Floating in wonderland

Confessions of a Hungarian couple living in Australia on the “liminal” experience of being an expat.

Photo: CreativeCommons/inefekt69


Gergő:

As far as I can remember I always wanted to be an expat…

I had this dream as a child that I would go from city to city, all around the world. I’d be living here and there, for a few years at a time and then move on. Didn’t know about the relationship between rolling stones and moss back then but I guess I had an intuition.

Then there were all these strange characters in our family – and just these people around, really. There was of course Frici bacsi 1 in Florida. Then there was this other bacsi who owned some hotels in Spain, was really good at pulling coins out of his nose and he thought it’d be a great idea for all of us to move there. We even “almost” emigrated to Australia when my father’s patient invented a therapeutic Frisbee (two plastic plates glued together) and needed a Doctor Zizmor of sorts explaining the benefits on TV.

Well, this was all fanciful, but I really wanted it to happen. For real. And then it started happening. Actually, it almost happened by accident. My scholarship papers got mixed up in the mail – it’s a long story…

But I’ve been living as an expat for 15 years now. First, I didn’t realize that I was an expat. Since I was a student getting a PhD, I had an excuse not to self-define as such. Then when I was in New York working, I was too busy and “distracted.” Not that it was easy in America. In fact, I had a series of culture shocks and reverse culture shocks when I visited Hungary on holidays or just to “get a fix.” What I liked the most was the transition from one existence to the other. It was a bit like the blue pill red pill thing in the Matrix. Being “liminal” had great advantages: you were both here and there, but mostly somewhere in the middle, floating in wonderland. It gave a lot of freedom not to be bogged down in either social system (Hungarian or American). It was a bit like evading the responsibility of the social construction of my self and also having a sense of being “above it all.”

This started to change, however, after a few years into my expathood-in-denial. Somehow, ecstatic liminality started to feel less ecstatic. There were pangs of loneliness, anomie and derealization. Also, it wasn’t as innocent anymore. Years passed. The both-here-and-there turned into neither-here-nor-there. I also remembered Rip Van Winkle and I realized that I am past a point-of-no-return.

Then it struck me: I am an expat – with the condition’s known and I think universal psychological characteristics. I don’t think Hungarianness (what is that anyway?) has to do anything with it. It’s more like: I am from and culturally embedded in country a  – I feel close to it in many ways, emotionally or otherwise. I also am much worried about what is going on there and care for those who are left behind (family, friends, god forbid, even Frici bacsi moved back to Kiraly utca). But I have grown up to be an adult in country b, which opened my eyes to the big wide world and gave me so much that I feel it is my second home.

Now I am in a country c – so, often, I am double-homesick. I married the love of my life who is from country a. Now we are expats – together. This complicates things. But not overly so. This dual (or triple) existence now seems as “normal” to me as “life at home” was before taking the first red pill.

Barbara

I’m not a political refugee. Not even an economic migrant. I could be both but the actual reason why I came to Melbourne three years ago was because of love. And then our son was born here in Australia. He is a second generation migrant: with two citizenships, two passports and hopefully many more options than what we had. And I hope he will disprove the Immigrant Paradox. 2

It is true that I had not been feeling well in Hungary for a long while. I had been fed up with the public scandals both on the left and right side of the political spectrum. I had been sick of the feeling that getting ahead seemed impossible if you had a spine. I had hated seeing societal apathy around me and also, increasingly, in myself. I had had enough of a futureless life and the lack of alternatives.

Despite all of this, just by myself, I would never have started a new life in Australia. And not only because of the country’s notoriously dangerous fauna. In Hungary, I was always surrounded by great people. My family and my closest friends formed a nest around me, which was so comforting to be in… Even when it seemed everything else has started to collapse outside. So when I was already here, Down Under, the thought that I can’t just jump on a plane to get home, anytime, just for a long weekend was terribly unsettling… And the feeling that I may not be able to see those whom I love for years seemed frightening… It felt like being an acrobat performing without a safety net. I also felt that I left behind something very important.

Gergő has many years’ of advantage over me in expat existence. He seems much more experienced at dealing with the emotional dilemmas caused by “rootlessness” and distance. At the beginning, he didn’t understand why I was Skype-ing so often with my family and friends in Hungary. He didn’t get why I was not building up my local social life in Melbourne more quickly or why I was still reading Hungarian websites instead of Australian ones. (As I am writing this post, by the way, I’m watching online the Hungarian teachers’ protest in front of the Parliament.)

Maybe I couldn’t break away. Maybe I don’t need to. Not this way, anyway.

I like Australia. In many ways, this is an easy country for a European immigrant to be in (being from elsewhere seems much harder). Nationalism is low key and for the most part, they don’t make you feel like an immigrant. And so I don’t feel being “different” here. But I feel I have a very different self in Hungary. With perhaps a deeper emotional life – with all its ups and downs.

I live in Australia, we are planning the future here. I’m a permanent resident, I have health insurance, I pay taxes, I have a Myki card for public transport  and we have a seven-month-old Aussie-to-be. Right now I’m balancing two lives with ten hours’ time difference.

Notes:

  1. Uncle Frici in Hungarian
  2. The Immigrant Paradox: The Stalled Progress of Recent Immigrants’ Children, February 2009, Center for Immigration Studies http://cis.org/ImmigrantParadox (accessed February 15, 2016)

Gergely Nyilasy

is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Management and Marketing at the University of Melbourne. Prior to Australia, he had a corporate career in advertising and brand consulting in New York City. He is also proud father of Oliver. In his free time (of which there is not much), he is an avid swimmer, hiker and fan of Australian wildlife.

Barbara Beöthy

is stay-at-home mom of 7-month-old Oliver. She became permanent resident of Australia on the day Oliver was born. In Hungary, Barbara was Client Service Director of a digital advertising agency and Editor-in-Chief of Kreatív Online, a media and advertising trade portal. Barbara is a accomplished yogini and an intrepid global traveller.