Saturday, April 19, 2008

Seeing the World through Others' Eyes

I was in Dublin when I started this entry. It was a wonderful long weekend. Dóra had some work to do there, and we decided to make a trip of it. I’ve never been, but I plan to visit again. Great city. It’s somehow simultaneously cosmopolitan and quaint.

We arrived on Friday night. Our cabdriver offered up some of the best English-language cursing I’ve heard in a while. With his command of the idiom, he helped me to understand that “…the country [Ireland] will driving you absolutely fucking nuts.” He did get more colorful than that, but I can’t reproduce the accent here, so there’s little point in sharing.

It is worth noting, however, that while driving us to the hotel, our cabby read stories out of the newspaper to back up his assertions about the crazy-making nature of Ireland: gang war in Limerick, rising cost of living, botched city planning, Romanian pick pockets, healthcare horror stories, and government corruption were just some of the stories we got to hear about.

What struck me while listening to the cabby’s rant was the man’s tenor: disbelief and frustration mingled with a smile.

If I were to sit through a similar set of complaints in Budapest, the tone would be exceedingly somber: knitted brows, pensive frowns, and a lot of exasperated sighing. But when I take a step back, something becomes clear: When I compare 1) the complaints I heard in Dublin to 2) the complaints I hear in Hungary to 3) the complaints I have about the US, I notice that they are all very similar. That isn’t any kind of revelation, I know, but this visit to Dublin shed a new light on things.

As our cabby went on and on about the absurdity of modern living, his tone stressed the absurdity. The lilt of his voice suggested that the problems Ireland faces are ridiculous, almost silly. He had a laugh caught in his throat as he described each new outrage, and over the course of the weekend, I noted that this tone was a common one in Ireland. I don’t want to fall back on the stereotype of the merry-old-Irishman, because our cabby wasn’t merry. He was upset. It’s just that his way of seeing problems differs from the way both Americans and Hungarians see problems. Seeing that difference helped me better understand how my countrymen and I see the world, and how the world sees us.

When my American friends and I start talking about politics or social ills, our approach to the discussion… it doesn’t really feel like we’re complaining. The way we talk, it often sounds like we’re on some kind of policy committee, like we’re planning to solve the healthcare crisis before we finish the next bottle of wine. Surprisingly enough, we haven’t managed that yet. Actually, my friends and I haven’t solved even one domestic issue over a bottle of wine. Yet, despite our abysmal record, our approach to such topics has yet to change. We discuss an issue as though we’re searching for some solution. With our very American optimism, a complaint becomes a challenge, or a puzzle.

Here in Hungary, on the other hand, a complaint is treated as a simple statement of fact. For instance, the current crop of Hungarian politicians is grossly inept, unable to make even the most basic kind of legislative progress. That is true.

If you want details, how about this?
(If you already know, or you don’t care, skip to the next paragraph)
The opposition party spent the last few years refusing to participate in parliamentary meetings. I like to call it the “Oh-yeah?-Well-then,-I’m-gonna-take-my-ball-and-go-home” policy. In the meantime, the ruling party made sweeping policy changes, but forgot to tell the public why such changes were necessary. Recently most of those changes were condemned in a referendum and the Prime Minister’s approval rating has sunk into the teens. And now the moderate party that had lent its support to the ruling socialist party has dissolved the coalition, leaving the entire political system in a state of uncertainty.

Ask a Hungarian, and they will tell you exactly how awful the political situation is, and they’ll do it with what can only be described as a sick kind of pleasure. The people here approach nearly every problem in this manner. To an outsider, it seems as though the Hungarians thrive in only the shittiest of conditions, and as a result they have mastered the art of complaining for the sake of complaining. If you ask a Hungarian what can be done, the answer will be some form of complaint about the hopelessness of the whole situation.

One more step back from these observations, and I start to see how the Irish and the Hungarian perspective are more similar to each other than they are to the American. Perhaps history helps to explain that. Both countries have seen their fair share of hardships and strife. So in the face of problems one nation accepts those hardships with laughter while the other simply accepts those hardships. It makes sense. After all, the problems we tend to complain about have been around for quite a while. What’s the likelihood of this generation sorting it all out?

Even though I know the answer to that question is not going to jive with my American optimism, I don’t think my conversations on politics or social ills are going to change very much. In fact this whole issue presents itself to me as a challenge of inter-cultural exchange. I wonder if any of my American readers can help me overcome these cultural barriers.

And there I go again.

It’s no wonder both the Hungarians and the Irish think Americans are a bit starry-eyed. “Oh, look at the cute little American thinking he can resolve long-standing issues stemming from the complexity of national identity and cultural heritage; I just want to eat him right up. Coochie, Coochie, Coo!”

And now some puppy pictures that Andras took:

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Meanest Thing I've Ever Written on the Internet

So this is the crap I deal with while living in Europe. Some guy who went to school with Dóra contacted me through Facebook to let me know that he took a look at the blog. Here’s what he had to say:

Javier Colon (Denmark) wrote
at 8:47pm on April 1st, 2008


Just took a look at your Hogs In Budapest website.

I thought maybe you should consider clarifying exactly what you mean by "Midwesterner living in Central Europe"

Midwesterner... To native United Stater's makes sense... but when taken out of context... It can be quite confusing ;)

I thought the comment was tongue-in-cheek. I mean, it had to be, right? So, I wrote back the following:

Hogan Hayes wrote
at 8:32am

Happy to hear you took a look at Hogs. But I'm wondering, do you know of any other region in the world called the Midwest? I'm pretty sure the one in the States is the only Midwest.
If, however, there is a European out there who has never said anything disparaging about the poor geography skills of Americans (unlikely), and who also can say they don't know where the Midwest is, then maybe I'll think about giving a better explanation of the term Midwest (one of only six regions within the continental US).

Okay, so maybe that was a little more biting than necessary, but how many more times am I going to have to see that “Smarter than a 5th Grader” video accompanied by smarmy comments from some EU citizen who thinks Ms. Kelly Pickler is a quality representative of the American intellect? So I bristled. I’ll admit it. I do not, however, think my response was wrong-headed. My intended reader here at ‘Hogs in Budapest’ is someone who knows that in English, the term ‘Midwest’ refers to American fly-over country. I also expect my readers to comprehend understatement, sarcasm, and omission of the obvious. I expect my readers to be able to read subtext. I hope my readers can appreciate irony. I pray my readers will avoid taking themselves too seriously. Now, with all that in mind, have a look at what Javier sent in way of a response.

Javier Colon (Denmark) wrote
at 9:17am

Hello Again!

Although I have lived in several countries over the years… I have yet to find one that uses the term "Midwest" when describing their geographical regions. However, this may be due to the fact that I do not speak the local language of the places I’ve been. This does not grant me the right to just automatically assume that no country uses the term “Midwest” to describe their regions. My concern was the fact that you were using this term “Midwesterner” based on the assumption that it only refers to the USA. This can be interpreted as a slightly arrogant way to generalize that everyone who visits your webpage would automatically understand what you meant. I would suggest that you consider being more diplomatic in your descriptions. Since you are a USA citizen living abroad, I feel it is your duty and responsibility to avoid perpetuating the foolish American stereotype of making board assumptions based on random thoughts.

I would like to start by saying, I was just accused of arrogance because I said I am from the Midwest. For those of you who also hail from the Midwest, hold on to this moment: Javier (who has lived in several countries over the years) thinks a claim to Midwestern roots is arrogant.

That said, I’d like to thank Javier for his concern; it’s true that the word “Midwesterner” may have more than one meaning. And perhaps Javier is right to point out that my use of the word could reinforce “the foolish American stereotype of making board assumptions based on random thoughts.” (I know it’s a cheap shot, but how could I resist?)

So, since Javier felt compelled to share his concerns about my Blogger profile on Facebook, I thought I’d share my concerns about his Facebook comments here on ‘Hogs.’ Javier, I am concerned that you might be a bit of an ass. You see, as a ‘USA citizen living abroad’, I bump into your type all too often: the type who on one hand ‘automatically assumes’ that Americans are ‘slightly arrogant, ’ and on the other hand feels comfortable informing me of what my ‘duty and responsibility’ might be.

Understand, I’m not generalizing here (a deed you seem to abhor). I’ve met plenty of people here in Europe who are good-natured, intelligent folks. You just aren’t one of them. You think I ought to be more diplomatic with my language? Well, I think you ought to engage in autoerotic stimulation. It would be a more valuable use of your time than the above exchange.

Would a winking emoticon make this easier to swallow? Too bad.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


I’m teaching an undergraduate course in critical thinking this semester. Each week the students read up on an issue or a long-standing philosophical debate. Last week it was torture. The week before that, we discussed gay marriage. This week we’re reading “The Will to Believe” by William James.

Two bright female Hungarian students asked me what the reading was about for this week. When I told them, they got very excited.

Originally presented as a lecture, “The Will to Believe” seeks to prove that a rational mind can believe in god even if there is no evidence for that belief.

Now, let me make something clear: Mine are not students who typically get excited about 19th century lectures on epistemology. But I have noted in my classroom a profound interest in the sacred-secular debate.

The interest in this topic belies the (typically conservative) American notion that Europe has become a playground for atheists and relativists. I can’t speak for many Western Europeans, but here in Central Europe, God has still got a firm grasp on the population.

During last’s month’s debate on gay marriage, I had one Romanian student who, despite repeated requests from his peers, refused to acknowledge any authority other than the Church in regards to the institution of marriage.

Here in Hungary, the Catholic Church’s holidays are State holidays. We get a day off on Pentecost. I was an active Catholic for years, and I didn’t know exactly what Pentecost was until I just googled it.

Anyway, I try to arrive in the classroom ready to play devil’s advocate for both sides of a debate. (Devil’s advocate, by the way, was originally a post in the Vatican for the officer who argued against the canonization of potential saints)

With this in mind, I poked around the Internet for arguments on both sides of this issue. What I found was unsettling. This debate has sharper fangs than I had anticipated. The people on either side of the divide fight as though this issue has a direct impact not only on their lives, but on society as a whole.

As someone whose faith has waxed and waned throughout my life, I’d like to ask anyone reading this to help me understand the vitriol behind the arguments.

I don’t mean to sound naïve. I understand that the issue is deeply personal. I see in both family and friends that spiritual belief is profoundly important. But several questions still remain.
To quote Malcolm X, “…I believe my religion is my personal business. It governs my personal life, my personal morals. And my religious philosophy is personal between me and the God in whom I believe; just as the religious philosophy of these others is between them and the God in whom they believe.”

This sounds reasonable to me, but the debate I’m seeing on message boards, pundit show clips, and video posts tells me that people do not believe faith is ‘personal business’ anymore.

I have theories as to why, and before I sign off, I’d like to share just one. I’ll focus on the debate in America because I’m more familiar with it.

On one side you’ve got secularists angry because religious interests are creeping into the halls of government. On the other side you have the religious advocates upset because the education system is pushing a secular agenda.

To caricature each side’s voice:
Secularists say, ‘The fundamentalists want to rid our nation of diversity and create an all-Christian America.’
While the religious claim, ‘The universities and laboratories are brainwashing your children with anti-God propaganda.’

So, it’s a turf war. One side’s got the instruments of government. The other side has the tools of education. If you can separate yourself from the fight, it’s actually kind of fun. Cause they’ve both got a point. The US government is the WASPiest institution you could hope to create; name one president who didn’t regularly finish each address with an appeal to God. And the academy has worked hard to keep religion out of the classroom.

What tickles me is that the reason both the government and the academy have developed the way they have clearly stems from the nature of the institutions themselves. The democratic process is bound to produce religious elected officials in a country where the majority of people are religious (Palestine anyone?). And the academy’s pursuit of knowledge is bound to exclude any influence that hampers its investigations.

So why are we surprised? Why are we fighting? The two institutions have attracted the minds that one would expect them to attract. Both institutions exert a powerful influence on the public. But does that undermine Malcolm X’s point? I don’t believe it does. Why would I foist my agnostic beliefs on my students who observe Orthodox traditions? What would I have to gain? I could ask the same of a fundamentalist trying to convert me. What’s the motivation?
Any help?

Below you'll find the vid that pushed me over the edge on writing this entry. I like Richard Dawkins. I think he's a smart guy. And while I respect the views of the minds behind this video, I think the video itself is a horrible piece of trash, but its popularity is interesting to me.