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Return of the natives

This was originally published in Vivid magazine in 2005. Since then much has changed

Repatriate Romanians have almost always learnt a great deal abroad (in the Romanian expression, ‘through the air’) although they have not always forgotten enough. Some things are hard-wired into Romanians at a very early age. But though a few repats returned to out graft those who stayed at home, the majority come back wanting to do things in a transparent way and make their careers by hard work rather than influence peddling, baksheesh or blackmail.

What makes them return? The reasons differ from case to case: homesickness; patriotism; a realisation that life in Romania is more fulfilling and fun than in more developed countries; a desire to have a higher standard of living by living in the cheapest capital in Europe; a desire to be close to family or loved ones. The list is endless. One Romanian told me ‘I wanted to come back because when I bought my loaf of bread in the morning I wanted to know what the shop assistant thought of me.’ Some people return to help their country in her hour of need, some because they prefer to be bigger fish in a smaller pond than to swim with the sharks on, say, Wall St.

Whatever the reasons, their Romanian colleagues who did not have the chance to live abroad often take a cold-eyed view of returnees. One businesswoman who came back after a successful career in the USA told me “Romanians treat foreigners like gods among men but we are simply resented. Everyone thinks ‘I could be where they are if only I’d had their luck’”Repats have to earn respect. With that lack of charity when examining motives which seems to be characteristically Romanian, repats are often thought to have returned home ‘because they have failed.’ This in turn is one of the reasons that dissuade Romanians from returning, the national obsessive fear of losing face.

But the Romania to which repats return can seem, if they have been away several years, like a foreign country. Having learnt to think in a different way, returning they often feel like emigrants all over again. They feel a culture gap between them and those who did not leave and this gap is widened if they enjoy higher salaries or larger career prospects. On the other hand, many very capable people who come back find it very difficult to obtain jobs at any salary, because they are considered over-qualified for every position for which they apply. They also feel in danger of falling between two stools, of being betwixt and between the first and second worlds.

One American professional who has worked in Romania for many years and who has worked alongside repats says they often suffer from what he calls “Self-inflicted crossbreed-edness. Not enough western experience (in mowing lawns, waiting tables, and trying to pick up American chicks, which is how I picked up half of what I currently know) to rival a standard issue, USC or Syracuse graduate; too much in terms of salary expectations for the local market. They can't "wing it" here. They don't even know what it is to "wing it." That's what I do every day -- call instantly on years of experiences, meetings, and discussions to massage a reasonable answer out of the current situation. That's where I make my money, not in the specific answers to silly questions. They’re also crippled by their Romanian education in that they NEED to have/hear the correct answer. It's all "no, that's wrong because . . . " They don't know how to have a constructive debate with other smart people, to toss ideas back and forth, "what if"'s, and "do you mean that"s, to sculpt a sound approach from other people's ideas.”

Whatever their qualities and faults, repatriates will undoubtedly play an invaluable role in bridging the culture gap which exists between locals and foreign investors or professionals. It is impossible to deny that the gap still exists and is still wide. Even more valuable in some ways are the sons and daughters of earlier emigrants, who return to the country their parents left to find themselves and their ethnic identity or to take part in the greater opportunities and challenges that a developing economy offers. In the words of an American Romanian parentage who worked in Bucharest for some years before returning to New York, “Why stay in New York and become a very small cog in a very large and well-run machine, when you can come to Romania and attempt to become part of this new society? The idea is not to be a big fish in a small pond, but to build your own pond and be the first fish to take advantage of it.”

Some foreign employers dislike employing repats on the ground that the resentments they provoke among colleagues outweigh their usefulness but this view is short-sighted, provided that the repat in question is strong enough to merit the position he is given. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of foreign managers in Bucharest is in decline (real estate brokers who are best placed to judge certainly claim this). Although when the eternally fascinating economic upturn materialises the number of foreigners may revive, hard-headed reasons dictate that repats are the future. They are often cheaper than foreigners and have huge advantages over them if they have comparable skills and a Western mentality. Language skills are only the start. Inevitably, even the canniest foreigner cannot hope to understand more than a little about Romania, and that little takes considerable time to learn.

So in the next thirty years repats will take leading positions in business, the arts, education and eventually in politics. The readiness of Romanians to return home in numbers will both be a sign that Romania is moving forward and a powerful catalyst for her to do so.

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