but that just never occurred to them. They were always very supportive of my children speaking German and learning German through me. But yeah, it was kind of a separate thing for them. It wasn’t like we are all in this and yeah.
David McNeill: [0:18:18] Yeah, I might have to discuss that with my parents and see if they’ll pick up some Japanese.
Stephanie Cook: [0:18:24] You know, I just think that’s me, someone who has left her home country for a couple of countries and I’m a linguist. So for me, that’s a given that wherever I go, even if the next country is another language, I’ll learn the language. Absolutely, that’s just who I am. I think if you’re not that person, then you don’t necessarily think to do that.
David McNeill: [0:18:48] Yeah, no, that’s very true. You originally were in Germany then you were in the UK, and of course you went as a student and then you worked there, but at least at the time, I suppose things have changed a little bit in the intervening years, but it was a rather easy jump to make, right? You were within the broader European union.
Stephanie Cook: [0:19:09] Absolutely.
David McNeill: [0:19:09] And so now, yeah, let’s go into a bit about your experience moving to the US. It sounds like that came through your husband’s job opportunity. How did you think about that? It’s a whole different country and culture. Thankfully, I mean, maybe not for a linguist, but thankfully the same language, at least. Going into the Bay Area that’s got its own flavor and culture as well. Just walk us through kind of what that process was like to actually get there, then what you experienced in those first couple of months.
Stephanie Cook: [0:19:40] Yes, it’s the same language, but it’s not. I think because coming from a linguistic background, I knew that, and I was really curious to see how it was going to be different, the language and the whole way of communicating and all that. I would say at the beginning, even though I was very enthusiastic about doing this, going away, in my mind it was only going to be for two years, maybe three. Then we would go back to the UK where I felt my life was. That’s where my friends were, my parents-in-law and the kids were born there. They had friends there and to me, that was home.
The U.S. was just going to be this interesting little interlude. The two years went and then three years and yeah, we only just kind of felt like we were getting settled and enjoying life because I mean moving to a new country always takes a while. I think maybe it’s different if you know it’s only going to be a year, you know for a fact that you have your return ticket and we didn’t have a return ticket. Then after three years we decided to apply for the green card because if…after two years we started the process just to kind of cover our basis.
The UK kind of seemed to become more of a distant memory in a way. Even though I didn’t think I was going to stay in the U.S. for the rest of my life, but it turned into this open-ended thing. So that was quite tough to take. I had a real, I don’t want to say identity crisis, but it was a bit of a, oh my goodness. I’m going from this, having a plan and knowing where home is and where I want to be, to actually, I’m not sure I want that anymore. Then to not have a fixed plan and being open-minded, that’s quite a big change. I struggled with that a lot.
David McNeill: [0:21:50] I can imagine.
Stephanie Cook: [0:21:50] There’s something that all of a sudden, and I always kind of liked to know what I’m doing. I can be spontaneous in a lot of ways, but in looking at life as a big picture, and it was like, Ooh, having all of a sudden to thinking the time difference to Europe is huge from California. Its like nine hours to Germany and it’s makes communication really, really difficult. Then kind of thinking, okay, that’s going to be my future. This is going to be what it’s like, not for just a limited period of time. Yeah, so that was quite a big jump. Sometimes I feel like I wasn’t as excited about my surroundings and the things we could experience in California because at the back of my mind, I was like, oh my God, I need to know where I’m going to be. Then all of a sudden that kind of got easier. Then it was much easier to live in the moment and just enjoy it.
David McNeill: [0:22:51] How long did that process take until that point where you’d say it became easier to enjoy the situation?
Stephanie Cook: [0:22:57] For sure three years. That first year it was getting used to it all, but still thinking, oh, we’re going to go back. It was more like looking at, oh, look at the way Americans do things. Oh, isn’t this crazy. Look at that. Then after a year, then you kind of, you knew how everything worked. This is how life is done here. Then you kind of get into the, okay, let’s enjoy this for a while. Then all of a sudden it’s like, okay, this is it now, this is our life now where the kids are settled in school and you have a whole new rhythm to everything. Then it’s like, okay, now we can actually go with the flow but it takes a long time.
David McNeill: [0:23:38] Yeah, for me, it’s always been an interesting process. I always tell people that it takes at least a year to get really settled and comfortable in a place. Then if you take that into account, obviously your mileage may vary. It could take longer or shorter, but if you assume a year, then you want to at least stay two years. If you just stay one year, then you’re just at the verge of getting somewhat settled. Then you have to say your goodbyes, which would be rough. But then yeah, if you’re even only doing two years, then you might think, well, why don’t we elongate this a bit more? and plans can always change but I also found that in the first year, it tends to be the nice kind of, in a sense, a year of the honeymoon period, of course…
Stephanie Cook: [0:24:17] It’s a little honeymoon.
David McNeill: [0:24:17] because you’re not quite sure what’s next and as you said, it kind of still is open-ended. Also you’re seeing all the events and the festivities and the whatever’s going on in town all for the first time. Then the second year you’re like, wait, yeah, we came to this last year and it’s just a very different vibe. I always found that it was, I mean, I stayed in Japan for two years, Germany for three years. It wasn’t just a year, but I also found that the second year, at times there were really times where I was thinking, okay, looking into the future, what’s next? I’m glad here in Portugal that I don’t feel that yet. It’s been a year and a half and I still feel quite positive about being here. It’s a weird situation too, because we haven’t been able to do everything we wanted to with this pandemic. So it’s not even kind of an apples to apples comparison, but it’s just, it’s interesting to kind of think about how time relates to where you want to be, at what point as you said with children and then obviously in your relationship, and then with careers. There’s just so many factors that go into figuring it out.
Stephanie Cook: [0:25:21] So many factors, but also do you maybe find that because you’ve done it before, a couple of times before as well you are much easier on yourself in terms of that feeling of feeling settled. You it’s going to take awhile because you’ve done it before and you just, as I find, that gets easier in a way because you’re much more forgiving with yourself. I don’t need to, I can not expect myself to feel settled after six months. I just know it’s not going to happen. I know it’s going to take longer and the ups and downs and the looking at things and seeing the bad side of things as well, where you just…I think it’s just you’re much more realistic once you’ve done that a couple of times.
David McNeill: [0:26:05] Yeah. I think that’s true. I think I’ve also, I mean, I can be more impatient maybe than the average person. I also always try to just do things and make it happen faster than probably the time that it actually requires. It’s a lot of reminding myself. It’s reminding myself, Hey remember how this takes a year. It’s basically having that…try to get that voice in the back of my head then hopefully everything comes together by then. But even now with this year and a half in Portugal in this situation, I would say there’s still aspects to life here that with making good friendships and things like that, that just haven’t come as quickly as I would’ve liked. But you do get more comfortable rolling with the punches.
Stephanie Cook: [0:26:50] Absolutely. I even, I had this conversation with my husband the other day. It took us way more than a year to make friends here in Austin. We’re used to going out and meeting people and having acquaintances and being social, but to actually make friends it took a long time. That can be really difficult, but like you said, and I’m also someone who’s not the most patient person with myself. Even though I had been kind of preaching to people, it takes a year. You need to wait a year until you even start feeling normal, I didn’t, I don’t necessarily listen to my own advice. I really have to be quite ruthless with myself sometimes. I just expect way too much.
David McNeill: [0:27:37] Just thinking about kind of going from, as you were talking about first in Germany, maybe the culture didn’t fit you as well, from a standpoint of the directness. Then you went to the UK and it fits you a bit better. Now you go to the U.S. where at least stereotypically people are more direct. Obviously it depends on where that falls on the spectrum of Germany and the UK. But did you find that to be a bit of a shock to go back into that situation or did you find it easy to adapt to?
Stephanie Cook: [0:28:06] I think I’ve found it quite easy to adapt to because while the Americans are more open or more direct they also vary. It’s kind of a mix of German directness and British politeness because Americans are very polite on the whole. I think that they’re very good at making you feel welcome and they’re very positive. Even if they’re direct they’re more positive, there’s always that kind of…it always gets turned into something positive. I really like that. I feel that as a German I can appreciate that. It’s like yes, I can get to the point much more quickly than I could in the UK, but I know I’m safe in a, I’m not going to get blunt criticism right into my face. That’s just not the way things are done. Yeah, I really like the way things are done here at work as well.
David McNeill: [0:29:08] With your work, did you maintain the same position freelancing or did you find a job there in the US? How’d you do it?
Stephanie Cook: [0:29:15] So yeah, I maintain my freelance gig for a while, doing copywriting. I wrote for other publishers as well for a while. I always worked as a translator as well. I had contacts in Germany, in the UK that I worked for. But while I was in California, I actually…that went a little bit on the back burner. I felt I was spending too much time at home and I wanted to go out and meet people so I started volunteering. My kids were in elementary school at the time, and it was very easy to find like-minded people. I actually taught art in elementary school for three years, almost four years and really, really enjoyed it. It was kind of, it was nice because I felt like I could also, I mean, Silicon Valley, the Bay Area is a very international area so I felt like people were so used to someone with an accent and so it wasn’t a big deal me going into school and maybe have a different accent and coming from a different background. Yeah, so that was a really, really nice way of becoming part of the community and meeting people and yeah, some really nice friendships from that time.
David McNeill: [0:30:35] How would you kind of, or how did you think about the, let’s say culture of San Francisco, the Bay Area? I mean, naturally you’re coming in and I don’t know if that was your first kind of experience with the United States in some longer capacity, but you were there and San Francisco’s got its own flavor, its own feel. In a way it probably might have been easy at that time to say, this is what the entire U.S. is like. I don’t know if you traveled around and saw different places, but I can imagine, of course, in your time since going to Austin as well that you would have seen some different aspects and sides of the United States. I’m curious kind of how you adjusted to that and how you feel, how you experienced it, if you enjoyed it frankly?
Stephanie Cook: [0:31:15] So I think we had a very, it was a very soft landing in the bay area for us as Europeans. As I said before, it’s such an international area. The schools there are used to families coming in and kids not speaking the language as their first language and there’s accommodations for everything and you find your people. It’s not…I kind of, even at the time I knew that that was not the typical American experience, but then there isn’t really because it’s such a huge country that you just know that you’re not gonna get the same set of values. Even the language, to me before moving to the US, for me, American English was just one kind of accent and now having lived in Texas for a while my ear has adjusted to picking out where people are from. It’s interesting.
The Bay Area was great in that respect because, and as I said earlier, we were only gonna be there for a couple of years and it’s like, this is nice. Perfect weather, California weather. People are nice, it’s international. I can do something interesting. The whole nature is amazing. There’s so much to do. But after, I think I noticed this fairly early on, but at the time it didn’t really affect me that much because I was only gonna be there for a couple of years that I started to struggle with the Silicon Valley culture. One of my girls went to this, it’s a public school, but it’s literally in one of the most expensive zip codes in the whole country.
The kids she went to school with were the Silicon Valley kids. There were like the Google founder’s kid was at that school. Everyone at the fundraisers were Apple, Facebook, Google, and they were all executives. These were all people with power in Silicon valley. It felt like more and more that it just, wasn’t the kind of environment that I felt comfortable in. I didn’t really want my kids to be in that because we were never gonna be part of that. I mean, there are plenty of families who are not part of it, but it just kind of…the whole culture and all about making money and founding a new business and this and that. Everything was just, it felt like even at school parties you’d end up talking business it was just ugh.
David McNeill: [0:33:59] This is the San Francisco experience.
Stephanie Cook: [0:34:02] Yeah. There are areas where it’s not as extreme. We picked probably the most extreme area also because we looked at where are the best schools? Before we moved, I looked at…that’s where I wanna be because my kids need to be in the best schools so that they can go back to the UK and not have any issues and I didn’t really look into why are the schools so good and then realized that the schools are so good because they are funded so heavily by very affluent families. It’s not an issue…every kid in second grade has an iPad and it’s just because someone is sponsoring it.
The discrepancy between that and then 10 miles down the road is completely the opposite, families with nothing. That’s become so much more extreme in the Bay Area that I just felt less and less comfortable with it. When we were starting to kind of think about moving back to Europe or going somewhere else that, I mean, that was a big part of it, that decision making process.
David McNeill: [0:35:14] So then of course you ended up staying, but in a different city, moving to a different city in the us. How did that come about and what was that culture shock like within the US?
Stephanie Cook: [0:35:25] That was a massive culture shock. Up until I think probably six months before moving to Austin I had said, I mean, if there’s one place I’m not gonna move to in the US, it’s Texas. I’m not gonna go to Texas. I think my sister still remembers this conversation. It’s like, you’ve gotta be kidding me, that’s not gonna happen. Maybe New York, Boston area. My husband was looking at, he actually had…some people had been contacting him and seeing where if he was willing to move and then this very exciting opportunity came up in Austin. We spent a few weekends and I mean, you’ve been to Austin. It’s not what you expect Texas to be like.
David McNeill: [0:36:18] Yeah. It’s more open and progressive.
Stephanie Cook: [0:36:23] Yeah. I spent a few weekends just checking it out and I thought, you know what? This is actually a really cool place and yeah, well, let’s give it a go. The job was good for him. I felt like I can carry on doing what I’m doing because I’m freelancing. I’m just gonna find some other position where I can go out and meet people and I’ll be fine. I’ve done this a couple of times. I can do it. Yeah, we packed our bags. I’m still to this day, I think it feels kind of crazy to say, I live in Texas.
David McNeill: [0:36:59] I mean, there is something I guess, and not that I…so I did four years in University there in Austin, but it’s not like I saw the rest of Texas that much. I mean, we took a little weekend trip here or there with friends, but really it was in and around Austin.
Stephanie Cook: [0:37:13] Oh, I’m too scared. I’m too scared to leave Austin.
David McNeill: [0:37:17] Yeah. But it is as you said, it’s quite different from maybe your initial impression from just the general idea or stereotype of Texas, but was it ultimately better than that stereotype? I mean, I guess because obviously part of your story is thinking about going back to the UK and now you’re back in Austin, I’d like to dig into that a bit and just see if it matched your ultimate expectations based on your visits there.
Stephanie Cook: [0:37:41] Yeah. I want to say it’s not the typical Texas, although I feel a little bit under qualified to say what the real Texas is like, because I haven’t really explored it too much. As I said, I’m too scared of leaving, especially at the moment with the COVID numbers and the politics in this state are still…Austin is trying to be different but ultimately the politics are the same in the whole of Texas. I feel that the people are still different. I’ve always felt more amongst like-minded people, but you can feel the influence. I mean, Texans are incredibly proud to be Texan. I think more so than probably other Americans in other states. It’s just like, and I’ve said this on podcast before, they’re like the Bavarians. In that they are Bavarian first and a Texan first before they’re American.
We learned very quickly not to say we moved from California. There’s a big, I mean, Texas, California there’s a huge, on either side I think, Texans don’t like Californians and Californians don’t like Texans. There’s that kind of thing. With Austin becoming the new Silicon Valley in a way…Californians have a very bad reputation in this town and it’s very tiresome for someone who’s not from Austin and also not from California, but it is a thing. We learned very quickly to say we’re from London.
David McNeill: [0:39:35] Well, it’s probably accepted quite a bit more openly and like interested. Kind of, oh.
Stephanie Cook: [0:39:42] When we moved, like almost, no it was about five years ago, it was not very international here. For me, that was a bit of a shock really, people not understanding my accent and people making fun of my kids’ accent at school. There were some jarring experiences like that, where you’re just like there are a lot of people here who’ve never left Texas. To me, that was a very new experience to California.
David McNeill: [0:40:22] Yeah, that would be, yeah.
Stephanie Cook: [0:40:24] Yeah. That was difficult in some ways, also nice because I mean, people are always interested. As you yourself come across people will welcome you or not. I mean, it depends very much on how you present yourself. But it took a huge effort when we moved here to go out and meet people and kind of break into very established situations, if you want. It wasn’t like moving to Silicon Valley where they’re used to new European families moving in every day and it was not like that at all. We also moved towards the end of the school year or kind of in the middle. It was just tough. People were not like welcoming us or being necessarily very inclusive. It was hard work to get to get into that system.
David McNeill: [0:41:12] So then I have to ask, why did you decide to take a break and how did it all, I guess it’s probably not a better way to ask it, but if you could just kind of walk us through the thought process, how it all went.
Stephanie Cook: It’s kind of that whole experience of exhausting myself completely trying to fit into Texas life or Austin life; it just took it out of me. I think at the time I was very much like should we move in the US? Or should we just go back to the UK or Europe in general because I’m kind of tired after six years in California. After six years in California, I was just tired of not seeing my family and the time difference and all that. I was like, you know what, maybe it’s time to go back. But my husband wasn’t really…his career was going really well. He was really enjoying working in the US, which I completely understand too because and as I said before, it’s a much more direct and open way of doing business.
Everything is the lifestyle. There’s so many reasons and he just couldn’t really see us going back to the UK and working in London and commuting and spending three or four hours of your day on a train and the weather and everything. I was still like, no, let’s do it. I just, I can’t deal with Austin. Then having had that experience of just finding it really difficult to get settled here and meeting people and there’s some issues with school, and it was just, you know what? I need to go back home. I need to go home. So we did, and we did actually move back into our old house in the UK, which we had kept.
David McNeill: [0:43:04] Oh, cool.
Stephanie Cook: [0:43:07] Which I thought was gonna be the easy way because I thought, oh great, I know where everything is. I know I’ve got friends who live around a corner and just slotting back into where I used to live. The reality of it was very different. I think I probably wouldn’t do that again. I wouldn’t go back to a place that I was in before because six years is a long time. If you go back to a place that you remember in a certain way, and it’s changed and you yourself have changed, it’s just, there’s a lot of clashing factors. It might work for some people, but it didn’t really work for us.
David McNeill: [0:43:52] And how, how soon did you know that it wasn’t working?
Stephanie Cook: [0:43:57] I was trying my hardest to make it work and probably about eight months. Obviously, and we talked about this before. I, again, wasn’t very patient with myself. I hadn’t reached a year mark and probably you always need to wait a year until you even make a decision, but I didn’t. I’ve come to accept that those decisions were made and we moved back and forth. I just decided I couldn’t do that. Then work wise, I had kept doing translation work and I was doing more and more of that because I didn’t quite know how to do the whole going out and finding a job in the UK because I’d been doing that in the US. Going and finding, even volunteer work I wasn’t at that point where I could do that. I spent a lot of time on my own at home at my desk. Which probably wasn’t very helpful in meeting people. Even going back to old friends, it wasn’t like everyone was like, oh yeah, you’re back. It was just, everyone had moved on and everyone was busy. Yeah, that was a lot harder than expected.
David McNeill: [0:45:18] Yeah. What a great learning though. I think you can probably also say whatever you decide to do next, which is obviously to go back to Austin eventually, you have more confidence in that decision or at least clarity that maybe the next step after, whatever that is, wouldn’t be back to London again.
Stephanie Cook: [0:45:35] Yep, and I tell you what, when we moved back to Austin after a year I was able to look at it in a completely new way. I knew it was gonna take time. I knew that I didn’t want that exhaustion again. I knew I would have to look at it differently and I did. My mindset had changed and so coming back to Austin was like, okay, let’s give this another shot. I approached things very differently. it’s been, it’s been a really good experience so far, as opposed to the first time.
David McNeill: [0:46:08] What would you say are some of the main things that you’ve done to approach it differently? What maybe mindset changes or behavioral changes did you make to try to make it really work this time?
Stephanie Cook: [0:46:20] One thing is just to be patient and to really work at that and give yourself time. What I had done before, every time I moved I would throw myself completely into everything. Decorating the house, finding everything, getting activities for everyone sorted, all that kind of thing. Just keeping myself so busy that I didn’t really have time to process or to get sad or anything like that. I just kept going and going and going, but that’s, it’s just not sustainable. I realized doing that is not the right approach. It might stave off homesickness and depression and all those kind of things where you think, oh, I’ll deal with that at some point. But at some point it’s gonna come.
I’ve learned to take things at a slower pace and to give myself time and give myself time to do nothing as well. To just not rush from one place to the other and just say, look, this can wait. And to sometimes also, just live with those situations. When you are sad or when you’re like, this is not working out or I’m really struggling, to actually sit down and say, yes, I’m really struggling. I’m gonna sit in this and feel uncomfortable and learn to be uncomfortable. I think that’s the main thing because we are so used to making everything work and being happy, and this is great and this place is fun. Everyone says, this is fun and I should be doing this and that. You can overwhelm yourself with just trying to make it a reality but actually learning to be uncomfortable and to just ride it out, in a way. That’s the biggest thing. Just take time to process things and not wait for it all to crash down at some point.
David McNeill: [0:48:19] I think I’m still learning these lessons so it’s good for me to hear it from you.
Stephanie Cook: [0:48:22] Oh, yeah and it’s hard. It’s hard to do and to actually follow through with it sometimes because the temptation is to just keep yourself so busy. It’s easy, you can always do stuff. There’s always things to do that you haven’t done yet and you need to. Whether it’s exploring your surroundings or getting your house ready or whatever it is, there’s always something to do, but to actually take that time. The other big thing is to not wait for other people to approach you. I had phases when I was very kind of disappointed in the lack of effort by other people. I spent a lot of time dealing with that and being kind of annoyed even sometimes and thinking, why is so and so not calling me or why have I not…?
Then I turned that around, especially when we lived back in the UK and I felt like, why is my friend who lives like two streets that way, why is she not inviting me around for dinner? Things like that. Then I just turned it around and I was like, no, it’s me who needs to. If it bothers me, then I need to make the effort. Then if I don’t get anything back then, okay. Then I just have to let it go probably, but I can’t sit there waiting for other people to help me out of my dark place. It has to be me being proactive and not have any expectations. That’s the other thing I want to say, that’s a huge part of being happy and coming out of your shell.
David McNeill: [0:50:00] Yeah, absolutely. I was curious, because you mentioned that you had a learning, going back to the UK, that maybe you wouldn’t want to go back to a place that you lived before, but of course you went then back to Austin. Of course, I assume it was something related to the job and so on and so forth, but you know, how did you think about it?
Stephanie Cook: [0:50:19] Yes, practicality won, but also I think in a way, deep down I don’t like to be defeated. I felt like I don’t want this place to be a negative memory. I don’t want to think, oh, I couldn’t handle Austin. It’s like, I’m gonna conquer Austin and I’m gonna make it work. I’m gonna give it a better shot than last time. If it still doesn’t work out, then at least I’ve tried. But I felt like I hadn’t really tried to do it properly the first time, I guess. I tried, but in a lot of wrong ways, I think. I think I just wanted to turn it into a more positive experience as well, as much as anything. I mean, practicality and house and all that kind of thing.
David McNeill: [0:51:08] Yeah, it makes sense.
Stephanie Cook: [0:51:09] There were still things I wanted to do and learn about Austin and Texas.
David McNeill: [0:51:14] Have you been to the state fair yet?
Stephanie Cook: [0:51:16] Been to the rodeo.
David McNeill: [0:51:17] Okay. Well that’s good enough. I think you’ve learned enough about Texas. Where do you see yourself going in the next years? Maybe it’s hard to say now, but it sounds like you’ve managed to make it work quite well in Austin. Obviously you had the experience to learn that maybe going back to the UK straight away wasn’t the right call for you at that time. What do you think is kind of around the corner for you?
Stephanie Cook: [0:51:44] Who knows? It’s a very good question. I think I’ve definitely gone from being someone with a more defined plan, life plan of where I want to be. I’ve become someone who’s much more open-minded and I really don’t know. I think the idea is to spend a few more years and possibly yeah, in Austin for sure for another few years. I don’t know if we’re gonna stay in the U.S. once we’re done with Austin. I think at the moment we’re waiting. My younger daughter’s finishing high school, so she has another few years of high school ahead of her. Depending on how that goes the next couple of years…it’s been really difficult politically; school funding and all that kind of thing. We’re kind of just, we’re gonna wait and see, and so we’ll be here for another few years possibly, but I think after that, the pull is to go back to Europe for both of us.
We’ve just come back from a month. Well, I was there for a month, my husband for two weeks, to see parents, friends, and family. We do want to be closer to them. I think this last year was just really difficult. I always had at the back of my mind, if I can get on a plane at any time to go back and see my parents, then it doesn’t matter whether I’m away from them. I’m like a 10 hour flight away or a two hour flight away. But last year was just too difficult to travel and it was too risky and too complicated and then expensive too. It’s just shown us how that’s not always an option. I think with our parents getting older it’s just such valuable time that we have, that yeah, I would like to be closer. But I’m not ruling out keeping a base here in the U.S. either because it’s become part of me. It’s become part of our family. My kids, I think, feel very American actually. I don’t know where they’re gonna end up. I’ve had to become someone who’s very open when it comes to the future. Who knows. I can see us having maybe a couple of places.
David McNeill: [0:54:10] Yeah, no reason just to pick one.
Stephanie Cook: [0:54:12] Portugal is on our list of possible…
David McNeill: [0:54:16] Good, good. Recommended.
Stephanie Cook: [0:54:20] It’s neutral ground for us because at the moment we love to visit the UK and Germany too, but at the moment we can’t see us living there. It’d be nice to have another neutral ground.
David McNeill: [0:54:33] Yeah. On that point, just curious, how it’s been or how would you say it’s been, I guess, from your perspective for your children growing up in these different countries and making moves here and there and across different school systems, and languages, and cultures. As you say, now they’ve adapted to this kind of American culture. It would be interesting just to hear about what their experience has been like from your perspective.
Stephanie Cook: [0:54:55] You’d probably have to ask them.
David McNeill: [0:54:59] Yeah, I’m sure.
Stephanie Cook: [0:55:00] I think it’s been really, really tough on them, especially moving between countries and school systems. Especially the move back to the UK and then back to Austin. That’s like middle and high school years, which is huge. That’s just a really tough time to move, whether it’s to the next city or to another country, I think, for a young person. They’ve definitely felt that, that was very, very hard. I want to say that they both feel they’re not completely defined by one place, so they definitely have a sense of having roots in different places. They definitely feel that connection to the UK and to Germany too. Who knows they might end up in one of those places at some point. I have no idea, but they are not completely American.
I feel it’s gonna benefit them in the long term, just going to a new place because they’ve done it before, because they’ve been the new person and they know what it feels like, they know how hard it is. I think they might not realize it at the time. As a 15 year old, I don’t think you realize the benefits of experiencing different cultures, but I think eventually it will be a great asset for them. They both already appreciate the fact that they can speak, in effect, three languages because they can both speak British English, American, English, and German. I think they’re already very aware of how special that is.
David McNeill: [0:56:42] Yeah, totally. Well, it’d be great just to hear a bit about where our listeners can find out more about you and what you’re doing and of course the blog, the podcast and all that good stuff.
Stephanie Cook: [0:56:51] Yes. So I started a blog when we moved to the U.S. and it’s called Transcontinental Overload. I initially just started that as a kind of diary for my friends and family so they could read up on what we were doing and my observations about the weird and wonderful Americans. Then that turned into much more of just observations about culture and cultural differences and the focus, like I said earlier, like Silicon Valley, the different values and how I didn’t agree or did agree. Then I kept it going, some years I wrote less and other years I wrote more.
Then last year, just before the COVID pandemic, I launched a podcast also called Transcontinental Overload. The link is also on the website because I felt like I wanted to share other people’s stories. I didn’t want to just write about my own experience. I wanted to talk to others, other expats because it’s always so interesting and beneficial for everyone to share their story, but also to listen to other people’s stories and feel like, oh, I’m not alone. These observations and experiences I have I can share them and other people can listen and feel understood or feel like, oh yes, thank goodness. I thought it was just me.
I feel like it’s helped me also to look at this whole life in a different way. You see different perspectives. That’s why I launched the podcast. I’ve just taken a little break from it, but I’m about to get started again interviewing people. My next project is actually talking to TCKs, the Third Culture Kids, just like my own kids, having been dragged around the world by their parents and what it’s like for them. That’s kind of my new project that I’m starting.
David McNeill: [0:59:00] Cool. We’ll definitely put links to all that in show notes. Thank you so much again.
Stephanie Cook: [0:59:06] I have a Facebook page, Transcontinental Overload and my Instagram is Overloaded Steph, you can find me on that. I publish the odd stories and posts and links to the current episodes and all that kind of stuff. I’m trying to conquer Twitter as well. But I haven’t been very consistent. It takes time, all that, the podcasting, with working and a podcast, as you know, takes a lot of time and effort and which also it’s great fun, but sometimes other things have to come first.
David McNeill: [0:59:41] Awesome. Well, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure hearing your story, and I’m really glad to be able to share it with everyone today. Look forward to keeping in touch.
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