Chinese, Hungarians, Generations, Cities

Those dwellers of a large 21st-century city who come from foreign cultures are almost certain to have a "horizontal" and a "vertical" relationship to the place: not only is it the scene to which they need to acclimatise and assimilate, but it is also a new home whose experiences they are bound to share with members of the old one, tackling generational differences along the way. Bearing in mind the theme of the 10th International Architecture Exhibition, Venice - "Metacities", we made small group interviews with 15-16-year-old Asian (Vietnamese) and Hungarian students at the Miklós Radnóti Grammar School, and 8-10-year-old pupils from the Hungarian-Chinese Bilingual Primary School.

The main lesson of the interviews is that the worldview of these school children and adolescents is different from their parents': they look upon the presence of the Asian colonies and the processes of integration with less bias and prejudice. This is probably not just a characteristic of the age group, but also indicates the appearance and increasing prevalence of new patterns of behaviour, which are themselves due to the diffusion of global trends.

With most of their answers, the Asian students confirm the belief that their lifestyle is just like their Hungarian peers', and the latter tend to agree: "all that is different is the colour of their skin and the shape of their faces." "They are just like Hungarians, only they are aware of their being Vietnamese", sounds a trenchant, if spontaneous, observation. These students visit each other in their homes to play together (mostly on the computer, of course), and the Hungarians see nothing in the Vietnamese homes they would consider strange - with the exception of the snake brandy, perhaps. The Hungarian students usually give Hungarian names to their Vietnamese friends, often sounding similar to the original, which prove an insurmountable challenge for the natives. Furthermore, the Asian children also tend to speak Hungarian among themselves. The Hungarians are respectful of performance: Vietnamese girls are unanimously deemed the smartest in the tenth grade. To tell whether this opinion is the result of what they consider a compelling necessity, political correctness, or whether they earnestly subscribe to it, would require a more in-depth investigation. It is also worth noting that the Hungarian teenagers describe their Asian classmates' parents, who appear only rarely, as more than usually quiet, modest and reserved.

It is true that the Asian children we interviewed were all second-generation immigrants: their parents came to study in Budapest (usually at the Technical University) when they were still young. These teenagers have already grown tired of others asking them to say something in Vietnamese, or to tell how their special dishes are made. (The spices, we learned, are still imported from Asia.) It is also true that when we spoke to them individually, in informal contexts, we had the same impression: "why should they be different when they speak the same language, wear the same clothes, go to the same places for recreation?!" One boy, however, confessed at the last minute, that outside the city he has the feeling he is looked at like a UFO by the provincial Hungarians.

Hungarian high school students, in any case, are comfortable with the "Chinatown" of Budapest: some prefer Chinese fast food to American. They know the same things about their Asian classmates, as about the Hungarians: how many brothers and sisters they have, who does what in the family (the girls are aware of whose mother sells perfume at the market), whether there was a divorce, who goes out with whom: one of the Vietnamese interviewees has an American girlfriend, which the others find completely normal.

When asked what first comes to mind when they hear the word "Chinese", most Hungarian students said Chinese products are of inferior quality. A Vietnamese boy immediately found a solution that also helped him maintain his self-respect: most of what is sold on Chinese or Vietnamese markets may be counterfeit, he said, but it is also true that much of it is manufactured in Hungary - surely all this could not be smuggled into the country?!

The Hungarian-Chinese Bilingual Primary School has been successfully working in Budapest for years now. Their pedagogical programme is comprised of the national curriculum and local courses. The school is part of the Hungarian public education system, and provides all that other schools do. Their curriculum is based on the national programme, but uniquely in Europe, there are classes given in Chinese. The teachers are Hungarian and Chinese, and the pupils are Hungarian, Chinese, Mongol and Arab. Most subjects are taught in Hungarian, with a view to secondary studies. Those subjects are taught in Chinese which are beneficial for the language acquisition and match the age of the young children: these are technology, arts and physical education, and later environmental studies. Chinese is also the language in which the children learn about the cultural values and traditions of China.

The Embassy of the People's Republic of China is the special partner of the school, though they also welcome every institution, business or social organisation that considers it important to educate children who know and like the language and culture of both countries. They make excursions to the village museum in Szentendre, where they make pottery, dolls from maize husk, and dip candles - just as they celebrate certain Chinese holidays in the school.

We spoke with eight-to-ten-year-old Chinese children, in small groups, with the help of our interpreter, Dr. Imre Hamar, Head of the Chinese Department at the Eötvös Lóránd University of Sciences (ELTE), Budapest. We tried to learn how peculiar their life in Hungary is, how they spend their days, celebrate special occasions, what they like to do, what kind of relatives they have in China.

In general, we found that the children are open-minded towards their stay in Budapest - they occasionally referred to their homes in China as exotic places deep within their memories. They had recollections of sensory perceptions, rather than things they could rationally compare with their new homes (though this is also due to their age): they did not make value judgments, but simply said, "the smells are different" in Chinese cities, and "you have to move around differently". Though, as we learned, they maintain, via phone and other channels of communication, an intensive relationship with family members in China - thereby also complying with the expectation that they do not forget their mother tongue; it is here that they experience the myriad small events of everyday life - it is here these become their reality.

They apparently have no trouble dealing with the customs and holidays of the two cultures, to a depth that can be considered natural in their age. The same metacommunication applies when they speak about their vacation in the Hungarian countryside, as when they tell about the weeks or months they spent in China - there is apparently no break or pressure associated with what is on all accounts a double socialisation. (We can hardly venture to predict how the two sets of experiences, so different in their external trappings and content, will affect the development of their personalities.)

Hungarian adults, whom we talked to in person or who contributed their views at Internet forums, are more likely to make scathing judgements. There are some who think the Asians consider authority inspections the part of normal business procedures: "They know what's what and have the officials in their pockets". An interviewee described how surprised he was when in 2001, a Chinese partner "built new facilities from the Széchenyi loan [enterprise development programme], the size of a Metro store". Or: "I've seen the yellow tape of the revenue office on the door of a hairdresser's, but never on a Chinese shop!" Another interviewee quoted figures from Der Spiegel: 80% of all CD players in the world, 70% of all shoes, and 90% of all toys are manufactured in China.

More given to analysis, another subject said that, "the immigrants are active people, on the lookout for opportunities, who are not afraid of changes but turn them to their own advantage. The sedentary natives are different. They live in the past, consider all changes hostile, blame foreigners and apply protectionist methods to defend their outdated positions. It is not that the Chinese are going to win, but that a mentality that has a rational and active attitude towards change will overcome a bureaucratic and passive frame of mind; it is the formula for success against the formula of the losers". It is a generally shared view that "all those goods on sale at the Józsefváros market were not brought into the country as hand luggage. . Anyone who reads the papers knows whose sphere of interest the market falls into".

The Hungarian urban legend on how the Chinese economy is supposed to work is also worth quoting: "So there's this Chinese man, who builds a modern, but not very expensive sewing plant, and makes an offer to Nike and the other brands, signing contracts with them, even at the price of making a loss. Production begins, and then one night, believe it or not, his brother-in-law appears in the plant. It has to be night, because the owner agreed in the contract not to let anyone in during the day. So the brother-in-law looks around, sees the patterns, learns where the fabrics are obtained, and starts making the same T-shirts in his own shop. There are no contracts to bind him, and it does not take a rocket scientist to make 300 or 400% profit on these shirts. Luckily, his brother-in-law knows nothing about this, and keeps on producing for the brand owner with minimum or no profit. When he is asked, he has no idea who could possibly make products like he does".

There are suggestions to speed up integration: "when citizenship is conferred, the names should be Magyarized (the Chinese could be Kínai [Chinese], Keleti [Oriental], vagy Cseng Csengő [Bing Bong], etc.), and the kids should be sent to Hungarian schools where they could learn Hungarian quickly".

Many agree that, "in the light industry, China equals the end of the Hungarian enterprises. My only problem with that is that everyone blames them, when in fact they only availed themselves of an opportunity we Hungarians made available". Someone shared a story to illustrate the attitude of Hungarian employees: "I was there to see the wife of the Vietnamese wholesaler ask the workmen in the storeroom, and I mean 'ask,' like really nicely, to dust off the shelves. And they told her to do it herself because she was the woman".

All in all, our conversations with the children and an analysis of the adults' opinions gave us the impression that the second generation is more ready to acknowledge the cultural and economic implications of the presence of the Asian colony. They relate in a spontaneous manner to diversity in the ecological sense: they are less sensitive to politically charged differences, and more open to cultural variations.


Zsuzsanna Szvetelszky