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Csárdás, a Hungarian Folk Dance. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Zoli has the broad biceps of a wrestler, the burly upper body of a man who chops wood and lifts heavy objects for a living. He’s medium-height, with a thick goatee, and his hair is trimmed down to a uniform millimeter. There is a striking intensity in the way he speaks, cupping one hand over the other, elbows resting thoughtfully on the armrests of his chair. A common resident of Budapest, Zoli is far from average. Not a philosopher by profession, he is certainly one at heart. He’s a well-researched, somewhat solemn individual who has spent a great deal of time reflecting on where he fits in his society at large.

“Culture,” he says in Hungarian, “is continuity.” He does not speak English, and so my husband translates. He’s very vocal about his view that Hungarian culture is thinning out, that it’s slowly fading against the force of western (particularly U.S.) values that are now becoming prevalent in Hungary. So, to better understand what’s being lost, I ask him to list out aspects of culture that are quintessentially Hungarian. But it’s not so easy. He feels it’s important that we start at the beginning and that we clearly define culture.

“People loosely pull their definitions from a Wikipedia article,” he says. “But to me, culture is when a baby is born. The infant scans his surroundings, absorbing behaviors, values, and boundaries. Culture is how a family helps this child to get around in the world. Culture is how and why it’s worth living in any particular environment. And as it is true for the baby and its family unit, it is also true for larger communities. Culture is information passed through generations. The older the community, the more a person knows about the world. Very importantly, strong, surviving cultures teach how to live with others, not at the cost of others.” 

I know that Zoli is disappointed and frustrated. There’s a bit of regret in his tone when he expresses that this definition is not as strongly applicable in modern times. “Today everything is for the moment,” he says. “The architecture, the food, the music. None of it is lasting. A hit song from a popular artist is forgotten in two weeks. There’s no longevity. We’ve lost our sense of value.” 

In today’s modern world, we desire something new, all the time. But what of our old ways, which are, according to Zoli, the heart of culture? Personally, as a U.S. citizen, I don’t feel I have any old ways. My mom is Irish/German/Austrian, my dad a Punjabi Sikh from Fiji. My personal history is a confusing mix of all those cultures, superficial bits and pieces: weddings, an occasional baptism or visit to the Sikh temple, mixed in with hamburgers, amusement park visits, shopping at popular chain retailers, and bachelorette parties in Vegas. It’s not the whole story. I don’t know the whole story. Of any of it. Of course, it’s there. Whatever our country or our ethnic background, we all have culture. Yet we’re distracted, and more often than not, we’re no longer inclined to learn about it. It seems as though a similar dilution of culture is what Zoli sees happening in Hungary.

Hungarian culture is simple, he says, finally answering my question. “It’s our folk songs and tales that tell us about the past. It’s our language, which does not merely transfer information, but carries the past within it. This is very different than English, which has changed so drastically in the last several hundred years you need a degree to read Shakespeare. Hungarian culture is knowing how to cut grass with a sickle. It’s using a whip, not to harm or tame creatures as in other societies, but to cleanse the air with it’s cracking sound. It’s horse riding, shooting bows and arrows, farming, embroidery, and village life. It’s sitting in the backyard, teaching yourself how to play an instrument, and if need be, it’s the willingness to stand up, reshape your sickle into a spear and fight to protect all of it.” 

Zoli with a typical Hungarian folk art design tattooed on his arm

Zoli’s Hungarian folk art tattoo

But today, it’s harder to fight. No longer victim to the many dictatorships of its past, the current threat to Hungarian culture is insidious. It’s based on a U.S. and western lifestyle that has slowly permeated this country with fast food chains, pop music, cheaply constructed apartment complexes, and an abundance of shopping malls. The privileged few of this country spend their earnings on clothes and pedicures while Budapest’s world-famous opera house is talking of closing its doors because there is not enough money to sustain it.

“The fundamentals of Hungarian culture are rooted in rural society,” Zoli says. “It’s then brought to the city where it’s lost. The intellectual, prosperous people of the city should help to maintain and preserve our culture. Yet instead, this trend is working it’s way backward into the villages. Many villagers now neglect their land to shop at Tesco [the equivalent of Wal-Mart], because it’s easier than working the land.” 

Still, Zoli believes some of what was lost is coming back. The Hungarian spirit called pálinka (a fruit brandy, commonly made with plum) was suppressed by the Russians for fifty-five years, but is now regaining popularity. And learning the art of the bow and arrow is again a source of cultural pride in the wake of socialism. Indeed, I saw a teenager on the underground wearing shorts, T-shirt, and sneakers, carrying around a large bow, like he was on his way from or to shooting lessons.

“The key,” Zoli says, “is not to let any of it become too commercialized.” I understand. Capitalism is a serious source of devaluation. Big companies step in and cheapen everything to make a quick buck, as is already happening with some brands of pálinka.

He finishes by telling me, however, that the more intensely a culture is stifled and the more powerfully it is repressed, the more passionate the resistance. Perhaps he’s right. People like Zoli will always be around, making clear what could be lost, branding their roots on their forearms in a beautiful, traditional swirl of folk art. He knows a great deal about the etymology of his language. He knows his folk tales and his history in great detail, and he’s happy to share.

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5 Comments

  1. Tiffany says:

    I just stumbled upon this article by accident, I was looking up Hungarian Folk art for my art project. It saddens me to see how so many cultures are just giving in and going commercialized. I was born in a very Hungarian family, my grandpa at a young age came to this country for a better life and to be able to have his own culture. My family would travel out of their way to go to church every Sunday to do the traditional dancing and church. I cannot speak a word of the it but in the mornings they had English translation and Hungarian in the early mornings. We had to go to the Hungarian speaking one ever Sunday. The point I am trying to get across here is they tore that church down and made it a Mexican diner. That was my culture, my life, and now its a Mexican prominent place to live, not that that’s bad but why do we have to sacrifice one culture for another?

  2. Denise says:

    Dear Amrit, I so enjoyed reading this article. I am now 53 yrs. old. My grandmother came the U.S. in 1926 at the age of 13. She taught me many things. Every saturday night we would make noodles for soup on Sunday. I also learned to make chicken paprikash with dumplings and langos (she would fold it over and sprinkle with freshly grated romano cheese). We would put up vegetables like beans, yellow peppers and tomatoes and fruits like peaches and cherries. She taught me to grind meat and season with paprika and garlic to make our own sausage. We made our own soap from lard, lye and blueing. She also had a loom where would make rugs to sell for some extra money. We would buy old dresses or other cotton clothing to cut into strips, sew them together and roll into balls to shoot through the loom. I also learned to embroider napkins, handkerchiffs and pillow cases. These are just a few of the many wonderful memories I have and have passed on to my children now 27, 25 & 16. Believe me Hungarian culture is still alive in our home. I never serve soup with “store bought” noodles!! God Bless you & your family

    • amrit chima says:

      Hi Denise, Thanks for sharing your story. I’m still learning a lot about Hungarian culture while living in Budapest, but I’m relatively familiar with most of what you list. It’s great to hear that even in the US you and your children haven’t forgotten the beautiful culture from which you all come!

  3. My grandfather was Hungarian, I believe he was born in the US, he was adopted by his step-father (who was Armenian) so I don’t think he was very closely in touch with his roots. I remember him telling me the only phrase he knew in Hungarian, which was basically something to the effect of “come and get it’ for dinner. He passed away when I was away at college before I was ever interested enough to inquire to my heritage. His interests, when I knew him as an elder man, was golf and painting. His wife, my grandmother, was Italian-American and he seemed to gravitate to her way of doing things, she was definitely more in touch with her roots and there fore I always identified with the Italian side of myself, because there was an influence there. Our children won’t know their heritage if we don’t teach it to them or if it’s not around. The one thing I did get from my grand pa was a love for painting, which I studied in school, and now I am doing research on folk art traditions and came upon your site because of the image of the tattoo. Great work! Thanks for posting!

    • Amrit Chima says:

      Hi Erahah

      I’m glad you liked the article and thanks for your comment! I can totally identify with what you said about gravitating to your mother’s way of doing things. I was more influenced by my dad’s Indian culture, although I don’t look particularly Indian, nor do I speak the language. While living in Hungary (which is very close to Austria) it’s been nice to learn more about my mother’s side. It’s been a very fulfilling experience. It is regrettable, however, that my children (when and if I have them) will have little or no connection with their Indian heritage. But you did get the painting from your granddad. It’s a little thing, but still very cool. Culture just gets diluted that way, from one generation to the next. The world can only carry traditions and memories so far, but we will certainly have influence on our own children, and perhaps our grandchildren, which will inevitably also become diluted, then lost, and so on. Culture is always evolving.

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