Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Discovering The New Old Country

His parents fled communist Hungary, seeking freedom in the West. Now he has returned in search of a different kind of liberty

You’ve read me write in this space about people raised under Communism who now live in the West, and who see some aspects of their previous life manifesting under liberalism. Here’s a story from the son of two 1960s-era defectors from Hungary who, despite having been born and raised in England, has returned to his parents’ country to live and raise his family.

Mark Bollobas, the son of a Cambridge mathematician and a sculptor, reversed his father and mother’s migration. I know his parents, and had met Mark when he was a boy. We reconnected on Twitter the other night (@bollobas), and I found his story fascinating. He told me that he knows 30 or more UK-born children of emigrés from Soviet bloc countries who have done what he did — and for the same reasons.

What are those reasons? Mark agreed to write his story to explain:

It was 2009, and I was in Memphis. I’d gone back to school for a degree in broadcast journalism, and had graduated the previous year. The recession made the job market more difficult than usual. I’d spent the previous year applying to various stations around the US. The usual route is to start in a small market (I hate that term as it exposes the uncomfortable connection between news and entertainment) and then move to bigger and brighter pastures.

While I was good enough, my accent — something that would be a strength in a top market (I “sound intelligent” because I speak with a British accent) — hurt me in the smaller places. They wouldn’t take a chance on me because “our audience doesn’t understand a word you’re saying.” They were also downsizing, so there was a hiring freeze.

So I did odd jobs. Fixed computers. Paved some driveways. Taught math and English to high school students. Basically menial brain-dead work. I was frustrated, and had time to really look at the society I was living in.

I’d been raised on the American Dream. As the son of parents who had defected from behind the Iron Curtain, I was always very pro-America because it had opposed the prison guards and torturers that ran Hungary in my childhood. America was good. It had won and helped liberate my family.

But as a graduate of a US university, I didn’t see the American dream at all. I didn’t see opportunity, I saw neglect. I saw a country which is still the Wild West, full of hucksters getting rich quick on one end of the spectrum, and hero entrepreneurs who did the same on the other. A country where the police are super paranoid and trigger-happy, where life meant nothing, and although everyone went to church in Memphis (buckle of the Bible belt), racism was everywhere. Fear was everywhere. Distrust was everywhere.

When killings happened (around 130 per year in Memphis), people basically shrugged. “It happens,” they would say. Everyday kindness was only skin-deep. It felt heartless and soulless. I saw people evicted from McMansions who had been persuaded to take out a mortgage on a property that they obviously could not afford. How would a family of four be led to believe that yes, you need 4,000 square feet, when their previous home was only a fraction of that size?

One neighborhood that I passed through from home to college was the perfect example of what America was in practice. I-240 is a loop that runs around Memphis, breaking I-40 at its only point between the east and west coasts. There was a sliver of land on the eastern side of the city (away from the Mississippi river) that was probably 500m wide and about 1 km long. The interstate — super busy — ran down one edge. A developer had bought that horrible land, created a small subdivision, built large but terribly flimsy houses and sold them all.

I went into one about two months after one eviction, and saw that it was rotting from the inside. The grounds were unlandscaped and raw; just trying to walk through it you’d sink up to your ankles. And don’t forget those huge steampunk insects that thrive in the South. The houses were shit, people were persuaded to buy or invest in them, and then the population of almost the entire subdivision — perhaps 50 houses — were evicted.

Only the people suffered. The banks did okay. The developer did great. But for 50 families the trauma of the eviction mixed in with the bankruptcy orders, it was a death sentence. And the response? Nothing. Crickets. Were there divorces? No one asked, but of course. Breakdowns? No one asked, but surely. Suicides? I’m frightened to ask, but yes.

What about the repercussions for the guilty? There were none. Zero.

There are many other things that I could describe, but the point is this: I felt a pillar supporting my worldview crumble. I knew that I could never live in the US, because I hadn’t been born there, and even after more than 30 years of living there on and off, I couldn’t accept that “this is the way it is, yes sirree.” I missed that feeling of being in a place where you belonged. I missed Europe. I didn’t belong in Memphis. My American friends? They were overwhelmed with a feeling of that’s just the way it is — sad, but what can you do?

Instead of settling down and living in America, I chose to go back to Europe. I had two choices; the UK — England in particular — and Hungary. I speak English and Hungarian, and was born and raised in Cambridge, went to university in London and then worked in London for three years running bars and pubs. And then there was Hungary, my ancestral home and a place where I’d spent time during the holidays when I was young. Budapest, in particular. I’d lived there later for four years as a medical student.

In the UK, I felt comfortable with only two options. I could move back to Cambridge. It’s a small town that was great to grow up in, but as an adult, unless you’re in the university there’s really no point, beautiful though it is. You miss out on amazing things if you’re in Cambridge and not donning cap and gown. The university is the focal point of the town.

And then there was London. Great city, full of everything. A vibrant melting point, and one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. I’d worked there — in Finsbury Park and Islington. Islington is considered to be really central. Finsbury Park is the home to the Finsbury Park Mosque, the most extreme mosque in the UK. It’s in north London but not that central, although it’s far closer to the centre than a place like Wimbledon. Regardless, neither are nice, and in my mind, neither are London.

I consider London to be Chelsea, Kensington, Covent Garden. Places close to the river, areas with amazing architecture, reasonably central. But how much would I have to earn to live there? Millions. Impossible. I’d always be the guy who walks by the shop window and sees what he can’t afford. It would be a lifetime of unhappiness.

And culturally, the most important of all, the England of today is so far removed from the England of my youth that it feels like a different world. What makes England great is the nonchalant English attitude to everything. Stiff upper lip. Humor. The genuine lack-of-interest in what other people do, as long as they’re not interfering. The moral strength to play fair, be a good loser, etc.

But over the last few decades this has been eroded by non-English immigrants who have moved to the UK permanently and brought their culture with them, aggressively. Usually the children are far more aggressive than the parents who actually made the move. And the English let this happen, because that’s how they are. Now the politeness is gone.

I ran a bar in Finsbury Park. My schedule was the same. Open at noon, close at midnight. I would go to work at around 10am, and walk home around 2am. You have the same schedule, and you walk past people who share that schedule. In England, 20 years ago, if you did this for a few weeks you’d eventually strike up a conversation, or create a little bond. That couldn’t happen in Finsbury Park because it was full of Somalis, north Africans and others (Abu Hamza was a personal favorite, hawking his vitriolic sermons on CDs to anyone that passed).

They all hated me and looked at me with distrust and disgust. The women walked past in their veils, clothing that sends the message of “f-ck off, don’t dare look at me or talk to me.” I walked those streets for two years and made not one connection. Visitors have come, have brought their culture, and they stick to it (I loved whichever day it was when they say you have to slaughter a goat; blood literally ran in the streets). It is their identity. Meanwhile the beautiful, accepting element of being British is abused, its kind culture allowed Trojan horses of all sorts to settle in.

Aside from that, there was the dreaded question, “Where are you from?” that every Englishman asks. Even from me. It’s the most unpleasant question because you hear it over and over again, and it’s like a death from a thousand cuts. Because it means, you’re obviously not from here, so where are you from? I shudder at the thought of having to answer that question in Britain. Because I am from there.

So, not England. The second choice was Hungary. True, it’s not a wealthy country, and true, it suffers many of the same problems that afflict other nations. And yes, salaries here are very low. As editor-in-chief for English language news at a national TV station, and ironically the only Hungarian TV station that was on the local Memphis cable network, I made $1,200 per month, before tax. And even on that salary in Budapest I could live and do things like dine out and take advantage of all the positive things a city like this offers:  theatre, concerts, museums, sporting events, parks, nightlife, etc. Most of all, it was where I really felt at home.

Like many children of immigrants, I was raised to know that I have to work harder, and be better everywhere than those who were “local” to get ahead. And it’s all true. But I was also raised in a Hungarian household. While my parents made every effort to assimilate, I was raised in a household that took pride in being Hungarian. I didn’t support Hungary in sports or anything tribal like that, but I was proud when Hungary did well. I appreciated the poetry, the folk music, the heritage, the history, and so forth. And every time I went back to Budapest, I felt so so comfortable. No one asks “where are you from?” because although I don’t sound like I am from here (I have a British accent in Hungarian), I am from here, and people recognize that.

My decision to move back here to Hungary — I say that even though I wasn’t born here — has been reinforced by this fact: Hungary understands that holding on to its cultural identity is essential to its existence as a society we can understand.

Culture changes over time, of course, but it normally does it slowly as we creep towards a more civilized future.

England doesn’t feel more civilized — quite the opposite. It feels more feral. And the UK has just accepted its fate.

The lack of an American culture means Hungarians don’t know what’s missing, because they never had it. But there is a gaping hole in America: something is obviously broken. America is collapsing on itself.

It’s been nine years since I moved back. I can’t count the number of days I’ve thought to myself, or told others, “It’s just great to be here.” It still is.

Notice that Mark Bollobas did not migrate east to get rich or in search of freedom. Rather, he went in search of a place to call home — which is a different kind of freedom than what he had in the country where he grew up (the UK), or that he saw in America.

Over the weekend, I told Mark’s story to a young woman now living in western Europe, but who has been in Baton Rouge this fall, as her husband has had a temporary job assignment here. It made perfect sense to her. She said that her parents left a Soviet bloc country — I’m not saying which one, to protect her privacy — when she was a girl. It was the post-communist era, but her folks strongly believed that there was no future for their family in their homeland. They raised her to think that the West was the best.

Now, though, she questions her parents’ wisdom in emigrating. In her adopted western European country, she said, it seems that most people are embarrassed by their culture. “We have lots of problems with Muslim immigrants,” she said, “but we are not supposed to talk about that. There is such a double standard. Everything European is considered bad, and everything Muslim is celebrated. At least in [the land of her birth] there is a real culture that people appreciate and are willing to defend.”