Mónika Fodor is Assistant Professor at the Department of English Literatures and Cultures, University of Pécs, Pécs. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Peter Hevesi: I think that enough time has now gone by and enough generations where people are no longer, and I’m only saying my experience because I know this is not true for every family and every situation, but I think that through intermarriage through integration with a very multicultural, varied experience people are losing their identity as something in my slice of Americana which is in the Midwest.
One of my conversational partners, Peter Hevesi, in a qualitative interview-based study regarding ethno-cultural identities, stated that in his view ethnicity does not fulfill the role of forming one’s identity any longer. This opinion reflects a firm belief in America as a post-ethnic society. When I started seeking conversational partners with some Hungarian American ethnic background in Iowa City, IA1, I thought they could walk me through their experience of developing a particular ethno-cultural identity in American society. The stories of how their parents or grandparents exchanged Hungarian culture to American culture and what, if anything they decide to retain of the former culture they had been born into, positioned them on the ethnic vs. American axis. These questions resonate persistent dilemmas concerning the content and features of ethno-cultural identity. These people’s stories also become part of a wider discourse, which aims to conceptualize cultural identities as not necessarily seeking to maintain distinctiveness as a collective identity. Michel Wieviorka notes that even if some do appear that way upon examination they tend to be constantly changing (903). Cultural identities are in a continuous state of flux, and Wieviorka argues that postmodern individuals maintain a paradoxical relationship with collective cultural identities (893). They may acknowledge a specific collectivity –a memory, a language, a religion, shared history –without having to be despised for this identification by practices similar to racism. Nevertheless, they refuse to be over-dependent or restricted in personal freedom as the price to be paid for their collective identity.
Identity: an elusive yet paradigmatic concept
Identity embraces one’s definition of who the person is. Multiple discourses on identity and ethno-cultural identity have become paradigmatic. Philip Gleason calls the urge to discuss who we are a product of vogue, yet the term itself bares elusive not to say mystifying qualities (124). Baldwin, Longhurst, McCracken, Ogborn and Smith define identity as a tool to describe the consciousness of self found in the modern individual. The modern self is understood to be autonomous and self-critical (224). The concept only partly bears permanent features, it is also a result of the discourse between self and environment. Identity is also a key to understanding acculturation, the process through which we become part of the surrounding cultural environment. Identity and culture are in permanent reciprocity, and this dynamic relationship, as Markus and Kitayama maintain, depends on construals of the self, of specific others and the relationship of the two (224-226). These construals are consequences of the cultural milieu under which they are born and so govern the individual. Critical multiculturalists share this view, too and their discourse on identity is pitched against biological determinism and every kind of essentialism. Accordingly, culture and identity are made up, invented, unstable discursive fabrications. The pursuit of identity is a desperate existential struggle to put together a life-style that can be sustained for a brief moment (Kuper 239-241). Cultural identity in itself can never provide an adequate guide for living. Kuper goes on arguing that “we all have multiple identities, and even if I accept that I have a primary cultural identity, I may not want to conform to it” (247).
José Medina points out that a multifaceted discussion addresses issues regarding what ethnicity is and how it intersects with other identity categories as well as how ethnic identities are produced, maintained, disrupted and transformed (93). One key dilemma is whether our identities have become postethnic, a term introduced to question the political and intellectual legitimacy of the concept of ethnicity. Another way in which the notion of ethnicity has been problematized is the intersectionality of the different aspects of identity. Accordingly “gender, sexuality, class, race and ethnicity are not dimensions of identity that come neatly packaged and sealed off from each other”, rather intersect each other in manifold directions resulting in an entangled web of interdependencies (Medina 94). In this conceptual framework the persistent dilemmas of negotiating ethno-cultural identities may yield acanonical contents and schemes. Membership in an ethnic group is voluntary and ethnic identities become transient (Shimakawa 155). The personal narratives yet illustrate how culture in a broad sense and the elements/icons of a particular culture come to create the unique world of an individual as the participant and maker of another culture.
If I meet Hungarians that’s fine, but I don’t seek them – Description of the Informants and the Method of Data Collection
Since neither Iowa City nor the state of Iowa has any formal organization or association of Hungarian Americans, informants in this study have been identified through their last names. This method restricts the cohort of potential conversational partners to persons whose link to Hungarian culture is paternal. Kathryn Szigetvari, Peter Hevesi and Christopher Kovach have never met each other mainly because in one form or another they all agreed with Kathryn who said, “if I meet Hungarians that’s fine, but I don’t seek them”. At the time of the interviews all three of them were affiliated with the University of Iowa, Kathryn studied nursing, Christopher was a medical student and Peter was a high ranking professional employed by the university. Beside her father, Kathryn’s maternal grandmother was also Hungarian. Christopher and Kathryn are first generation Hungarian Americans, Peter could not tell whether his father was born in the US or Hungary. Kathryn and Christopher agreed to giving their names, however Peter Hevesi is a fictional name for he did not agree to use his real name.
This study has been designed along the traditions of qualitative ethnographic research. I met and talked three times with Christopher and Kathryn and twice with Peter. The conversations lasted for about an hour. The interviews were tape-recorded with the consent of the informants and transcribed. Working with the data allowed no statistical methods so the conversations were coded. Coding refers to grouping interviewee responses into categories that bring together the similar ideas, concepts, or themes and labeling those with both folk and analytic terms. The primary goal was threefold: (1) to explore the content of being second generation Hungarian American, (2) to find out more about the ways to express and maintain this duality or else potential reasons to refuse it, (3) the cultural aspects of the socialization process through which the individual or the group formulated their identities especially via ascribing values to the group. Due to the ethnographic conventions of qualitative interviewing there were no preset questions only so-called main questions to start the conversation and provide the framework of the interview. Main questions focused on three issues: (1) the interviewee’s experiences as a Hungarian American, (2) relationship with Hungary and Hungarians in the family, (3) the role of choices in identity formation through ethnicity. In the present stage of data processing four major themes have emerged: (1) Hungarianness of the father or parents and grandparents, (2) things and their meanings, (3) language and literature, and (4) uniqueness. In this paper I deal with the meanings of Hungarianness of the father and grandparents and uniqueness as a consequence of ethnicity and attempt to place these categories into the larger conceptual framework of ethno-cultural identity.
A bear with a string and some honey – The World of Our Fathers
During our conversations we talked a great deal about how Kathryn, Peter and Christopher incorporate and understand their fathers’ Hungarianness in their daily lives.
Our first dialogue with Christopher took an interesting, rather unexpected turn.
Christopher Kovach: So uhm, sometimes, once when I was living in Germany, I was 13 years old and he translated on tape this uhm, this and he started reading this book to me. It was a little bit of a, it’s kind of a silly book, because it’s kind of nationalistic and a little bit embarrassing.
F.M.: Is it a German book?
C.K.: No, no, this is a Hungarian book, and it’s “The Stars of Eger”.
F.M.: Ahm. OK.
C.K.: Yeah. And he I mean because it was a book that he read when he was a boy and liked it a lot and he decided to read it to me so he read, he translated it on tape and sent me the tapes every week, so I got the tapes. (…)
F.M.: Why did you feel it is nationalistic?
C.K.: Uhm. It is not, it is not badly nationalistic but that’s kind of, yeah I mean it’s not worse than a lot of other, it’s not like Nazi. I mean it’s not fascistic at all. It’s just I kind of portray it is Hungarian is heroic and the Turks kind of dumb and I don’t know. But it yeah. (…) There’s some kind of resentment that is probably very deeply rooted in the Hungarian psyche I think. And that’s something my father has described to me about himself. And there is one story, he was at a scientific meeting and, and there was a Turkish, Turkish scientist at this meeting and he asked where he was from and he said he was from Hungary and he said, “Oh, the Turkish and Hungarian are related, aren’t they.” Like the languages and, and he said kind of like, “well, we are all related” [laughs]. Kind of dismissive, he didn’t like the idea of Turks and Hungarians related to each other. And he tells this story in his own self-reflective way, and how he relies on these kinds of things are deeply rooted. And there is always this attempt to a certain degree of mutual admiration, I don’t know what the right word is sort of, kind of mutual respect sometimes, and like I know I’m thinking in Budapest, in the Fortress there is a grave of a Turkish soldier. And it’s also, it’s been a long time since I read, since I heard the “Stars of Eger”, so it’s hard for me to come I guess it’s later on it’s not really hard. I mean Turks are also portrayed as somewhat heroic. I don’t know. Yeah.
Collective vs. individual ethno-cultural identity is a key dilemma in the story. Christopher says he is part Hungarian, yet he emphasizes a particular feature, nationalism in the story that he clearly marks off. Ochberg writes, “that the stories people tell about themselves are not merely descriptions but efforts at persuasion” (97). Narrators try to convince others, and themselves to take a particular view of their lives to see them as coherent, dedicated, triumphant—or perhaps unfairly constrained. Often these efforts at narrative persuasion matter because of the contrast they draw between a preferred account and a less palatable alternative: a latent subtext, which is never described explicitly but which is always threatening to emerge (Ochberg 97-98).
Interpreting the story the question emerges why this particular Hungarian novel carries so little meaning and relevance to Christopher. Even though it was one of his father’s favorite readings, Christopher only sees its romantic nationalism as a prime negative feature. The element, gathering forces against Turkish invaders, which aims to strengthen a collective national identity for Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin, loses its significance in its original form. However, it gains new importance as part of the justification for his father’s decision to emigrate from such a strongly nationalist community.
Relative to Turks, however, he accepts the position of his father with a cultured understanding of the Hungarian psyche. He also shows an accurate understanding of history and knowledge of sights in Budapest. Such profound mastery of cultural icons justifies his choice and proves the voluntary nature of being a Hungarian American. Simply knowing the “Stars of Eger” (Eclipse of the Crescent Moon) is more important than identifying with it. Such knowledge entitles Christopher to incorporate Hungarianness into his heritage on his father’s side, yet he feels no obligation to accept the canonical reception of the novel relevant for the majority of Hungarians living in the Carpathian Basin.
Kathryn also traces her Hungarianness to her father’s ethnic background.
Kathryn Szigetvari: I think I’m like this ‘cause of my father. Because I’ve been there [in Hungary] before, because he is worldly, he wasn’t born here. So I think that all makes me want to go explore and I’m open to different cultures. (…) Right and that’s how I mean since I sort of grew up in a different ethnic background I had a little more respect for people. Like my best friend would not understand. She’d be “what is that eh?” you know like a princessine you know she is so spoilt sometimes and she can’t come down and see how other people live and who, which way of living is better. I don’t know but it’s interesting to see that, it opens your eyes that the world isn’t just Iowa, just as far as California and New York. So…
Kathryn explains her understanding and acceptance of cultural differences with the intensive, continuous exposure to representations of another culture. She compares herself to her “more Americanized” friends to calibrate the difference. Two key concepts emerge at this point, difference and choice. Difference or being different is described both as a positive and negative experience in her responses. Kathryn grew up with a strict father, which fact she claims has benefited her in manifold ways, nevertheless she expresses her disapproval in not wanting to be like that. She appears to be very strict in judging her friend at the same time that has had no access to this aspect of diversity in her family. Kathryn experienced her father’s extreme strictness, a source of difference, as restrictive and static rather than open and dynamic. The cult of difference seems to be an undisputed value in the discourse of multiculturalism. For James Clifford, culture represents “the continuing ability of groups to make a real difference” (cited in Kuper 242). The kind of Hungarianness Kathryn has been socialized into is status enhancing since she has acquired such extra information that comes in handy in an achievement-oriented society. While she is explaining her being different or unique, she also attempts to understand the dilemmas behind the decision to emigrate. Such differences are sometimes palpable, more often they are not so; it is hard for both Kathryn and Christopher to describe in concrete terms.
Christopher Kovach: Even as a young child it was, I just was, I didn’t I couldn’t, I couldn’t conform, because I lived in such a different world at home. I was always different at school and as I grew older I kind of realized that that’s probably a good thing. I’m able to see things for what they are, but that, but that’s a little bit, I don’t want to say I’m right and everybody’s wrong, but that’s the way I feel I guess.
In response to a later question Christopher clarified that the prime causes of his nonconformity had been his parents’ frugality who, unlike the majority of upper middle class professionals, did not believe that expensive though becoming sneakers were necessary for young children. Through time nonconformity becomes a positive experience, as it offers more choices to live and act in the conformity-bashing world of postmodern cultures. The accessibility of manufactured goods at a low price has created a new demand for sources of individualism as part of this lifestyle. Neither strictness nor frugality are ethnically defined labels yet they lay a track of distinctiveness for both Kathryn and Christopher by means of which they come to position themselves. Peter Hevesi, my third informant, is similar to them in his conformity to the norms set by his father, though his norms represent another direction.
Peter Hevesi: My father was the Hungarian part of the family. And when his relatives would come to visit us from South Bend, Indiana, his mother would only speak Hungarian. When he would speak with his half brother who lived nearby, they would speak Hungarian. But he never wanted us to be Hungarian. He wanted us to be as American as we could. You know the name Hevesi it was more appropriate to be perceived as Italian than it was Hungarian. My father was certainly pushing us to be more mainstream, rather than ethnic.
Peter repeated several times how his father in his very reserved and unspoken way gave a myriad of signs how his children should strive to be part of the norm he labeled as “mainstream America” as opposed to ethnic which according to him meant “Old world.”
Peter Hevesi: My father and I would drive to South Bend, just the two of us on occasion. But it was like a transition to a different time and culture because in South Bend they [relatives of Peter’s father] lived at that time in a primarily Hungarian neighborhood, went to Our Lady of Hungary church, which was around the corner. The grandmother of my father’s half sister and her husband shared a house with her son and her daughter and son-in-law and their three kids. And the son-in-law was the most Hungarian of any of the people. He came over after the ’56 revolution he was a soldier. Now he to this day is more Hungarian than anything else. He smokes his meat in the backyard and throughout the garage and he has a hobby of working on old motorcycles and ethnic music is playing in the garage and so forth. And he would sit around he was different. There would be like blood sausage cooking in the stove. It’s been long hours sitting at the kitchen table, talking and people coming and going, hollering out at the dogs in Hungarian and what not.
Peter describes this museum-like setting as an option for his father that he justifiably rejected for the benefit of his children. As it is so different it seems a dead end as opposed to the opportunities in modern America. The kind of life in Peter’s description reminds of the rural versus urban distinction. Blood sausage is made where people slaughter and process hogs, and a smokehouse has also been necessary in self-sustaining agricultural lifestyle to preserve fresh meat. Several generations living together is another important characteristic of poor, mainly agriculture-based socio-economic systems where it was cheaper to get farmhands if the extended family resided together. Peter mentions several times that these relatives are fluent in Hungarian, in fact that is the only language they speak well enough. His father was bilingual and spoke accentless English. Speaking Hungarian in Peter’s view is a prerequisite to being ethnic Hungarian. His father’s conscious choice of not teaching him and his siblings his mother tongue is meant to strengthen their positions as mainstream Americans.
Peter Hevesi: When a relative would come up and I hear them speaking the language and I’d ask my father to help me speak some of that, he’d I don’t know what he said, the impression I got is that you don’t need that, you don’t want that. So you know when I would ask him what’s the Hungarian word for that, and you know he just didn’t play that game.
Fathers tell their stories, contextualize their experiences, offer choices yet make the decisions for Kathryn, Peter and Christopher. Because they chose to become immigrants or mainstream they leave a culture behind, which is the collective ethnic identity of a group of people on a different continent. Through their choices and voluntary membership in another collective identity they create their own distinctive individual ethnic identity. It becomes sustainable because it is voluntary and tailored to the individual instead of a direct representation of collective ethnic Hungarianness. Pieces of their former collective identities appear in Kathryn’s story as antiques. She says they have a lot of antiques in their house.
F.M.: Do you have any favorites?
Kathryn Szigetvari: My dad’s toys he used to play with. They’re old. They’re simple and you respect that. Everything today is so complex and expensive. We have his bear with a string and some honey. And we put this honey over the edge and it walks. It was his you know. And he brought it with him when he came here. It’s priceless. When he was ten. When they immigrated.
I just feel unique – Notes on a Controversial Feeling
Waters argues that, “ethnicity is a variable, with a range of meanings attached to it” (93). Yet identification with a particular ethnic group may not mean that the person has a well-rounded idea of what that ethnicity entails (Waters 144). Uniqueness with its potentially wide spectrum of usage may express both positive feelings and less approval toward ethnic practices whatever those might be. As a concept it reflects the elusiveness of the ethnic label. Hungarian food is important for Kathryn not only because of its taste but also because knowing and liking it help set her position as different or unique. When she talks about her Hungarianness she very often describes herself as unique.
F.M.: How do you feel about your background?
Kathryn Szigetvari: Like compared to other people I’m more aware, because my dad is an immigrant. Plus I’ve been to Hungary. So I’m a little more well-rounded, not so ignorant. And things like […] every time he comes to visit he brings some food and my friends ask: “What’s that, what are you eating? And so …
F.M.: Do they ever wanna try it?
K.Sz.: Yeah. Like “palacsinta” [pancakes]. Yeah. They, they say, “ugh, that’s gross”, and then I make it and they like it. So Americans try to make goulash, but it’s not like the same. So compared to someone who says they are Italian, German, I think I’m a little more unique.
The short passage shows that uniqueness in Kathryn’s understanding is a complex concept, involving several features she listed as indicators of her Hungarianness. Awareness of the geographical location of her ancestors and the ability to go and visit Hungary are equally important for her and status enhancing as well as the accessibility of authentic Hungarian recipes. Uniqueness just like in the next story sets her apart from even other ethnic American acquaintances and the difference is undoubtedly to her advantage.
K. Sz.: When I was in Italy my friend who I was visiting was just in Budapest and uhm I just felt it was nice I could say I’ve been there. Mentioning some things to her about the country. I don’t feel like many people say they’re gonna go to Hungary. They say, you should go to Germany and then maybe Hungary. So I think it’d be nice if more people would visit the country so, in that sense I like that because I’m Hungarian. I just feel unique. I don’t, there’s not many Hungarians that I run into on a daily basis that I know about. So.
F.M.: What do you mean by unique?
K.Sz.: I just feel unique that I’m that nationality. Because there are so many Germans, there are so many Italians. But Hungary is sort of a smaller country. Not smaller but I just think it’s pushed aside. I don’t think many people like a lot of Americans ask me if I speak Hungary, not Hungarian they don’t, that’s how ignorant are they, some of them think they don’t even have a language. If people speak German there. So it’s just surprising.
In this passage she describes her Hungarianness as unique because in contrast with other ethnic groups present in American society relatively few have access to it. Besides food and an occasional visit to Hungary or the peculiarity of the small nation, Kathryn also talked about a more controversial experience of attending a debutante ball when she was 15 years old. The experience also contributes to why she feels unique, though in a much more controversial, even negative way.
F.M.: Can you tell me about that ball?
Kathryn Szigetvari: Yeah, I did not really want to do it, but my dad really wanted me. Well, he thought it would be a good idea. So, I just remember getting a dress. Both of my parents were at the ball. It was in a big banquet room, like where a wedding would take place. And I remember we had to go upstairs and rehearse just who we were gonna be matched up with. I was connected with some man, like another person of my age that I didn’t know. I didn’t know anybody there. I remember we entered the dance floor doing some ceremonial dance. And then we walked in and got a circle, we were just doing songs I don’t remember the songs at all. I think everyone else was singing but I was just ‘cause it was the day of you know. (…)
F.M.: Was there much dancing?
K.Sz.: Yeah I danced with my dad. And my grandma was there so I danced with my grandfather. It was I did it for them. (…)
F.M.: How did you feel during the ball?
K.Sz.: I was sort of not embarrassed but they don’t do that in the United States. So I sort of felt like a nerd. None of my friends really understood what I was doing. So but I mean it’s a neat thing Hungarians used to do, right? They don’t do that anymore, right? Yeah, because I feel like I’m so Americanized and I mean not I’m Hungarian but, I’m not well, I didn’t come here. Even though I’m first generation.
In this story Kathryn tells us how she feels her heritage makes her unique, something she does not necessarily desire, and neither an average American, nor a Hungarian does normally. She perceives Hungary still as much of an exotic destination, which legitimizes her position as unique, therefore status enhancing. Participating in a debutante ball seems, however, way beyond any rational account for being Hungarian in America. She seeks to justify her view by accrediting the idea, “…it’s a neat thing”, whereas discrediting the timing and location “Hungarians used to do; … but they don’t do that in the United States” and asks for consent. In her account uniqueness is acceptable only if it is status enhancing. Peter used the term unique to signify what he described earlier as “old world”.
F.M.: How do you see your relatives now?
Peter Hevesi: Well we don’t have a close relationship. They’re a unique family. So as I indicated they forever lived in the same house and, and after I was married my wife wasn’t very comfortable with them for a variety of reasons. The fact that you go there the dog licks your leg, you know they have multiple dogs, some large, some small, in a house that they kept, very loud family, always screaming at each other for this or that, they had some discipline problems, since kids got into trouble, but then there is the matriarch of the family who’s my father’s half sister. She could put a guilt trip on you better than anybody. Family should be tight, and then you should want to be here and do this and all that. I do feel a commitment to her and to that family. Her granddaughter now calls on a regular basis and we have a good relationship. She is kind of interesting person. She is kind of moving away from the inner family circle and she is. So she is kind of in that world and out.
For Peter, unlike Kathryn, being in part Hungarian is not a legitimate source of uniqueness because he equals it with the lack of discipline, tact or even sanitation, characteristics necessary for success. In his approach, people possessing such ethno-cultural heritage are rather remnants of an old-world that is not properly contextualized. Nothing is worth saving, preserving or perpetuating from that world. The lack of dynamics in the family gains emphasis as well, since this part of the family is unwilling to understand that moving is key to American life. They choose to stay in the old house which stigmatizes them as unique in the negative sense. The approach is indeed very close to Kathryn’s experience, she felt like a nerd at the debutante ball, which source of uniqueness both informants tend to reject as irrelevant. Both stories illustrate how conscious they are of the somewhat out-of-context nature of transplanting the old-world Hungarian experience into 20th century American life. Christopher, however, argues there is a lot he learned from this old-world heritage he refers to as “romantic and idyllic”, namely to confront manipulation and the necessity to conform, which he sees as core features of American society. He talks about the year he spent in a small farming community in rural Kansas, how that reminded him of the extended family-centered life of his Hungarian relatives. In our first interview when he talked about Hungarian culture he said:
F.M.: What do you want your children to learn about your background in the future?
Christopher Kovach: I think the main thing is what my father went through in Russia, it’s important. And, then I’d like to go with them to Hungary and, and have them get a feeling for the culture, the language and think about that they are Hungarian. Because it is a really rich and just in a lot of ways a fascinating culture. I think its spread out alone is worthwhile. (…) It’s kind of separate from the rest of European culture and, and it’s, it has different kinds of art and different like. And one of the things that is kind of silly that I can think of is that everywhere you go you see fire-pits. (…) Fire-rings, outside in front of the especially in the countryside, like in front of a peasant house, there is always a fire-ring for cooking outside. And you don’t see that anywhere else in Europe, and so I kind of think that somehow related to nomadic pastoral living that is slightly closer something culturally more spontaneous or something that less, less, I don’t know bound in civilization, there is something. [Laughs] I don’t know, it’s a little bit silly and romantic but that’s I don’t know.
Later when he was talking about the year that he and his wife spent in Kansas Christopher described the experience as similar.
F.M.: And how did you feel during the experience when you were raising cattle?
Christopher Kovach: I really loved it. It was idyllic. It was just we were at once we were kind of isolated we were alone in our house. We were away from everybody else and we had several acres around us, it was just very pretty and the land around it was very beautiful. It was nice to watch it change with the seasons. But then at the same time there was this kind of closeness in the community, it was that we participated into and so we had you know the best of everything. You know that’s kind of ironic but when people live in cities at least in my experience they are more isolated they’re more stand-offish with each other, so then I think something I’d like to do, I’d like to live in the country once I practice.
Kathryn, Peter and Christopher present their views on the content of uniqueness. It is status enhancing because it is based on nonconformity for Christopher who feels that individual choices are possible only if the person reaches out for means of culture as a source of differences. These alternatives do not have to be based on ethnicity, whereas a person may use his ethno-cultural background as a legitimate source of uniqueness. Conformity with the norm is status enhancing, therefore the only source of success. Kathryn distinguishes between what is positively and negatively unique and sets clear boundaries between ethnic features that she wishes to maintain or reject. Her approach clearly reflects the distinction between ethnicity as collective and individual identity.
The Hungarian last names of Peter, Kathryn and Christopher turned out to be an additional source of feeling unique. In an earlier part of this paper Peter was already quoted claiming that in his teenage years it was more appropriate for him to be perceived as Italian than Hungarian. This feeling may have rooted in the nativist, anti-immigrant, later anti-ethnic feelings present in American culture at that time (late 1940’s, 1950’s) according to which Italians had more appreciation than people from other parts of Eastern and Southern Europe.
Peter Hevesi: You know, like in my high school class my nickname was a pejorative word for the Italian, but you know in that Catholic school in the sixties we had those kinds of nicknames. Well that kind of suggested that people took me as a person of Italian descent. So they took the name [Hevesi] to be Italian and I was kind of like, you know pretending to be somebody who I was not.
The more so since Kathryn, a generation younger than Peter, feels her Hungarian descent is of much higher value than being Italian or German simply because there are less Hungarians in the US and the world. She identifies with this exotic aspect of her background, which culminates in her background.
Kathryn Szigetvari: No, one could ever pronounce my last name. But everyone would always ask people thought it was Italian ‘cause of the “i” [Szigetvari] at the end.
F.M.: Did you correct them?
K. Sz.: Yes. And they’re like “oh Hungarian”, would be like “my friend is Hungarian” or would be like “interesting, interesting”. Some people would even ask me what country is that by. So I’ve heard it all. Nothing negative. (…) I always correct them. Yeah. A lot of people I get complemented on my name. A lot of people say it sounds like a movie star. I’ve heard that, I’ve heard it’s unique. I’ve heard that it rolls up your tongue sort of but. I don’t know. That’s another unique thing I guess. ‘Cause other than anyone can’t say my name so I like that.
Christopher offers a kind of in-between response. His name is just his name nothing less and nothing more.
F.M.: Do people ask you about your name, or where it comes from?
Christopher Kovach: No, because so many people here have unusual names or names from all over the world I don’t think that’s really stands out. Occasionally people. Sometimes I mean if I hear somebody has kind of a French sounding name I say, “oh is that a French name?” or something like that and people do that sometimes. Try to guess, they usually ask me if it’s a Russian name or something like that [laughs].
The variety of ways these three people relate to their names indicate how people as cultural beings tend to pick and mix elements of their culture, whether ethnic or mainstream and use it in their own individual ways to negotiate identities.
The stories of Kathryn, Peter and Christopher exemplify that acculturation may happen within one generation, as it depends on the choice of the immigrant. As Christopher stated, neither of his parents are really deeply attached to their national identities.
Christopher Kovach: I think they both consider themselves as Americans. And so somebody asks my dad where he’s from, because of his accent, he always says he’s from Topeka [laughs].
F.M.: Actually that is interesting because obviously he wanted you to know a lot about the culture.
C.K.: Yeah. I think he did. And that’s true. I mean I think this is kind of how he thinks about this culture, that he is an American, but you can’t just leave everything behind you like that.
With this choice Christopher’s father does not want to belong to the collective national identity of Hungarians similarly to Peter’s and Kathryn’s father. Opting for individual ethnicity instead of belonging to a Hungarian American community clearly marked off within American society is the only acceptable choice for these three children of immigrants. The conscious American effort to maintain ethnic pluralism yet with the emphasis on individuality further deepens the gap between these two types of ethnic identification. Both Kathryn and Christopher talk about how they do use their descent to create their own identities in a way that is not necessarily always conform in their understanding. They are proud of their knowledge and in some form or another they apply it to individualize their American identity. Peter denies being Hungarian American but because of his father and his relatives the family stories he tells his children do contain tints of Hungarianness. Thus, if only subconsciously he offers the choice to his children to go and explore their heritage. Kathryn, Peter and Christopher described their own ways of experiencing acculturation, which eventually becomes transnationalization where the cultural ingredients are not only Hungarian but also individual. Emphasis falls on the choice of the person as well, as the process of negotiating those choices and how culture and elements/icons of a particular culture come to create the unique world of an individual as the participant and maker of another culture. There are numerous funny and sad, complex and intriguing stories Kathryn, Christopher and Peter told to help understand their choices. In their self-reflections ethnicity proves be sustainable only if there are no prescribed features as to how to remain Hungarians at the same time.
Author’s note: I am grateful for the grant from the Fulbright Commission and the Soros Foundation which
facilitated my study at the University of Iowa in 2000/2001 and enabled me to start this
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