A CONVERSATION WITH MYSELF

There is no acceptable excuse for emigration after taking
advantage of the treasures of one’s homeland; leaving her
for good is nothing but a betrayal.

István Széchenyi11 Count István Széchenyi, Credit or the Basics of Happiness (Budapest: Széchenyi Alapítvány, 2021), 228.

I came to Hungary in September to begin my Fulbright grant, aiming to analyse István Széchenyi’s life and legacy. He is my ancestor, a great Hungarian statesman and writer, someone I was taught about my whole life, was compared to by virtue of having the same name, and who served as a personal hero. I thought that studying his life, particularly the way it ended, his tragic suicide, would demonstrate the importance of mental health even for the greatest minds, and allow Hungarians, who walk under his towering statues every day, and me, to take lessons from his life in full. A very specific project and imperative. But, upon my arrival I was immediately overstimulated because, as it turned out, returning to my ancestral home forced a reckoning with my place in the world. As soon as my plane for Budapest took off, I found myself engrossed in thinking about what this country truly is, what its people are truly like, how it reflects me, and how I reflect it. So, as a result, September was the beginning of a slightly narcissistic mission of self-discovery as much as it was the beginning of a research project.

From my name it is obvious that I am of Hungarian descent. You would be hard-pressed to find a name that is more quintessentially Hungarian than Bence Szechenyi. But I am not just a descendent of a Hungarian family, I was born in Budapest. All my grandparents emigrated to the United States from Hungary, forced out by war and turmoil, and my parents are both first-generation Americans who moved back to Hungary as young adults. Shortly after my birth, within a matter of months, my parents returned to the United States, and I was raised as an American. I did not learn the Hungarian language to a level of proficiency and spoke only English. But I could never separate from Hungary completely by virtue of my name. Despite being completely American in almost every way, my name, and Americans’ inability to pronounce it, always

Bence in Budapest, 2014 and 2021

marked me as foreign. When I was a kid, I had a lisp and could not pronounce ‘R’. When Americans heard my name, after they asked the question that always followed my introduction: ‘where are you from’, they would often follow up by commenting on my accent. Of course, I do not and never did have an accent. English is my first and only language, but my foreign name made my lisp into an accent. I do not have a lisp anymore, a stern Russian speech therapist ironed that out in no time, but Americans still think I have an accent on occasion. I had a girlfriend in college who after months of our relationship told me that when we first met, she was initially interested in me because of my accent, which does not exist.

These misconceptions never bothered me, I liked that there was something that made me unique in juxtaposition with the other Americans I was surrounded by. But I was and have always been perceived as just that, somehow removed from a complete notion of Americanness. Americans often saw me as inseparable from a European or Hungarian identity, even though when I was in Europe I was seen as only American. I acted accordingly in both settings, embracing the cultural identity the different places associated with me. It is an interesting dynamic to belong to two places but to be outside of both, a classic immigrant narrative, the ‘third culture child’. It has been confusing throughout my life. Importantly, I was never immediately disassociated from American identity by virtue of my appearance, as many people of colour unfairly are in the United States. It was only after introducing myself that this third-culture effect took place. Nonetheless, I felt the effects of this difference, and at times envied those with a classically American name like Hunter Williams, or something, who never had to explain what brought them to the United States.

Since in the United States almost everyone associated me with Hungary, I would put pressure on the place whenever I returned to it. As far as I could tell, this country was me, this culture is the one I came from, and therefore represents me to everyone who visits. When I was very young, I loved Hungary for this reason. It was home, in an abstract sense, and I truly felt joy whenever I crossed the border. In my mind I was the prodigal son. Even when I came to Hungary to begin my research, admittedly after a few beers during my layover in Vienna, I was thinking to myself ‘I’m coming, Hungary’ as my plane approached Budapest. The legacy of the Széchenyi family furthered this imagined prodigal son narrative. Hungarians throughout my life have loved to remind me how important my family was to Hungarian history, which made me feel special or noble somehow, as though I was a part of a tradition of Hungarian excellence. So, whenever I returned to the country, I felt like I was fulfilling my duty, returning in triumph to pick up where my ancestors left off. Despite me spelling my last name with no accents, in the American fashion, returning to Hungary always felt like a glorious homecoming.

However, as I travelled more in Europe and formed a more intimate relationship with a variety of different cities and countries, I started to be ashamed of Hungary. Let me preface this by saying that there is nothing wrong with Hungary, and there was no real reason for the shame I have felt at moments, but nonetheless I did feel it. I saw buildings in Budapest with crumbling facades, my dad pointed out the bullet holes that still ‘adorned’ many structures, I noticed the Soviet buildings that were sprinkled throughout the countryside, and I mourned for the place. I thought that the people were somehow less fashionable than those I saw in Paris, or visibly less wealthy than those in New York or London, and this made me sad. On top of this, Hungary was constantly being denigrated in the American press, and made to seem like a backward place. Even though I knew this was not really the case, I still felt ashamed, unwilling to associate myself with the country. Before I left to begin my research, during the more stressful moments I would remark to my friends and family that I did not want to go to Hungary, and I wished that I could have done my research from Vienna. This was the height of my internalized shame. Part of me did not want to return to Hungary when another part of me felt intrinsically connected to it. These distinct relationships to the country, which coexisted in my mind, were in competition as my plane touched down in Budapest on 2 September 2021.

To paraphrase István Széchenyi, there is an indefinable quality that bonds someone to their ancestral homeland.22 Széchenyi, Credit, 190. My mother told me during the first month of my project that I should expect Hungary to be a difficult place for me to live. She claimed there were ghosts there that would haunt me. Even my father, who cannot stand my mom’s tendency to attribute phenomena to the supernatural, alluded to some indefinable quality that makes living in this country different for us than any other place in the world. He would never say ghosts, but he did allude to a visceral sense of connection to the land underfoot. That is pretty much as spiritual as the man gets. So, in my first month I prepared myself for a year that would be more emotionally taxing or personally revealing than most.

I met the other scholars from my fellowship shortly after my arrival. They were all American, some with a familial connection to Hungary, but I was by far the most Hungarian of the Americans arriving to do research. They were all very clever young people and were in the same unusual position as me. In the evenings we would often go out for a beer, talk about our projects, what our expectations were for our grant period, and how we were feeling after moving to a new country. During these conversations, I found myself often vehemently defending Hungary, feeling insulted or slighted by passing comments they made, even though I knew they were coming from a place of intellectual curiosity.

Before I left, my perception of Hungary was informed by the media I had access to, which often declared that the country was moving in an anti-democratic direction. As a result of exposure to a significant amount of bad press, I had internalized some severe criticism of Hungary, which as I said, contributed to the shame I felt. But when I got here and heard these Americans levelling the same criticism of Hungary that both the American media and myself had previously engaged in, a defensive instinct sprung up in me. A voice in my head said, ‘they don’t know anything about Hungary, how dare they comment on it’. I immediately rejected the side of me that felt ashamed of Hungary as soon as an American levelled criticism against it. Instead, I became a representative of the nation. István Széchenyi considered true patriotism to be rooted in an understanding of a nation’s faults combined with a constant effort to improve it. I recognized the merits of many of their criticisms, but I stepped in to provide the Hungarian perspective, the context that comes from having a better understanding of the culture and history. I was proud to fulfil this role and realized at that moment that whether I liked it or not, Hungary is me and I am it. Nothing makes that clearer than a conversation about the country with someone from anywhere else.

This newfound feeling of cultural connection was only distorted by the reception I received. Remember how my name creates awkward moments in the United States, forcing me to have that unpleasant conversation where I must explain my cultural roots and coach someone to say my name correctly? The same thing happens in Hungary, except in reverse. I must explain my Hungarian identity and tell the story of why and how I am so American. My cultural background creates confusion both in Hungary and the United States.

In Hungary, I have found that sometimes my background makes people emotional. I am the product of a diaspora, which I think is always emotional to some degree. When I was in my final year at college I wrote a thesis about narratives of immigration to the United States, so I thought I knew all about the experience of immigration, the feelings of loss, isolation, and the process of adjustment. But I had never really thought about emigration from the perspective of the people left behind. Emigration in many cases is the search for a better life, implying that things in the country of departure are worse than the country to which one emigrates. So, what do the people who never left think of the emigrants?

Once I was seated in the outdoor area of a bar with a couple other Americans I knew from Fulbright. A short kid with dark brown hair worn in a buzz cut lurched up to where we were sitting. He was visibly intoxicated, standing at a forty-five-degree angle, almost falling before catching himself and starting to fall again. He came straight up to me, ignoring the other two Americans I was sitting with, and started to speak to me in Hungarian. I politely interrupted him in Hungarian, telling him that I did not understand what he was saying, and I only spoke a little Hungarian. I asked him if he would speak more slowly or speak in English. He switched to English and asked me where I was from. I told him New York City. He asked me what my name was, and I said Bence. Of course, as my name prompts, he then asked me if I was Hungarian. I said yes, I am. He proceeded to switch back to rapidly speaking in Hungarian.

At first, I thought he was speaking to me, so I listened closely. But I realized by the insulting nature of his words that he was actually speaking about me, presumably to his friend who had materialized next to him. He was upset that I said I was Hungarian when I did not speak Hungarian and was not really from Hungary. He gesticulated wildly in my direction while his friend tried to play the middleman, calming him down while apologizing to me in English. It did not make sense to this angry kid that I could be named Bence yet be American in every way. I think he thought I had fully defected and could no longer claim Hungarian identity because I had betrayed it by being American. He was worked up, puffing out his chest, criticizing me and calling me an American tourist. It quickly became clear from his body language that he was almost at the point of fighting me. He was shorter and smaller than me so I considered standing up and demonstrating this fact to him in the hope that he would deflate and leave me alone. I did not want to, however, because I respected what he had to say.

Bence’s grandfather, right, and grandmother,
second from the right, protesting in New York
for the liberation of Hungary

I found it interesting. It was fair for him to disassociate me from a Hungarian identity, I thought. I do not speak Hungarian and I was not raised here and shaped by Hungarian culture in an explicit sense. From one conversation, in English or Hungarian, it is obvious that I am American in basically every way, but I had the nerve to call myself Hungarian. But the part he did not understand, and I can only hope he reads this someday, is that I only call myself Hungarian to get ahead of the questions I have been groomed to expect when speaking to people about my background. In an American context, disavowing myself from Hungary and saying I am American would be unsatisfactory to the people I am speaking to. It would not compute that I claim to be simply American while my name screams foreign, just like it did not compute to this young man that I could claim to be Hungarian while asking him to speak English.

Perhaps he felt like I was appropriating Hungarian identity while avoiding the reality of being from the country. He must have thought that I live the life of a privileged American, come to Hungary, relish in how cheap things are, and pretend to be Hungarian. Of course, that is not really what I am, I can barely afford life in Hungary, let alone at home, but he did not know that and so I considered his annoyance to be justified. I did not feel bad for what I said to him, and I would not change the phrasing of it either. Everything that I said was true, but I understand why it is infuriating all the same. I am a living source of confusion and frustration for some Hungarians, and I understand that.

Brooding over my notebook and a weak cappuccino at a cafe the next morning, I thought about this interaction at length. I cringed, putting my head in my hands, thinking about how I must have come across, how my imagined prodigal son narrative must look from the perspective of Hungarians who have spent their lives here. The way I presented myself that night, crisp new Nikes that I had bought for the move, a rather large gold necklace gifted by my grandmother, I think I was even wearing a Yankees jersey, speaking loudly in English. I could not have looked and seemed more American, but I still had the audacity to claim to be Hungarian. I cannot move through the world with American smugness, loudness, arrogance, speaking in English and expecting everyone to understand, and yet pretend to know what it means to be Hungarian.

Anger is an understandable reaction to the situation we were in at the bar, but when I have told the story of my Hungarian association to other Hungarians, it has been met with a different reaction: melancholy. The most jarring example of this sadness was during a conversation with Mária, my Hungarian teacher. She lived most of her life in Hungary, witnessing the fall of the communist regime, the establishment of Hungarian democracy, and was full of brilliant pearls of wisdom about the country, culture, history, and people. During one class we were talking about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. She said that in her opinion the tragedy of the revolution was twofold. Firstly, there was the obvious loss, the continuation of Soviet rule in the country. That was a crushing blow to Hungarians, literally, emotionally, and perhaps even spiritually. The death of hope, as I have heard it described.

The second loss, she said, was the emigration the revolution caused. She recalled, visibly emotional, that this was the worse of the two losses because many of the nation’s talented young people had to leave, never to return. In class, when we discuss the global population of Hungarian speakers, Mária always says that there are one million Hungarian speakers far away, and pantomimes wiping away a tear while waving. To Mária, the diaspora is a tragedy, and that is the tragedy that led to me being an American. The fact that I am Hungarian, by name and ancestry, but cannot relate to Hungary through language or through complete cultural understanding is a reminder of the loss that Mária understands to be comparable to enduring another forty-five years of Soviet oppression. I hoped that my presence in the country, my feeble attempts to learn Hungarian, and my interest in the history and culture might bring her some happiness, and maybe it did, but it became clear to me after our conversation about 1956 that my existence was a powerful reminder of Hungary’s fracturing.

Emigration is fascinating from all conceivable angles. The risk that emigrants take, the things they leave behind, the bravery that it takes. How the nation they emigrate to is so often indifferent to or even resentful of their arrival, but they stay nonetheless, fighting for a better life. In the meantime, the country they leave thinks of them with sadness, waving at them across an expanse, wiping away a tear, as we pantomime in my Hungarian classes. Maybe the emigrants’ children return to their parents’ homeland and find themselves outside of that culture, but still not quite the same as the people in the country their parents migrated to. Third-culture existence, trying to justify in their heads, our heads, that we are from two countries, and not just international misfits.

Perhaps some of what I have learned about the home country’s reaction to the diaspora is something very specific to Hungary. It is a small country, a unique culture, in a landlocked territory, constantly overshadowed by larger cultures to the east and west. There is a certain defensiveness over all things Hungarian that I have seen from my grandparents, parents, as well as in passing conversations I have with people on the street or in cafes. It is the same defensiveness that makes Mária ask ‘why?’ with tangible sadness, when I tell her I will probably return ‘home’ to New York after my fellowship period is over. In a way, confronting descendants of Hungarian diaspora, as a Hungarian, forces the recognition that things have not always been good in this country. Something that is readily admitted, worn on the sleeve of Hungarians, but is also deeply painful. To once again paraphrase my ancestor, someone whose philosophies permeate the whole of Hungarian culture, there is an indescribable bond that ties one to one’s homeland. When this bond is ignored, or severed by necessity or choice, it is a tragedy or a betrayal, depending on how you see it.

  • 1
    1 Count István Széchenyi, Credit or the Basics of Happiness (Budapest: Széchenyi Alapítvány, 2021), 228.
  • 2
    2 Széchenyi, Credit, 190.

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