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Budapest to Montreal: Scenes from an immigrant childhood

My husband and I share almost identical stories of our childhood: circa 1956, the sounds of war outside, he in Cairo, me in Budapest, a grandparent cheering at each explosion trying to keep the ever encroaching sense of danger at bay.

I feel infinitely grateful for having lived in Canada since I was eight, as I compare this country’s and Hungary’s reaction to the plight of Syrian refugees.

The immigrant experience is never easy, mainly because every immigrant is also an emigrant. I sometimes
imagine my early childhood as Atlantis, a sunken ephemeral world so remote within the fog of memory that you doubt it ever existed. It is a place you certainly can’t go home to again.

The first thing I lost was my name. In Hungary I was only called “Csöpike”, meaning “little drop,” a sort of generic kid’s name. I suddenly became the Anglicized Christine, impossible-to-pronounce in Hungarian: C as in “tse-tse fly,” H as in “how the heck,” and R as in a motorcycle revving up. As Hungarian is a completely phonetic language, when I read it I hear the sound of someone clearing their throat.

I write my real, intended name here, Berey Krisztina, for the first, and probably the last, time. Eventually the K in Kristine became a reasonable compromise.

I remember being left in the care of neighbours for a few hours, where kids surrounded me as if I were a celebrity. But since I didn’t yet speak a word of English, they stared at me and I stared back, feeling much like a puppy in a cage.

Eventually they became my playmates.

I wanted very much to be polite so when I was asked what I wanted in my sandwich, I modestly asked for mustard. In Hungary I remember being given butter and mustard on bread, but the way the hostess kept asking incredulously, “are you sure?” embarrassed me, and I didn’t know what to say.

Looking back, I was not particularly impressed with Canadian food. My first taste of it was a hot dog, which sounded horribly unappetizing, something like “warmed up pet”. Up to that time my best friend had been Kuki, a real warm dog. Even worse, the thing had Mozzarella cheese in it, which kept stretching to arm’s length, as I bit into it. I was certain this was some kind of edible elastic. This conviction was strengthened when I was offered “chewing gum,” which means “chewing rubber” in Hungarian. Kellog’s Sugar Pops didn’t do much for me either, especially served out of tiny paper boxes. It tasted just a little better than the “bowl” would have, and I truly believed that people ate sugared paper here. Soon after though, I learned to love Sugar Crisp.

It’s interesting that my best friend in Grade 6 was a born and bred Canadian, but she didn’t feel she was because of her Japanese heritage. Already, she said she “knew” she would marry a “Canadian.” Sadly, she meant “white.”

She and I were both targeted by the classroom bully, who once stuck a piece of paper on my back that said “I am an ugly Gyp.” I remember being mortified, but even more, curious about what “Gyp” meant. Looking back, I think it may have been short for “gypsy” her idea of Hungarian.

I’ll bet if you ask former immigrant kids what it felt like being a stranger in a strange land, they will say they felt out of place. Since on paper I’m Catholic, I was sent to a French school with nuns as teachers and after school I went to a private ballet class. It took me years to figure out that perhaps I felt alienated because of my textbook. I carried The New Testament, with its full-colour cover picture of Jesus, wearing a crown of thorns, with blood running down his face.

Most of the kids in the ballet class were Orthodox Jews, and I’m sure they didn’t know what was going on any more than I did.

I also have Jewish roots, and when my friend and I were terrorized (for three solid weeks) with the words maudit juif and were dared to fight back, I finally did to my— and the bully’s— surprise and horror. It was my one and only physical fight ever, but I learned that bullies are just cowards underneath.

I returned, decades later, to Hungary. There was nothing there that I recognized and I felt more out of place than ever. But when the concept that I truly didn’t belong anywhere crystallized, I suddenly experienced an incredible sense of freedom. Reframing it all, I realized that I am quite comfortable in the universe.

When the refugee families arrive, we Canadians will welcome them, but hopefully not too strenuously. We must let them know gently, as best as we can, what may take them years to believe — they’ve come home.

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2 Comments

  1. Sylvia Wedge says:

    So well expressed. Many Canadians are immigrants, but did not flee from such dire circumstances. Most newcomers feel different because of their language/accent, clothes, food and experiences. With a warm and appropriate welcome these immigrants will make a successful transition, be excellent citizens and contribute to a thriving Canada. Thank you for your recollections and insight.

  2. Thank you Krys for sharing your story with us it is so refreshing to read about the challenges of the new immigrant from the perspective of a child .As you know I have taught for well over 36 years now and have crossed paths with many immigrant families . I have always known to a certain degree that arriving to a foreign land and attempting to make a life for yourself and your family is not an easy task but what about the children who have little to no experiences navigating through a new and possibly scary culture, society it must be so frightening.
    I am honored to have been invited into your family so warmly and with no biases toward me .
    Your writing is so generous and gentle and yet so frank as well . It educates and allows the reader to feel and embark on a great journey with you as our guide.
    Thank you, John

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