I let this phrase linger in my mouth for a few minutes before I blow it out like used smoke. I catch myself shivering a little, as if some chilly breeze is washing over my soul, wafting in all the way from the East. Blowing from a place I used to call home. A place I still, unwaveringly, call home.
Lessons from time gone by ring in my ear as I’m scrolling through a Hungarian news portal on my phone. Lessons about people with vile intentions and unlimited power. Lenin – Stalin – Mussolini – Hitler – Mao – the list goes on and on, but I wonder if we will have to find a blank space for a new candidate to be put on the wrong side of history.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been in power for 12 years in a row (he had been in office prior to that between 1998-2002, but his long-term reign only began in 2010), and he has just been re-elected on 3rd April for another 4 years (or as most of see it, forevermore). I’m leaving much room for interpretation when I use the word “elected”, because there wasn’t really a chance for things to change.
He is behind every decision ever made. If one turns on the TV in the countryside, there is a high chance of receiving a certain treatment many would classify as ‘brainwashing.’ I myself have relatives living near the borders of Hungary, whose only source of information is the national television, and the not-so-subtle channels of propaganda pouring out from their screens, spreading out across their living room, sprawling like a bulging cloud of an infectious disease. We’ve had conversations very typical of the Eastern European countryside, where justification for a claim is at best the phrase “I saw it on TV, it is the truth.”
I guess we really did bring it upon ourselves. We elected him. We elected him 5 times.
What pains me about his umpteenth reelection is not the fact that he is going to drive Hungary out of the European Union, or the possibility he’ll bring us to total ruin in desperate times like these, no. It is the fact that he’s been doing everything in his power to make himself as unlikable as a politician can only hope to be, and people still vote for him.
His previous measures and political maneuvers go as far as using an anti-immigration, racist rhetoric to win the elections in 2018, at a time when the refugee crisis had already subdued in Eastern Europe (one only had to take a look at the refugee camps around “Keleti,” the Central Train Station in Budapest, in 2015 and in 2018 to be able to tell the difference between times of crisis and times of propaganda—these camps were non-existent in 2018). Or in 2020, where he had the Parliament grant him sweeping powers to rule by decree. He used these powers to make life for the LGBTQ+ community a living hell, including banning transgender people from legally transitioning. Following that he banned any media content containing LGBTQ+ narratives for people under the age of 18, inspiring protests across the capital city—I myself took part in one, along with 10,000 other outraged people who marched in front of the Parliament and expressed their anger as one should in a democracy (even though 10,000 is not a lot compared to the 10 million living in Hungary). In 2022, it seems the new target of the far-right propaganda will be women. A new abortion law would require pregnant people to listen to the heartbeat of the embryo for a few seconds before they can legally request an abortion. This law has only been enacted recently. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Things get worse; they get horrible. But nothing really changes. Well, except for the terminology used in the EU to describe Hungary’s political system. Democracy is no longer the right word, the Members of the European Parliament agreed.
It’s much more like an Electoral Autocracy.
Like many other kids around the world, I’ve always dreamed of coming to America, of studying at a prestigious Ivy League School—which one could hear all about in Disney Channel shows as a child—becoming a part of a residential college community, living the American Dream. This is the effect Hollywood has on people. It makes us believe High School, then College are the most meaningful parts of our lives, where we all have our “main character” moments, only possible in America. To live on campus, to join clubs, to watch games together as a school, rooting for your team—everybody grew up with these dreams, but they aren’t really a possibility if you’re not from the US. Hollywood makes it seem as if life in the States is perfect. As if America is The Perfect Place.
As soon as I got on the plane at Budapest Airport, I felt like the one who got away. Who managed to escape from a place unsuitable for the youth. I’m sure many feel the same way. Students across Eastern Europe (among many other regions) leave their countries to pursue a degree somewhere where their basic human rights are not diminished on a daily basis. I, too, had hope.
In the first couple of days, this hope got replaced by something I never knew existed. It was a mixture of homesickness and a sense of alienation. I found it hard to involve myself in conversations the Americans had over dinner during CA, because most of the time I had no idea, and no interest whatsoever, in what they were discussing. Favorite ice cream flavor? Tastiest snacks you can buy at Trader Joe’s? American football teams?
These subtle signs of not belonging might not seem like a big deal—but they are to me. In less than a week, I found myself longing to discuss Hungarian alt bands with someone, because that was something I knew. I wanted to complain about the Prime Minister. I wanted to share dreams about how we’ll spend the entire summer at Lake Balaton, eating lángos and drinking overpriced, tasteless soda. Never in my life have I imagined the day would come when I don’t want to talk about America. The day when I’d prioritize my own culture. My home.
The news about the reclassification to ‘Electoral Autocracy’ hit exactly at the right moment to make me feel like I don’t really belong anywhere. It took the EU this long to recognize that the people of Hungary have elected this right-wing autocrat, meaning there was no place for liberals like myself. Not unlike most people in my friend group back home, my personality was centered around blaming the country I grew up in for every single one of my problems. Yet, now that I’m here, I can’t stop thinking about the day I finally get to visit home.
As I am getting lost in nostalgia and longing, I open up my diary that I brought in the one suitcase I managed to fit on the airplane. I strike up a page, somewhere around the beginning.
2020. New Year’s Eve.
The following entry catches my eye: “It’s been roughly a quarter of my life and I’m already exhausted. Exhausted of all the changes and the things that never change. I desperately want to flee my fuckin’ hometown and start anew in another country. If that doesn’t happen in two years, I’m going to collapse. I need to leave here. Hungary hates me, and I hate Hungary too.”
I pause for a brief second and evaluate. This was less than two years ago. What is it about Eastern Europe that makes underage, emotionally vulnerable people think those harmful, dangerous thoughts? What is it about Eastern Europe that I still, despite all of this, miss so very much?
It’s not the cuisine. It’s not the (at best) average landscape. It’s definitely not the politics.
It is perspective. The perspective of those who did not grow up in the world’s greatest superpower. Those who cried themselves to sleep after every election and ignorant government decision in the last 12 years. Those who know what it’s like to feel insignificant, but still never giving up the hope that one day they could get out and become someone.
I miss being understood.
There are so many things wrong with my country and I could go on and on about this for many more pages. There are also so many things that are exactly right. It took me 19 long years and a flight to the United States to realize that.
Distance brings fondness, and nostalgia adorns memories. Or maybe it’s just that looking from the other side of the globe puts matters into a new perspective. I needed to move to a perfect place to find out that perfect places indeed do not exist.
Am I a bad Hungarian for sharing all this criticism? Possibly.
Will I let the government and the rest of the ignorant people in my home country define what it means to be a Hungarian for me? No.
It is who I am, it is who I’ve always been. Even if my two years younger self would not be proud of that.
Electoral Autocracy. Electoral. Elect. Choose.
I chose to discard what is rotten, but I accidentally got rid of everything that’s great and healthy too. I can only hope that as soon as a plane carries me back around, I’ll find the things I took for granted untouched, and that I’ll be able to view them through lenses given to me by the “land of the free.”