What is it like returning to Bulgaria after many years?

Interview with Mila Boshnakova, who returned to her homeland after 18 years in the US

Edited by Claudia Pecoraro and Andrea Vushkova, photos by Mila Boshnakova

When did you leave Bulgaria?

I was born in Sofia in 1995 and immigrated to the US with my parents in 2000 after they were selected from the Green Card lottery. Aside from the frustrating first couple of months at daycare when I didn’t speak the language or know anyone, my adjustment to a new country progressed with relative ease; as we all know, children are very adaptable, especially at a young age! Although I lived in the US until the age of 23, my parents made sure I came back to visit our homeland every summer, and strictly maintained my use of the Bulgarian language, traditions, and food in our household (for which I grew to be very appreciative).

Where have you lived before coming back?

As a child, we moved around and traveled quite a bit, so I’ve been fortunate enough to experience many states, each with its unique environment and personality. I’ve lived in: Cincinnati, Ohio; Knoxville, Tennessee; Spokane, Washington; and Chicago, Illinois. My favorite city has by far been Chicago, not only because of the large Bulgarian community but also because it’s the most culturally diverse place I’ve had the pleasure of living in – a big change from the homogeneity of Bulgaria!

Did you have to go through any bureaucratic processes when you came back? (conversion of foreign degrees, document validation, ID cards, and so on)? Were they smooth, or did they require longer than expected?

Since there is a Bulgarian consulate in Chicago, I decided to go ahead and get an ID card made there, in preparation for my return. Although they require you to fill out forms with your permanent address and personal information, it seems that they automatically pull your records via your EGN (Bulgarian ID number). Because of this, I received my ID with an outdated address (the address with which I was registered at birth) and I had to get a new ID when I came back anyway. The issue with this was providing proof of residence, and I had to go through a couple of government agencies and processes before I could get a new ID with my actual address. 

The other issue I came across was with NAP (the National Revenue Agency), as they wanted me to back pay taxes since my 18th birthday. For this, I had to use my passport stamps to prove that I left the country at age 5 and came back at age 23, and therefore did not owe any money to the healthcare bank, as I did not use it during that time. I would say all of these processes were unnecessarily complicated and took entirely too long. I was also surprised to see that government agencies work predominantly with paper documents and cash payments, rather than offer any electronic options.

Why did you come back to Bulgaria?

After graduating from university, I moved to Chicago for work and lived there for a year before making the life-changing decision to come home. Easily, the question I get asked the most is, “Why would you come back to Bulgaria after living in the States!?” For me personally, life in my home country was always itching my curiosity in the back of my mind, but I never took it seriously until I reached a point in my life where I felt like I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I thought about where my life was headed five years down the road and realized that it didn’t suit me; I thought, if not now, when? So I bought a one-way ticket, packed up my life in two suitcases, and changed course. 

Another huge factor in this decision was my family, of course. While we’ve always kept in touch and stayed close, I couldn’t help but feel that a huge part of me was missing and that I needed to reconnect with my roots on many levels. Unfortunately, this came at the cost of leaving my parents and siblings in the States, but as we say in Bulgaria, there’s no such thing as total happiness. On a more metaphysical level, I guess I just felt like there was more to life that I was missing, and while I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for, I knew there was certainly something out there to find and experience. Naturally, I felt drawn back to Bulgaria for this purpose, and I don’t regret it for a second.

What were the first differences you noticed when you arrived (culture, infrastructures, food, people's behaviors)? How did they influence you?

Coming from a life in the US, there are undeniably huge differences compared to life in Bulgaria. Interestingly enough, something I’ve come to understand with time is that many of these are due to the perception and individuality of the person considering them, rather than fact. Of course, we can’t argue that there are some things that the US just does better (infrastructure, organization, and customer service, to name a few). However, if you can look past the graffitied buildings and beat-up streets, you’ll find a land filled with such a rich history, nature, culture, and thirst for life. 

While the US may have an “easier” way of life, I feel that there is a special kind of freedom in Bulgaria, which I never felt in the States. It’s crucial to be aware that the people who have grown up here have been shaped by their environment in a very specific way, thus creating their unique perception of the world around them, as well as their ways of thinking and acting. For example, it’s too basic and misleading to simply call Bulgarians’ attitudes towards the Roma population “racist,'' without considering where this has actually come from and how we can start to change it. 

Another thing that was really hard for me to come to terms with was the melancholy and bitterness that exudes from so many people I came in contact with on a daily basis (store personnel, government officials, neighbors, etc.). The bad attitudes and sad faces I kept coming across really started to affect my own mental health at one point, and I had to force myself to take a step back and consider what it is that these people are so fed up with. Interestingly enough, I came to notice that while this was something typical of big cities like Sofia, the majority of the people in the provinces are actually extremely friendly and welcoming. It really makes you think outside your own lens of perception, and I’ve grown to appreciate this lesson, as it’s helped me become a much more tolerant and understanding individual.

Was it hard to come back after such a long time?

As with any other huge life change, coming back to Bulgaria after growing up in the States for 18 years was definitely a big adjustment and quite a struggle at times. Initially, there was a sense of excitement that kept me feeling like I was just on vacation for a couple of months, but once I got a job and an apartment, it started to feel very much like the real world again. Although I was very happy to take on this new chapter, I did go through a rough patch for about a month or two, where I started questioning my decision to come back and my capability to thrive in this new environment. That being said, I’m really glad I pushed through that with the support of my family and friends, because now I don’t regret my decision at all.

What would you say to people who want to come back to Bulgaria after living abroad?

For me personally, travel is a huge and important part of my life, as I feel that it opens up our perspective of the world around us, but also of ourselves. The biggest lessons I’ve learned through this journey are actually very personal and internal, rather than about the country and the culture. Putting yourself outside of your comfort zone shapes you so much more than you can ever expect, and I would encourage everyone who has the chance to live in a foreign country to do so, even if only for a little while. 

Especially for people in similar situations to mine, who have the chance to come back to their home country after a long time abroad, I think it can be a really wonderful experience. Aside from the personal development this journey can bring you, I strongly believe that drastic political and social reform is needed in Bulgaria, and people bringing in ideas and experiences from outside of the country is crucial because we all have so much to gain from one another if we only learn to open up our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts.

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