Reintegration: How I became a stranger to my own culture

Elena Dimitrova | Contributing Writer

I come from the ever-intriguing Eastern European country called Bulgaria. I was born in the capital in 1996 and as a child, I played on the streets of Sofia city. One day, my mother received a job offer in Belgium and just like that, my life was uprooted.

The first time I saw the Western part of Europe was at twelve years old. I distinctly remember arriving at my new school and thinking that I am lost in an alternate universe. The grounds of the school could not be compared to anything I had seen at the time: they resembled a huge field packed with many buildings. I felt so disoriented.

As soon as I entered my first classroom, I was greeted with the English language and, to my surprise, I was confident enough to introduce myself. Even though I was somewhat in shock, it seemed that my curiosity overwhelmed me. Ever since I was a child, I was used to watching cartoons in English and I thought to myself that it was time to put my practice to good use.

The high school I was in treated my fellow pupils as individuals and people who are not afraid to speak their minds. They smoked cigarettes without thinking it could ruin their entire lives. They were nuanced and interesting. Mostly, they just seemed freer. So, I quickly became tempted by the idea of exploring my own identity while I spent my adolescence in the city of Brussels.       

After graduating, I moved to the Netherlands to complete my Bachelor’s degree and it was the first time I ever lived by myself. Curiously, what struck me the most was the mobility of the Dutch people. To this day, I believe that the Dutch transport network is one of the most convenient in Europe, if not the world. But this is just my opinion. I could go to a different city every day and it was as though I was taking the metro. I was bewildered by the connection between distant parts of the country, the quick pace and the disciplined dynamic. I was being thrown into communities of diverse cultures, races, ethnicities, and gender identities, and I was finding and losing myself all at once. I guess this is what being away at a university feels like.

Oddly enough, when I came back to Bulgaria in 2019, I realised I had changed. There were moments in my teenage years when I still missed my country and wanted to go back, but after all the years and experiences, I no longer felt at home. Trying to understand why I felt this way, I found one key distinction between the East and West.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

First, when I was in Western Europe, people thought of me as my own person, regardless of my gender or age. This was a very empowering feeling as it never mattered that I was a woman or that I was young. Instead, I was given enough credit for being mature and capable. Returning to Bulgaria, I felt an implied sense of having to fit into a certain role or stereotype, because of my gender and age.

Second, there was less familiarity among strangers in the West. Although this may seem unwelcoming to some, it showed respect in my eyes. In contrast, I notice how many people working in shops or restaurants in Sofia talk to me as they would to their own child or as if we have known each other for years. In turn, conversations can swiftly become unpleasant as they begin to give me unsolicited advice.

Third, family members seem to be much more involved in each other’s lives in Bulgaria than in the West. It is much more common for different generations to live in the same household for long periods of time. In addition, Bulgarian parents tend to intervene in their child’s life even after they are fully grown. Westerners appear to be much more independent of their families and taught from a young age to rely on themselves.

To me, these examples portray a lack of consideration and appreciation of the individual person in Bulgaria. In other words, there is a bigger focus on the collective and being part of a group. While this certainly has its benefits, I feel that it can also strip away your own sense of self.

After all, I cannot deny that Bulgarian culture has its beauty. The people can hold a certain warmth, especially around the holidays when traditions are put at the forefront. There is also an abundance of diverse landscapes and natural habitats that should be better recognised. I appreciate that living abroad has made me recognise the charm of my own culture. Still, I often feel disconnected and misunderstood, as if I am more like a stranger.

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