This post will most likely stir some controversy among my friends. I am sure that some of them would even accuse me of betraying my own country of birth — Bulgaria.
I typically do not comment on politics on my blog, but the events that have been going on in Bulgaria in the past month and a February 26th New York Times article on a seemingly unrelated topic prompted me to express my opinion. I am going to say some harsh words about Bulgaria, but I believe someone finally needs to call out the inconvenient and cold truth, and since I am a Bulgarian, I might just as well be that person.
In this post, I will compare two nations that are very close to my heart: Bulgaria and Mexico. Bulgaria is the country where I was born and grew up to adulthood. Mexico is the country from where I have a lot of good friends, including my ex-girlfriend and her parents and family whom I respect a lot. Unfortunately, this story is contrasting these two countries and, as in any contrast, one of them has to win, and the other will lose. In my post, Mexico is the winner, or the “comeback kid” as Pulitzer laureate Thomas Friedman calls it in his New York Times commentary on the latest developments in that country. And Bulgaria is, alas, the loser. If you want to find out why I think so, keep reading.
In many ways Bulgaria and Mexico are similar. Two countries that have gone through a lot of ups and downs (mostly downs) in the past few decades. Two countries that hinge between the First World and the Third World. They are not as poor as the typical Third World countries. But they are not well off and organized the same way the First World is. Both of them are on the outskirts of the two largest economic areas in the world. Bulgaria is the poorest country in the European Union. Mexico is the poorer kid on the block in NAFTA. Even the flags of the two countries share the same three colors — white, green, red — “les tres colores” in Mexico, and the “трикольор” (which can be transliterated from Cyrillic as “trikolyor”) in Bulgaria.
However, the two countries are also very different. On the surface, Bulgaria seems to be the better-off country — after the 1996 short period of hyperinflation and financial crisis, the Bulgarian economy has been on the rise; Bulgaria joined NATO, then became a fully fledged member of the European Union. Bulgaria is peaceful. There is organized crime and corruption, but nothing on the scale of the violence taking place in parts of Mexico. As my ex-girlfriend commented during her visit to Bulgaria, “It is amazing that we can walk everywhere or we can drive on a deserted road in the mountain without being worried.” However, this is just about everything in which Bulgaria excels over Mexico.
I agree with Mr. Friedman that Mexico is the real “comeback kid.” And instead of resorting to various economic statistics, results from demographic studies, or world rankings, I am going to point out a much simpler reason why Mexico is winning over Bulgaria: the population’s attitude and approach toward life and the world. In my opinion, there are three key behavioral differences that put a wedge between the two countries and, unfortunately, outline their future trajectories:
1. Mexicans live in the present. Bulgarians live in the past.
If you go to Mexico, you’ll see a lot of people who are very proud of their heritage and proudly boast their national flags. However, most of them are proud of who they are now. When you ask them about accomplishments, they talk about current things — such as Mexico’s men’s soccer team winning the gold at the 2012 Olympics in London, or Ximena Navarrete’s Miss Universe title in 2010, or the nomination of the film Biutiful for the 2010 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, or Chicharito scoring yet another goal for Manchester United.
If you go to Bulgaria, however, you’ll see a lot of people (many of whom are in the late teens or early 20s) wearing patriotic t-shirts displaying the Bulgarian flag, or the Cyrillic alphabet (which — they would proudly explain to you — was invented by two brothers of Bulgarian descent for the Bulgarian people, and then gifted through our books to other Slavic nations, including Russia). If you stop any of these patriots and ask them if they were proud of Bulgaria and why, they would immediately start talking about the “Golden Age” of the country. This “Golden Age” was hundreds of years ago, but that does not matter to them. What matters to them is that at one point we were the fiercest and scariest rival to the great Byzantine Empire. What matters is that we had universities and books before many of the current wealthy countries of the world even existed. However, you would most likely not hear a single thing about the present.
2. Mexicans enjoy life, even if it is a simple life. Bulgarians complain about life, even when it is simple.
When I went to visit my ex-girlfriend’s family in Mexico, I met a lot of people and was invited to their homes. I even attended a wedding. During the full two weeks I was there, I saw a lot of people who were genuinely smiling. Many of them seemed and sounded happy. Yes, they had their problems. Yes, they were probably worried about kidnappings and killings that were taking place in some states of the country. However, they managed to put these things behind them and look out for the brighter future. Now, I am not Mexican, and I may just as well be proven wrong about this. However, I believe life has taught me how to read people’s emotions relatively well. And the general vibe that I was getting from all the Mexicans I met was positive. People were not complaining. They were not grumpy.
On the contrary, every time before I go back to Bulgaria, I mentally prepare myself for the negativeness and pessimism that I will have to endure for the days I visit. I prepare to endure the constant complaining about the unfair government that does not provide for its own people, about the corrupt politicians who have betrayed the nation, about the evil corporations that exploit all ordinary citizens, about the global conspiracy that has been going for ages against Bulgaria. Not surprisingly, many of my foreign friends who had visited Bulgaria were bewildered why Bulgarians seemed too grumpy to them. Even The Economist had an article that compared income and happiness levels across countries in the world. In that article the authors called out Bulgaria as the special case — Bulgarians were not as happy as their income levels would suggest. “The saddest place in the world, relative to its income per person,” was what The Economist called Bulgaria. And very rightfully so.
3. Mexicans look to the rest of the world for inspiration. Bulgarians look to the rest of the world with mistrust and condescension.
In his New York Times piece, Mr. Friedman provided context and useful examples to many observations that I had previously made on my own. In a way, his article served as a true catalyst to my understanding why Mexico’s tale is so different from that of Bulgaria. Despite the relative poverty, corruption and violence, many young Mexicans had managed to stay connected to the rest of the world. They read about the biggest issues that interest their peers in countries as close as the U.S. and as far as Japan. They participate actively in events, physical and virtual, that matter on a global scale. Therefore, not surprisingly at all, they also exhibit commendable entrepreneurship and social responsibility that is on par with what one would expect from some of the wealthiest and most progressive societies.
Mr. Friedman points to Monterrey, which he calls Mexico’s Silicon Valley. He goes on to explain how Monterrey has cultivated a critical mass of young, confident innovators trying to solve Mexico’s problems, by leveraging technology and globalization. He introduces to us Raúl Maldonado, founder of Enova, which has “created an after-school program of blended learning — teacher plus Internet — to teach math and reading to poor kids and computer literacy to adults.” He then showcases the work of Patricio Zambrano from Alivio Capital who has “created a network of dental, optical and hearing aid clinics to provide low-cost alternatives for all three, plus loans for hospital care for people without insurance.” He praises Andres Muñoz Jr. from Energryn, who “demonstrated his solar hot-water heater that also purified water and could cook meat.” The list goes on and on. But the recurring themes are not only entrepreneurship, creativity, innovation, technological savvy, but also social responsibility. This new breed of young Mexican entrepreneurs creates business opportunities that not only enrich themselves but also transform the lives of the poor — i.e., the people at the proverbial “Bottom of the Pyramid.”
This is in stark contrast to what I see in Bulgaria where entrepreneurship is often frowned upon and equated with profiteering, embezzlement, scamming. Perhaps Bulgarians have a good reason to mistrust most entrepreneurs — the two decades since the fall of the “Iron Curtain” in 1989 have produced numerous examples of phony businessmen with oligarchic tendencies. There are a few examples of honest and decent entrepreneurs in Bulgaria, of course. Some of them have created software companies, web design studios, call centers. However, as progressive as these entrepreneurs look in the Bulgarian reality, their business models are well tested and nothing new. What Bulgaria truly lacks is the kind of “Just Do It” entrepreneurial bravado, mixed with a strong understanding of the current trends that define the world, and a true passion for social responsibility.
Where are the Enova-style blended learning after-school programs to teach math and reading to the kids? What is the Bulgarian equivalent of the low-cost, high-quality care centers that Patricio Zambrano had created in Mexico? Where are the tech innovators to rival Andres Muñoz Jr. and his solar, multipurpose hot-water heater? I have the sad feeling that my questions above will remain unanswered — because Bulgaria is currently lacking this breed of young, energetic and innovative social entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs who instead of complaining about their living conditions, have grabbed the opportunity to create something new and meaningful for themselves, their neighbors and the society as a whole.
My Recommendation to My Fellow Bulgarians:
This leads me to my final conclusion. Many of you may be asking now: “What are you trying to tell us with your article?” The answer is simple — I am trying to send a wake-up call to my fellow Bulgarians to take a reality check and to start thinking what they can do to make their own existence more enjoyable and more meaningful; what they can do to help themselves, but also their own country.
In the past two weeks, many Bulgarians have taken to the streets (and social media) in protest — however, they have failed to express coherently what they are protesting against, which is why the rest of the world has remained largely unmoved and disinterested. Some of their protests are well justified; others reek of the worst form of an extreme sense of entitlement, to say the least. However, these protests will not help Bulgarians elevate themselves to a higher lifestyle; they are not going to help their country.
If Bulgarians see things that are currently done wrong, they should harness all the technology they have at their fingertips and their innate talents to come up with the best practices and adapt these to the Bulgarian reality. Bulgarians should stop asking their government to dole out money and social services; instead, they should look inwardly and try to find the creativity, innovation, and motivation required to start building new things — things that matter and add value.
As a starting point, Bulgarians can watch John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Speech from 1961 where he famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” This quote should be their guiding motto if they want to get out of the mess in which they find themselves at the present moment.
Bulgaria has existed for thirteen centuries and I hope that this long history has taught the people of that country to adapt and to survive. I also hope that as they adapt, a new generation of young socially responsible entrepreneurs will finally emerge to lead the country. I hope Bulgarians learn from Mexicans and course-correct the path that their nation is taking. Perhaps in a few years, the New York Times will be writing about a new “comeback kid.” Perhaps that “comeback kid” will be Bulgaria… Perhaps…
What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the Comments section.