• Sarah Tian

My Stories Growing Up As An Immigrant in Budapest, Hungary

Updated: Jul 15

"I was born in China and moved to Budapest, Hungary when I was around 5 years old". Since coming to the U.S., this has become one of the fun facts I like to share about myself during ice-breakers.

With the recent increase in the attention on diversity, equity and inclusion in our society, I decided it is time for me to share my own experiences as a "third-culture kid", and more specifically, as an Asian immigrant growing up in Hungary. I also hope to spread awareness about how your comments and actions can have a lasting impact on someone else.


How to Drink Soup the "Right Way"

Hungarians are rigid with their etiquette. There were many things I had to adjust to when I first arrived. I remember we always had soup for lunch in the Hungarian kindergarten. The soups were served in a plate with a deeper dent in the middle to hold the liquid. I was used to drinking soup from a bowl, so at first I also drank the soup from the plate with my mouth. My Hungarian teacher was surprised at me and taught me the "proper" way of drinking the soup: one spoon at a time. So the question is how do I drink the last few spoons of soup with a spoon? I quickly learned that you have to tilt the plate towards you and again, use the spoon to scoop up the last sip.


Feeling Different in Daily Life

Growing up in Hungary (in a predominantly White society) as an Asian kid, I constantly felt different from others. Wherever I went, there were always signals that I was different: at school, in the grocery store, at the bus stop...Here are some examples I can still recall:

  • People would automatically talk to me in English when they first saw me. If I respond in Hungarian, they are always pleasantly surprised and would comment on how nice my Hungarian is. (Funnily, when I disclose the fact that I grew up in Hungary to my Chinese friends in the U.S. for the first time, they also say how nicely I speak Mandarin...)

  • While waiting for the bus to go to school, people would often strike up conversations with me, curious about where I came from and why I'm here.

  • My classmates commented that my face looked like "zsemle" (a Hungarian round bread). They would even pull their eyes up on the edges to imitate what they thought were "Asian eyes".

  • Later in high school, I remember a classmate made a comment that my nose is "pretty high and not as flat as other Asians". Hmm, am I supposed to take it as a compliment?

  • When I saw myself in the mirror coming out of the classroom, I would stare at my self for a few seconds, surprised at how different I looked from everyone else in class...

  • Most people probably don't remember their journey from their classroom to the bathroom in their primary school, but I do. I remember at the time, my classroom was on the left end, while the girls' bathroom was on the right end of the corridor. This meant that I would always go passed other classrooms on my way to the toilet. When kids who were hanging out in the corridor saw me walk pass, they would shout "ching-chang-chung" towards me every time. I would simply ignore them and over time, I learned to not even make any eye contact.

  • My teacher would praise me in front of other classmates: "Sarah is not from here but her grades in Hungarian reading and grammar are better than yours."


My parents' influence

My parents had similar experiences. They were older, but new to this immigrant life as well. They did not know how to deal with it either whenever I told them about my experiences at school. They just told me to ignore them and "focus on my studies to prove that I was better than them in other aspects". My mom would give a "red packet" to our family doctor during our visits. When I asked her why, she explained that it would give her reassurance that we would be provided equal service to the locals.


How these experiences shaped my values and beliefs

I ended up accepting that my race was just somehow worse. I did not question it or fight for equality at all. I constantly lived in fear of being judged by others. I felt that I not only represented myself, but also my race and nationality. So I always wanted to appear perfect in front of others and maintain a good image. Because of my perceived sense of racial inequality, I felt I needed to work harder than my peers, as if that would make me on par with them.


Chinese school was my childhood sanctuary

I loved going to Chinese school on the weekends. It was a safe harbor where I felt a sense of belonging - the kids were also Chinese immigrants living in Budapest. We not only shared the same identity but also the unique experience of "third culture kids". Influenced by my friends in the Chinese school, I started to follow Chinese pop music, dramas and idols, which established my Chinese identity.


Reconnecting to my roots and identity

After moving to the U.S., I was surprised at the number of Asian students in college and felt instantly connected back to my ethnic identity. Interestingly, I sometimes feel like an outsider among my Chinese peers as well. For example, there are certain slang words and phrases that they use that I would not understand at first.


I used to complain how I don't belong anywhere. But well, at least, I guess I could be proud to be a global citizen with roots everywhere...


Conclusion

Every person is unique and EVERYONE can become a minority depending on the context. Reflect on your experiences as a minority in a group. Together, let's strive to create a more diverse world where everyone can be comfortable being different.

 

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