When the personal gets political: Reflections from Eastern Europe

Lecturing on Global Cosmopolitans in Bulgaria and Romania brought up many questions from both well-travelling Global Cosmopolitans and people considering the possibility of embarking on a global lifestyle. Bulgarians and Romanians raised a more political concept of home than I previously mentioned in my blogs: “What is my responsibility to my country of origin?” “What role can I play in building its institutions?” “Do I have a duty to invest my skills and knowledge – gained abroad – in the place I call home?”

These can be defining questions for Global Cosmopolitans in their search for meaning and their need to have an impact. They’re age-old dilemmas in Eastern Europe. As one audience member wrote to me later,

Global cosmopolitans have always played an important role in opening up those countries to the world. In the 19th century the elite in business and politics would have been western-educated, typically speaking at least three or four languages. Their contribution upon returning home was truly remarkable and was the key driver of modernization. After Eastern Europe’s implosion between 1945 and 1989, we are still struggling to establish such an elite guard of people.

Many of those in the audience were Global Cosmopolitans in the making and perhaps tomorrow’s “elite guard”. They had already learned multiple languages and were now considering doing an MBA or EMBA abroad.  The question of their personal development was already embedded in the context of personal responsibility to the country where they were born – or even to Eastern Europe in general.

Although they weren’t necessarily considering political careers in the literal sense, the importance of being able to significantly contribute to the business community back home was at issue. And they knew this would require a major personal investment in business-school fees.

The potential Global Cosmopolitans in the audience took advantage of the fact that there were more seasoned MBAs present to seek models of success. There were positive, but very varied, responses to questions like: “How did you find the money to go and what kind of return are you getting on your investment?” “What voice or impact can you have if you decide to become a Global Cosmopolitan?” “How long should you stay away?” “And what is it really like to leave home?”

There were many examples of power and success in the audience. Some were trying to find creative ways of staying connected with their country of origin and yet still take financial and emotional advantage of being a Global Cosmopolitan. One woman even has homes in two countries: Romania and France. One man had moved back to Bulgaria and was now contemplating another global move, but not necessarily for good.

Finding home in relationships was key for many people. For all the political motivations, personal relationships seemed to be a primary source of comfort and solutions to the dilemmas. One of the Global Cosmopolitans I talked to knows that home is in the key relationships in her life, her husband and her extended family and friends. She is pleased with her life and the work that she is doing in Romania, even though she knows that she could have had a successful and more lucrative life abroad.

Finding meaningful work was key for another Global Cosmopolitan who had spent much of his career outside of Romania. Along with his entrepreneurial ventures, he has been developing projects in the NGO sector. But that wasn’t the reason he initially returned. He came to fix his father’s house – and found that the construction work wasn’t simply about honoring his father. It was also about building the connection to his country.

Finding home for others is maintaining ties in the community of Global Cosmopolitans. In this way, they could network with each other and find ways to have a positive impact on the growth and development of both themselves and their country. As one women said to me, “This is the only way that we can really have an impact.”

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