Returning to Bulgaria

Story of a Bulgarian who returned after living in South Africa and the USA

Written and photos by Liliya T, edited by Mila Boshnakova

I was born in Bulgaria but I never thought I’d live here. And why would I? Living in America was more comfortable, and after 24 years abroad, it was a shock to everyone when I decided to move back home. 

I left Bulgaria when I was 4 years old in 1997 - a time when many Bulgarians were leaving the former communist nation for a better life in the western world. The U.S. wasn’t an option, so my family and I moved to South Africa. For 8 years we lived in Pretoria, then in a very small town called Zeerust, which was about 65 miles (105 km) from the border of Botswana and had less than 10,000 people living there at the time. There was no mall, movie theater, or airport, you had to drive at least 2-3 hours to Pretoria or Rustenberg to do those things.

As a child, I thought Zeerust was fine, I spoke Afrikaans at school, and with the locals, everyone knew one another. I went to school, then to Besige Bytjies Kleuterskool, and then to my parents’ electronics repair shop. There was only one family doctor in the entire town, the friendly Dr. Bester, who helped me with my seasonal allergies. Except for a few rich Arab and Indian families, life was poor but simple for most people. Africans worked on the farms, or if they were women, as maids. Boers lived in houses with large plots of land. We weren’t rich, we were just a working-class family with a small business. We were close to the wildlife, so we’d see zebras, baboons, and giraffes on a regular basis; it was a tranquil life. 

However, my parents sought a better life in the USA, with better opportunities for me and my sister. In 2005, we won the green card lottery and moved to Las Vegas, so it was very exciting. Suddenly, the small-town life I’d lived throughout my entire childhood was no more. I had very big expectations about what America would be. I imagined it would be like the movies or the music I listened to, where dreams come true. We left South Africa with nothing but a bunch of bags. 

Life in America

Fast forward, I started 6th grade in America. Las Vegas was very hot - hotter than the savannah I lived in. I didn’t speak a word of English, I was this foreign girl who spoke two not-so-common languages. I was enrolled in an ESL class for a year and was the only white girl in a class dominated by Latino kids. I was bullied, and I didn’t understand how to adapt to American norms. Things eventually got better in 7th grade when I learned enough English to fit in.  

As the years passed by, I started assimilating into American culture, and I met other Bulgarian kids so it was easier to integrate, but I also had a lot of non-Bulgarian friends. I listened to music that they listened to, watched movies that they watched, and played games that they played. I was known for my accent among my classmates. I excelled in all my subjects at school. I was a Harry Potter fan, I enjoyed hamburgers, hot dogs, and brownies more than I enjoyed Bulgarian food, and I even had an emo/scene phase like a lot of my classmates. By the time I finished high school, I was more American than I was Bulgarian.

By the age of 18, I had traveled to Bulgaria, South Africa, a few states in the US, and Australia. In college, I had a lot of interests but ended up majoring in anthropology with a minor in biology. I worked as a researcher at a laboratory for 2 ½ years and published my work, which was in Native American DNA from 500–1000-year-old samples. During college, I also traveled to Mexico, New Zealand, and a few other US states. By that time, I had a lot of cultural awareness. I didn’t live in a comfort zone. I was always learning, exploring, and sharing my experiences. 

After graduating college, I partied, traveled to Spain, Iceland, a few more US states, and worked a series of office, lab, and restaurant jobs. I spent a year in Washington D.C., where I also worked a lot of temp jobs, each lasting a maximum of three months. I was one of the millions of young, ambitious people who wanted to work at a nonprofit, Congress, or an embassy. But, I realized that this path wasn’t for me. My competition was workaholic sociopaths with Ivy League degrees and connections, and I couldn’t measure up to them. Out of extreme emotional stress, isolation, and living in a cheap, moldy apartment infested with bugs, I ended up physically ill and went to the ER a few times before I eventually moved back home to Las Vegas. My early 20s were difficult.  

Turning a new page

At age 25, I was back home recovering and evaluating my life, as things hadn’t worked out the way I wanted them to. I felt that my degree was useless, that the whole “follow your dreams” shtick that America sold me was a lie. University hadn’t prepared me for adult life. I was happy though because it felt like the rose-colored glasses were finally taken off my eyes. With my parents’ support, I went back to school and ended up getting a paralegal certificate - and later, a real estate license. I was hired as a paralegal within 2 months of graduation and I started practicing real estate in 2020. In addition, I started a freelance writing job, which I still maintain today, along with my paralegal job. I was independent. Granted, I still lived at home, but from 2019 to 2021, my health improved and I believed that America was a good place to be. 

By May 2021, I didn’t want to be in Las Vegas or anywhere else in America. I felt that I had seen everything I wanted to see, and I also felt a disconnect from everyone. I didn’t enjoy the “hustle” culture, and I decided to seek out a work-life balance in Bulgaria; to be back home after a long time abroad. My sister suggested teaching English, which I thought was a great idea, and I went back to school for a 3rd time to get a TEFL certificate.  

In July, I got hired as an English teacher in Plovdiv with a good salary. Things were aligning for me. In August, I left behind the only life I knew and said goodbye to my friends. My family knew this was good for me, to leave the nest again and grow up. I arrived in Bulgaria with a new lease on life, feeling like I could do everything. With my confident American attitude, I felt that I would be a perfect English instructor and that I was ready to prove my worth. Boy, how wrong I was, I ended up leaving this job after 4 months due to workplace incompatibility. Bulgarian work culture, in my opinion, is very aggressive and dynamic compared to American culture. 

In January 2022, I left Plovdiv and moved to Sofia. Now, I work remotely and visit my family often. I try to look for organizations where I can help others. I’m making new friends. I dropped the American attitude, and I stopped letting work dictate my life. Happiness doesn’t come from work but from a sense of belonging and purpose. 

In the 8 months that I’ve lived in Bulgaria, I can say that life here feels a bit more like South Africa: simple, straightforward, and without the rush. I live in the present instead of worrying about the future. I’m still thankful for my upbringing in America because if I hadn’t lived there, I wouldn’t have the same opportunities I have today. 

Here I am, 28 years old, ready to live a different life than before.

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