Accepting Acceptance: Why Do Hungarians Lean Toward Pessimism?

Expats, after landing in a specific country, tend to get asked the same questions over and over again. Years ago while teaching in South Korea, I was fascinated that my students asked me the same four or five questions as if they were pulling a cord from the back of a doll. “How old are you?” “Where is your hometown?” “Where did you graduate from college?” “What was your major?” Most Korean students were shocked that I majored in American History. After all, American History was only about two-hundred years old. How could that possibly be a major? On the other hand, Korean history was five-thousand years old. Now, that’s a major!

Here in Hungary the Q & A goes something like this: “So, you moved to Hungary? But why?” I usually say something about Hungary’s great central location in Europe, and the fact that I’ve never been to Hungary. Next comes the “work question.” “What are you doing here?” I respond that I’m teaching English at a high school here in Budapest. “Really? Teaching? The school’s are horrible here. Why would you ever teach here?”

For the moment, allow me to side-step complaints about the education system. I’d rather direct your attention to another surprising phenomenon–the nearly universal sense of pessimism, sullenness and self-deprecation one finds here in Hungary. There are both historic and contemporary dynamics causing this general sense of malaise.

Hungarians, it is often pointed out on tours here, have lost almost every military action undertaken in their history. Most notably perhaps, is the loss of about 70% of their territory as a result of being on the losing side after the first World War.  Hungarians have come to accept defeat as almost preordained.

Then there is the very real brain-drain that has been bleeding the country for some time.  With salaries roughly a third of what counterparts are earning in other countries, doctors, scientists and other professionals, have been leaving Hungary for the UK, western Europe and more locally, Austria and Germany. Anna Gat, for example, a young playwright and political activist, claims she moved to London not only to advance her career, but also to escape Hungary’s oppressive and politically suffocating atmosphere. Well more than 100,000 of Hungary’s 10 million people have left for better paying jobs in Western Europe. This dynamic has negative ramifications for Hungary’s economic growth, its competitiveness and its appeal to investors.

You wouldn’t know it from walking through Budapest’s hip, vibrant Jewish District on a Friday or Saturday evening–or any evening for that matter–with its endless assortment of pulsating bars and restaurants. The air, filled with music and cigarette smoke, gyrates, fueled by the unlimited energy of people in their twenties and thirties. But behind this seemingly intoxicating state-of-affairs, is a country that currently ranks 69th of 157 countries on the U.N. sponsored World Happiness Index. Let it be noted here that Hungary has made significant inroads in the last several years, having improved from a ranking of 91, just 3-years ago.

Hungarians have witnessed a recent re-writing of their constitution. According to most observers, these changes help ensure that the current folks in charge can more easily maintain their grip on power. They note with regularity that the country is building a number of giant sports complexes, while modern, well-equipped hospitals are the kind of investments that are really needed. These trends are cause for concern and tend to dampen any hope people might otherwise have for the future here.

Hungarians seem to hunker down and accept this state of affairs fatalistically. They’ve learned to accept corruption and the Kafkaesque bureaucracy here, as givens, as much to protect their sense of sanity, as to recognize the Herculean effort it would take to change them.

I’ve noticed that there are no buttons here on street crossings. One simply waits patiently for the lights to work through their unintelligible machinations.  Conversely, on a recent trip to Prague in the Czech Republic, I found crossing buttons everywhere. One has a sense of control: I press the button and I can stop the flow of cars. I can influence my evening in a small way. I mentioned this almost metaphorically to a Hungarian friend, who assured me that the crossing buttons have almost no effect anywhere in the world. They are, in fact, called “placebo buttons” in the trade. You push a button thinking you have control, when in fact, you don’t.  But the analogy was not lost on him. No crossing buttons in Hungary. Not even feigned control. He later confided that perhaps as a spirited English teacher here in Budapest, I can provide students  “button to press,” not a placebo version, but a button for real control in their lives. We’ll see.