In college I spent countless hours devoted to reading about, dissecting and attempting to understand other people’s existence here on good old planet earth. These are the joys of studying history. Being a history major is synonymous with piles of books, lengthy papers and meticulously scrutinized footnotes.
But learning about the past has always fascinated me, not because, as I found, these people from different places and ages were so different from myself and my place and time, but, rather, history for me has always been a connector. A human connector, a reminder of the humanistic bonds that so tightly or loosely tie us to one another. It always seemed as though the basics of peoples lives were always the same; we seek food and safety, love, connection and purpose, be it different from one another, but at the heart of it, it seems to be the same desire. It was not until I went abroad, however, that history and this humanistic congruity became a reality.
The decision to study in Hungary was an easy one for me, as I had always wanted to study abroad, and seeing as the final semester of my collegiate career was fast approaching, that summer was my now or never. I also knew I wanted this trip to be life altering, and that being my standard, I wanted to choose a non-conventional place to study, none of this Florence or London stuff.
“Of all the places, why are you going to Hungary? Isn’t that like a Third-World country?” my seemingly ignorant friends, family and co-workers asked me prior to my departure. “You are going to get kidnapped, raped and sold into prostitution!” others claimed, making me feeling more and more disillusioned about the people and place I come from, and leaving my soul with the desire to seek beyond my cultures irrational fears and perceptions of the seemingly unknown outside world.
The fact is, I chose to study in the Post-Soviet bloc state of Hungary for a reason, because it wasn’t “West”, and as I was about to find out, could not be nicely packaged as “East” either. Hungary, as most of Central Eastern Europe, has straddled the divide between “East” and “West.” It’s resources, people and land have been heavly exploited as an imperial playground for countless Eastern and Western empires, and they have gravely paid the price. This region has, and to a large extent still is learning to come to terms with the realities of genocide, ethnic cleansing, fluctuating national boarders, and national, regional and continental identity, much of which has been in effect long before WWII, the Nazis or the rise of Communism. Not only must the people of this region cope with the impacts of the imperial forces that acted upon them, but, they also are struggling to come to terms with their own role in the creation of present day reality.
It can come as no surprise then that in recent years in the Post-Soviet era of westernization, many people in Central Eastern Europe have been spectacle of jumping into bed with the EU and, more broadly, the “West” in general.
To many, it was not the ideology behind communism, or socialism that failed, and it is not that democracy and capitalism are, in themselves, bad. The grievances tend to transcend ideology and, instead, point to imperialism, and its lack of human consideration, as the grim reaper.
It is this continued imperialism, steaming back to the Habsburg’s and the early Russian and Ottoman Empires, to the Nazi’s, Soviets and today the EU and the Untied States, that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of people. It is imperialism so cleverly cloaked in ideology that people In Hungary, Romania, Poland, the Balkans and other Central European countries fear, and it is from this fear of repeating the past, that the desire for many states to forge independent national identities out side of “East” and “West” is born.
This desire to not let the outside define them, but, rather to create their own meaning through political activism, nationalistic movements, and re-examination of history is what spoke to me when studying in Hungary. It was a desire I could understand, could grasp, although it came from a different place and set of circumstances then my own. It was how I had often felt about home.
History is alive in Hungary. The issues of the past are not stored away in libraries collecting dust, they are, for the most part, the everyday realities for many people.While in the US our past is in no way dead and it is not as if we have, by some divine preference, fixed all the issues associated with Slavery, Indian genocide or the internment of Japanese Americans, and are no longer impacted by them, but it seems sometimes, we as Americans like to think we can sneak through the door of history unaffected, that other places in the world have issues, but we have somehow be it by the grace of “God” or our “superior” culture transcended it.
I’m beginning to feel as though this is more harmful then accepting the past and constructively working through the issues that come along with it. Erasing events like Slavery from our collective consciousness to avoid the difficult realities of it is a lot like an alcoholic who cannot admit they have a problem, and instead continues to act self-destructively. But we do have a problem with lasting effects, and its time we faced them.
In choosing to study in Hungary, I chose to experience a world, in some ways, very different from my own. I realize that I will never be able to fully understand what generations of people in this region suffered through, but I also know that I chose a place where there are people, humans no different then myself, and because of this humanistic connection, these basic desires to define and not be defined, to seek peace and safety and happiness, it is in these factors that empathy is born, and a deeper understanding of self is gained.