Last year on Thanksgiving a family member I hadn’t seen in a while brought up my heritage. I didn’t mind, since it happens a lot. As teens, and even well into college, my friends would make whoever I’d just met recite my ancestry to the next person, not to see if but when they’d mess up. This particular person on Thanksgiving had always made me feel welcome and helped me confront things I might not be overly willing to confront in a gentle way. But when she brought up my father’s Transylvanian heritage, it really made me think. To give you an idea, this is one of the people who are responsible for making me speak Hungarian, without whom I would never have mastered the language to a level where I’m fluent (as in, speaking without pausing to translate) and not thrown off by the mistakes I make. In her case, she was merely reminiscing, because she’s one of the people in my life who share a similar ethnic mix to mine. And as she told me, she was just making sure she was remembering my family history right.
She never made me feel less than, in any way. And considering the amount of times I’d invite myself over (even, on one occasion, bringing a stranger with me), she would have had every reason to. One day, I will write out the entire story, but for now, this will have to suffice.
Her reaction made me think. Because I never identified as Transylvanian. But I will claim my Hungarian heritage in a heartbeat. Now I will. It wasn’t always like that. Maybe it comes from the way I was exposed to it. It’s an open secret that I lived in Germany for a while, and longer than I would have wanted to. To make a long story short, we lived in a small town that all the Nazis who couldn’t make it to Argentina called home. My brother and I will still communicate in German on certain occasions, and I earn my living using German. But for the most part, the other languages get more use, and that’s fine by me. Back there I was the weird French kid, weird because I was the only one in that small town who’d regularly spend time in the States, only to see all, or most, of my classmates, a year or so later. Only my closest friends knew about my Hungarian heritage, mainly because I only found out about it when in my mid teens, but also because it was no one’s business. And besides, at that time I identified as 100% French-American. My father had had Hungarian friends when I was a toddler, and we visited back and forth, but that somehow petered out eventually, so that I forgot. Besides, they were all living in Paris anyway, so it was easy to associate his friends with France rather than with Hungary.
When the school I attended in Germany received a lot of ethnic Germans from Romania that everyone referred to as Aussiedler, alongside some refugees, the two terms confused me to the extent that I had to ask my Social Science teacher about it. She promptly told me to do a report on it. Having acquired my study skills in the U.S. I promptly marched myself over to town hall, presented my case at reception, and waited for them to send someone down, who then clarified that a refugee was someone who was essentially without a country on account of having been forced to leave it. While an Aussiedler was an ethnic German, someone whose ancestors had migrated East for a better life and was now – after generations of having lived there – ready and willing to return to the land his forefathers had left (communism and other assorted economical factors also accounting for the new willingness to move, quote unquote).