Bulgarian, European and Global identities interplay and socio-cultural adaptation of Bulgarian returnees
The Covid-19 pandemic has influenced migration and mobility patterns worldwide. One of the tendencies, marked with a positive sign in the early months after its spread in Bulgaria, was the observed reverse movements of Bulgarian citizens coming back to the country. In this context, the article explores the identity dimensions and the socio-cultural adaptation processes of returnees to Bulgaria. They moved back during the last 1 to 5 years and have been abroad in the broad span from 2 to more than 10 years in one or more countries of destination. The article presents initial results collected within a larger study, which research design consists of both quantitative and qualitative methods, a national representative survey, seven focus group discussions in seven regions in the country and more than 35 in-depth interviews. The current article is focused mainly on some of the in-depth semi-structured interviews. One of the initial results is that the Bulgarian national identity does not weaken over time and remains constant and leading compared to the European and the global ones.Another outcome is that the country of destination does not necessarily foster developing a second national identity, even in cases of acquired citizenship.The situations and practices, in which the migration experience of returnees have influenced their identification with Europe, the European Union and could be considered as a point of building a supranational identity, are mostly through travelling and mobility across Europe, as well as studying in different countries as a citizen of the European Union.
Keywords: return migration, identity construction, Bulgarian, European identity, socio-cultural adaptation
Introduction. The Covid-19 pandemic has influenced migration and mobility patterns worldwide. One of the tendencies, marked with a positive sign in the early months after its spread in Bulgaria, was the observed reverse movements of Bulgarian citizens coming back to the country. Although it is hard to estimate precisely, media reports declared some 200 000 people returning in the first month from the emergency situation alone (Pehlivanova, 2020). A study titled ‘The Grand Return. Covid-19 and the reverse migration to Bulgaria’, conducted in October-November 2020, through an online survey and interviews with people, who had returned after a long period of stay abroad, suggests two main reasons for remigration: “the desire to be with relatives” (46%) and “job losses” (32%); some 10% of the respondents stated they would not be returning abroad when the COVID crisis was over, whereas 25% were undecided (Georgiev, 2020). Bulgaria is a country of a constantly shrinking population – the last census shows a rapid decline of 844 000 people (compared to the 2011 census), with total population of 6 520 000 people as of September 2021. Thus, the reverse trend was perceived by media and politicians as a sign of optimism in regard to the demographic situation, but also looking through the economic and social lens. In this context, the article explores the identity dimensions and the socio-cultural adaptation processes of Bulgarian returnees. It reveals initial reflections, based on semi-structured interviews with returnees who moved back during the last two years, mostly because of Covid-19, but not only. The three major questions that the article asks are: 1) whether the migration experience has changed returnees’ self-perception and if yes, how? 2) are there situations in which the returnees experience tensions with the local society and what socio-cultural adaptation strategies they use to cope with them? 3) has the migration experience influenced the returnees’ identification with Europe and the European Union and in which contexts? The study presents initial results collected within the project „Contemporary Bulgarian Identity – National and European Dimensions“, which research design consists of both quantitative and qualitative methods, a national representative survey, seven focus group discussions in seven regions in the country and more than 35 in-depth interviews. The current article is focused mainly on some of the in-depth semi-structured interviews that cover the questions raised above.
Methodology and Methods. Although there is a growing number of studies on various aspects of remigration to Bulgaria, analyzing, for example, return migration profiles and experiences (Mintchev and Boshnakov, 2006), segmentation of returning migrants (Nonchev and Hristova, 2018), reintegration and sustainability of return (Misheva, Getova and Bakalova 2020), return migration policies (Ivanova 2015), return intentions in regard to Brexit or COVID-19 situations(Markova and Tosheva 2021; Ivanova, 2021),the identity and belonging within discourses on Bulgarians’ emigration (Sotirova, 2020), there are no studies focused on returnees’ self-perceptions and identities construction and interplay after returning to Bulgaria.
The identity topic is broad and widely discussed throughout the years in so many studies, to the extent that for some scholars it has lost its meaning and should be even abandoned (Brubaker and Cooper, 2000). However, in this article it is considered an important part of the migration process of the returnees and is used as defined by Manuel Castells as “people’s source of meaning and experience”, being elaborated further by the author as: By identity, as it refers to social actors, I understand the process of construction of meaning on the basis of a cultural attribute, or a related set of cultural attributes, that is given priority over other sources of meaning. For a given individual, or for a collective actor, there may be a plurality of identities. Yet, such a plurality is a source of stress and contradiction in both self-representation and social action (Castells, 2010: 6-7). Two additional aspects are important here in regard to the current study – the plurality of identities and also the understanding that they could be a source of tensions.
The construction of meaning for the individual is a constant process and it changes over time. It is dynamic and makes the individual adaptable to many different situations, as Albena Nakova explains: the constructivists maintain the tendency of conceiving identity as a social construct based on established representations and feelings in a certain cultural environment, a construct that allows the individual to enter or exit various communities, creating thereby a dynamic identity for himself (Nakova, 2019: 63). I would like to emphasize here that the established representations and feelings are also dynamic, elastic and changing according to the given context.
The transnationalism lens of the migration studies develops the concept of “double identities”, elaborated by Jean-Pierre Cassarino in the following way: Transnational identities result from the combination of migrants’ origins with the identities they acquire in their host countries. ... Migrants are viewed as having the capacity to negotiate their places in society, whether in host or origin countries, with a view to becoming part of it. Unlike the structuralists, who prefer to talk about adjustment, the transnationalists recognise the need for “adaptation” when returning home. The process of adaptation does not entail the abandonment of the identities they acquire abroad. Admittedly, returnees are faced with difficulties of reintegration, at both social and professional levels. However, as mentioned above, the regular contacts they maintain with their households in origin countries, as well as the back-and-forth movements which illustrate transnational mobility (Portes, 1999), allow their return to be better prepared and organised. While migrants are viewed as being successful in weighing the costs and benefits of return, the actual impact with local realities at home – at social, economic and political levels – may lead to the emergence and consolidation of transnational identities that shape the behaviours and expectations of the returnees (Cassarino, 2004: 262). Three concepts, analyzed by Cassarino and presented here, are core ideas of this article as well – the migrants’ capacity to negotiate their places in society, the need for adaptation after returning home and the consolidation of transnational identities that migrants develop because of the migration experience, as well as the relations they maintain in more than one place.
Thus, stepping on the understanding of identity as a source of meaning and experience within a certain cultural environment (context) and having the capacity to negotiate their place in society in a constant process of adaptation, I would like to analyze the returnees’ self-perception, the socio-cultural adaptation strategies they choose upon return and the emerging transnational, but also supranational identities within the migration cycle and context.
In the focus of the study are the self-identification processes of Bulgarian citizens who have returned to Bulgaria during the last 1 to 5 years and have been abroad in the broad span from 2 to more than 10 years in one or more countries of destination. In the various cases, the migration experience took place in countries within the European Union like Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands or outside the EU (United Kingdom, Switzerland, Canada, the USA). The ethnographic study consists of semi-structured, in-depth interviews, conducted in the second half of 2021, but is also based on longer observations of the author throughout the last ten years. The returnees are predominantly women and are from 26 to 52 years old, most of them are educated and working highly skilled jobs. During the time being abroad one of them acquired also citizenship of the country of destination. The common characteristic for all these Bulgarian citizens is that at the time of the interviews they live in Bulgaria with an intention to stay in the country, either in the capital or in other cities. Most of them have lived and worked abroad, but some of them have lived outside Bulgaria only for acquiring an education degree, BA and/or MA programmes, or traineeships. The respondents of the study are currently employed in various sectors (IT, international companies, public institutions, NGOs, private practice). In most of the cases the actual return was triggered by Covid-19, but the decision process started before that. Again, in most of the cases there is an underlying family related reason for making the return move – taking care of older parents or sick parents, giving birth in Bulgaria or being together with a partner/spouse.
Research Results and Discussion. The results of the research are organized in three thematic analytical groups, based on the three main questions. Being an ethnographic study, the core of it explains how the respondents describe and perceive the changes that happened in their self-perception for the first question. The second analyzed aspect are the situations in which the returnees experience tensions in their everyday interactions and what socio-cultural adaptation strategies they use to cope with them. The third one is how the migration experience influenced the returnees to feel more European and build a supranational identity.
1. Self-perceptions upon return. Analyzing the interviews, I distinguish two predominant ways of self-perception of the returnees and I have conceptualized them as two figures: (1) Bulgarian with a global experience and global view, and (2) Bulgarian with a global experience and European view. In the first figure are Bulgarian citizens that during their migration have experienced both the multiculturality of the environments they have lived in (cosmopolitan cities, several countries, very diverse education communities, diverse professional communities) but also their personal and professional manifestations required different aspects of their identifications. A Bulgarian who lived in London more than 10 years explains: Bulgarian, yes, but I have a problem with this one-sided representation... for me people are much more multi-layered than that... the fact that I have spent some time abroad does not make me less Bulgarian, I continue to be Bulgarian, I would not give up my Bulgarian citizenship, and now I even came back to deal with my life in Bulgaria and the reality here.And yes, I have a British passport as well, but I don't call myself British ... but honestly in my particular case, I've been around the world so much that if I have to define a particular place, and even that's a difficult point, it's just that I'm in Bulgaria now, I was born in Bulgaria, I'm not ashamed of that, on the contrary, it shaped me as an identity, but I'm a little bit beyond those borders.This quote shows also the tension that exist in some cases, when the Bulgarians who lived abroad, especially for longer periods of time, need to “prove” their Bulgarian-ness back home. Receiving a citizenship of another country could be practical and not considered being connected with self-identification. Here, the supranational dimension is global and happens to be stronger than the transnational with no particular place to identify with. Another returnee, makes a similar point: First of all, I would like to point out that we live in a multicultural world, but I have never lost my Bulgarian identity, wherever I have traveled I have propagandized how beautiful Bulgaria is, how nice and friendly the Bulgarian people are.
The second figure does not deny the self-perception of being Bulgarian, but emphasizes on the very strong European way of seeing, thinking and doing what they do. This is particularly interesting when explained by a returnee who lived outside the European Union during both her migration experiences in Canada and Switzerland: I rather feel European. I'll tell you why. Because one is my identity, I have a Bulgarian identity, but the point of view I have is European. And I live and condition my actions on a daily basis through my way of thinking, and that is my point of view. ...one tends to get some more self-confidence, that one is mobile and can go anywhere else…I always had the self-confidence of a European. The European in this case has two additional dimensions – it makes you more mobile, outside the borders of Europe and it gives self-confidence of being European.
In these initial reflections on the self-perception upon return, could be concluded that there is a constant process of negotiation, re-negotiation, contextualization for the returnees that reveals tensions and uncertainties, and at the same time possibilities and self-confidence. It is important to point out that in both cases (figures) the Bulgarian identity is consistent and underling, the ground one, and it relates to the broader ones in the two directions of predominantly global, or predominantly European.
An interesting study, exploring European dimension of Latvian return migrants’ national identity, concludes that: The emigration experience, contrary to our initial assumption, has weak or no impact on the European dimension of Latvian return migrants’ national identity. The life experience in other European countries has rather strengthened the sense of belonging to Latvia than fostered the formation of supranational identity… The European dimension is constructed mostly on practical and instrumental reasons, including the national security issue, not on emotional or psychological aspects. The European cultural identity of return migrants is based on the geographical location and common life style, and is in opposition to Slavic (Russian) culture. In its turn, the European political identity is not manifested in terms of belonging to common European political community, shared political responsibility or values. Nevertheless, the ignorant attitudes are not linked with the perception of the EU as a similar geopolitical union to that of the former Soviet Union, but rather explained by low interest in large-scale political activities in general. (Šūpule, and Kļave, 2018: 21-22). There are some similarities with the Bulgarian case in regard to the existent Bulgarian national identity, but to what extent it is strengthened, is a matter of further research and discussion. In order to draw further correlations in-between the two cases, additional research should be done about the European political and cultural identity of the Bulgarian return migrants.
2. Tensions in (missing) interactions and socio-cultural adaptation strategies. As explained above, the transnationalism theory recognizes the need for “adaptation” upon migrants’ return, the reintegration process is difficult on personal, social, and professional levels. The newly acquired identities for the returnees in most of the interviews I have conducted, could be reflected both as part of the problem (possible tensions) and the solutions as well. The tensions or challenges, I problematize as lack of social networks and changed socio-cultural norms and habits.The lack of social networks reflects returnees’ life both socially and professionally. In the following response of an interviewee the social aspect and the feeling of loneliness are explained as: Purely emotional realization, the delusion that all these people who know you are in Bulgaria for a limited period of time, you stay three days, throw everything else, cancel the rest of their commitments, so they can see you, that this will continue, it did not happen ... when I'm here long-term, I'm not a priority, and emotionally I have to deal with that because one of the biggest negatives of being abroad is loneliness ... besides the fact that it's hard to integrate, you have a hard time integrating not only because you're a foreigner but because they're also foreign to you, like even though you make some contacts ... on a purely emotional level it's much easier to connect with Bulgarians and those connections that I built before I left, in the period that I was building myself as a young adult and a conscious person happened in Bulgaria and therefore in England it was much harder, although I would say I'm quite sociable and I have a lot of acquaintances, but they remain on the level of acquaintances, very few of them are on the level of - friends... so, I come to Bulgaria not to be lonely, but I'm lonely again...This social dimension of the missing intensity of the contacts could also be connected with the time span and whether it is still valid if the returnee is back in the country for a longer period. In this particular case the returnee is back in less than one year, the situation is additionally charged by the Covid-19 situation and needs to be observed over time.
The lack of social networks is perceived as a “stopper” in regard to a quicker professional realization as well. A returnee explains: First one feels very lonely, i.e. you have to integrate back, you feel alone in terms of experiences, all the Bulgarians are here, they were here, while you jump back into a society where you have not been for a long time and you feel lonely... And, although a lot of the people who come back are qualified, they just don't have the network of people to help them integrate quickly, and to get a job quickly, and to move up, it's a stopper, it's problematic, because my parents, not having those connections, and me not having made them, all my more serious contacts are somewhere, are abroad, and the few that are here are not enough to allow me to develop the way I want to, there's a delay.The professional trajectories of returnees and how they developed upon return and ten years later is discussed in another article of the author (see Ivanova 2020).
The changed socio-cultural norms and habits is the other important acquisition that emerged out of the migration experience and could be a source of tension and need for further adaptation while back at home, especially if the stay abroad is a longer one: I had such a reverse culture shock, I can't describe it to you. I mean, I'm Bulgarian, I love Bulgaria, but I had gone out of the way of thinking, I had immersed myself in another culture, other standards, another way of doing things, and it was very difficult to adapt back, a lot of things, what not, just the very mindset of Bulgarians, it's very difficult to explain exactly what I mean, but the work culture, this mindset that here everyone is waiting for something to happen, everyone is waiting for something to happen from the outside, an external thing to fix it, ... not that each one of us can influence, ... is that just the way we're used to, I don't know.
Life in different cultures equips migrants with new norms and habits, being regular in the country of destination, that could still be considered peculiar back in the country of origin: The accuracy. Someone tells you they're going to see you at 7, he comes 5 past 7, 10 past 7, I could have done at least 3 things from 5 past 7 or 10 past 7, and he loses them to me, and when you tell him, it sounds fantastic to him, where on earth would that have impressed you? It's not even inherent to him, what would you say to consider it his minus, or his failing. ... The other thing that annoys me and that I learned to respect, but now it annoys me and I see how ridiculous and nasty it is, people like to talk a lot, they like to engage, they engage when you say something to them and they - my okay, yeah, we'll see, okay, okay. To me, okay means you've given your word, and you can't just put it as an okay that's hanging out somewhere. Do you understand?
Another example of everyday smaller or bigger struggles is the one between partners in a family while discussing variety of issues: On a personal level with my partner, our perspectives are very different, mine comes from my experience abroad, how people think there and there is such a culture clash.
All levels of interactions show that there exist tensions, based on changed socio-cultural norms, and habits happen in various contexts in the family, among friends and professionally. In some situations, the returnees I talked with, have the strength and determination to stick to their “new” norm, but in others they rather prefer to remain silent or feel the urge to further explain and sometimes do, but in some cases they don’t. These are important aspects of the construction of the social identity of the returnees and needs further research.
What socio-cultural adaptation strategies returnees choose to address the above explained tensions and challenges? Here, I will elaborate three of them that I find in the stories of my respondents. There are migrants that although living long periods abroad, they think that one day they will return in Bulgaria. Their adaptation strategy is the preparation before the actual return through maintaining contacts while being abroad.A returnee explains: I have never torn my ties with Bulgaria, my parents still live here, many of my close friends are also in Bulgaria, and I already had such a safety net, knowing that when I return I won't be completely alone, which again is a comforting thought, there's someone to ask things, there's someone to rely on if you need to, and I came back for at least a weekend every 2-3 months, especially in the last years when I had already made up my mind to return sooner or later.
Regarding professional realization, a way to overcome the tensions of moving back, returnees choose to work in international companies or to create their own. A returnee explains: I felt crushed by bureaucratic stuff (due to disconnected health insurance and other things). Trying to survive the system wasn't easy. Things started to get back to normal the second half of 2019, I started working in an international environment, doing online training. I'm really enjoying it, getting back to the type of work that makes me happy, makes me feel really good. In international working environment returnees find themselves closer to the experience they had abroad (Ivanova, 2020). Another returnee to Bulgaria that could be classified as having multiple returns experience, compares: After 2012 - I thought I could help for a reform in the mental health sector, I was confronted with corruption, demotivated people. After the second return, I didn't look to work in governmental institutions…, I was frustrated, for me it was a waste of time. The second time back, I wanted more consistency and security, I would temporarily compromise, I would work below my education level to complete a degree in psychotherapy, a step back to take a step forward. Studying additionally to create their own practice after return is a professional strategy observed among many of the highly qualified returnees I have previously studied (Ivanova, 2020).
The fact that all returnees have had encounters with different cultures, acknowledge the enriching aspects of these interactions and how it helps them being more open, have new ideas, link different aspects and see life presenting more opportunities and more colorful. A returnee explains: color, colorfulness, touch of different cultures, to get to know people from different cultures, it gives you flexibility in communications, because in a socio-cultural context one thing can be understood differently and coming into contact with a multicultural environment teaches you so valuable experience in communication. Thus, a problem could become a solution and could be synthesized as an adaptation strategy as flexibility of thinking and in communications.
3. Migration experiences as leading to strengthening the European identity. In the interviews analyses, on this stage of my study, I distinguish two ways of strengthening the European identity: through traveling and mobility and through studying in different countries. Both are positively charged, but this does not mean that there are no negative experiences strengthening one’s identity. Discrimination practices, post-Brexit experiences of European citizens are some, that I have also encountered in the stories of my respondents. However, they won’t be in the focus of this article, because they need specific theoretical focus and further elaboration.
- Through travelling and mobility across Europe.
The physical experience of Europe, in terms of geography and border crossings, is experienced by all the respondents, and is another important point of awareness and angle of self-identification with the European-ness: So, it's very clear, I'm European, I go through Serbia when I come here, I go through Croatia, Austria, Slovenia, France, we've had breaks in all of them, even on the first trip we were in France for 8 hours, we had a stay, and you absorb, you communicate, I've seen such nice ones, I've been through Cannes, I have a lot of pictures, because I love taking photos, I have a lot of photos at home, these are very nice memories, but everywhere is organized, it's just arranged, not like in Bulgaria.It's organized everywhere, yes. With this particular example I would like to also point out the contradiction that lies within, because the returnee perceives the possibility to be at all these places as being European, but immediately says that all these places are not like Bulgaria.
- Through studying in different countries as a citizen of the European Union.
Especially for the younger people, the possibility to study abroad after finishing high school is seen as a great benefit and what it means to be a European in practice: If it wasn't for Bulgaria's EU membership and the fact that we don't have to pay higher fees, because students from non-EU countries were paying for example 10,000 euros a year as fees at my university, being a member of the EU, having a second citizenship by virtue of being Bulgarian and Bulgaria being an EU member state gave me equal access together with Dutch students, i.e. this is the biggest benefit I have experienced.And maybe if we hadn't become EU members I wouldn't have had this opportunity to go and definitely my life would have developed in a totally different direction.
Conclusions. The initial analysis of the presented first stage of the ethnographic study contributes to the research discussion with three focuses: the Bulgarian (national), European and global identity interplay in regard to the self-perception of the returnees, the interaction tensions they face and the socio-cultural adaptation strategies they create for themselves, as integration upon return is intrinsically linked to issues of identity (Vathi and Duci 2016), and the returnees experiences and practices that contribute to constricting a supranational identity.
From the analyzed initial field research and the cases studied, the Bulgarian national identity does not weaken over time, as stated in other studies. According to Kennedy (2008) the attachment to ‘original’ national identities weaken over time and frequent interactions with other cultures within the host society result in a blurred sense of belonging and cultural attachment to a specific country”(Quassoli and Dimitriadis, 2019: 342). The national Bulgarian identity remains constant and leading compared to the European and the global ones. Interesting outcome within the current study is that the country of destination does not necessarily foster developing second national identity, even in cases of acquired citizenship. The two figures, that this study synthesizes, are the Bulgarian with a global experience and global view, and the Bulgarian with a global experience and European view. In regard to the second question – about the situations in which returnees experience tensions and what social-cultural adaptation strategies they use to cope with them – the two challenges Bulgarian returnees encounter are the lack of social networks and the changed socio-cultural norms and habits. The adaptation strategies they choose are within the transnationalism concept and could be summarized as maintaining contacts while being abroad, work in international companies or creating their own, flexibility of thinking and communications. The situations and practices, in which the migration experience of returnees have influenced their identification with Europe, the European Union and could be considered as a point of building a supranational identity, are mostly through travelling and mobility across Europe, as well as studying in different countries as a citizen of the European Union. These initial reflections and conclusions will be further elaborated and tested in consequent parts of the scientific project „Contemporary Bulgarian Identity – National and European Dimensions“.
 National Statistical Institute, According to preliminary estimates, the population of Bulgaria is 6.5 million people, final census data will be available at the end of 2022. URL: https://census2021.bg/новини/по-предварителна-оценка-населението/ (accessed 09.02.2022).
 Funded by the Bulgarian National Science Fund, ФНИ-МОН, КП-06-H50/6 from 30.11.2020.
In 2010-2012 I have done semi-structured interviews with highly qualified returnees during writing my dissertation; In January-February 2020, I repeated the study with some the respondents from 2010-2012to analyze where I find them 10 years later; In March-May 2020 I did a virtual semi-structured interviews with highly qualified mobile Bulgarians abroad with a focus on attitudes to return in a Covid-19 situation.
 The author will broaden the profile of the respondents during the second phase of the project.