Growing Up A Chinese Girl in Hungary

Over the last 20 years, the Chinese community in Hungary has grown immensely and Budapest’s is now one of the largest in Europe. The growth and visible success of Chinese people has divided the Hungarian people; some see it as an opportunity, others as an invasion. Further, the refugee and migration situation in Europe has moved many Hungarians in an increasingly nationalist direction.

My twelve-year-old brother has been bullied by his classmates quite recently. They told him to go back to China and called him blatantly racist names. Unfortunately, the school and the teachers can only do so much to protect him without hard evidence. Hungary has never had widespread public awareness of race and discrimination—and respectful discourse on questions of diversity is very much down to individual preference and sensitivities. It is still awaiting an open conversation around race and acceptance, and ignorance will continue to be a key driver of racism if we don’t talk about it.

In the hope of contributing to this conversation, I am writing this piece.

The Strange Shoelace

One particular memory from my childhood has remained engraved in my mind. For the longest time I couldn’t understand why my brain chose to remember such a small and insignificant event from when I was 4 years old with such crystal clarity. Even today, at 25, I remember every detail.  

My mother and I were getting on the tram in Budapest. When we stepped onto the tram I felt like everyone was staring at us. It made my young self quite uneasy.

So, I asked my mother, “why are people staring at me like that?”

She answered, “oh, well that’s because your shoelaces are tied a little strange, baby.”

From that moment on, I always took extra care with how I tied my shoelaces, because I never wanted people to look at me that way again.

At the age of 4, I didn’t really understand what the gazes of those people on the tram really meant. All I knew was that they made me feel small and made me feel uncomfortable. On top of that, I really thought it was about how I tied my shoelaces.

Long story short, my shoelaces were not the problem, the colour of my skin was.  

My mother was trying to protect me. However, my brain decided it was an important enough event to engrave in my mind and bring up years later when I was older and wiser. It was a kind of lightbulb moment when I first realised that people looked at us the way they did because we were Chinese. We looked different and they had never seen anyone like us before. Well, at least not in real life. Jackie Chan was already pretty internationally famous back then. Hence why two enormous 3rd grade boys chased me down in first grade, trying to challenge me to a round of Kung Fu.  

We immigrated to Budapest in 1995 among the first Chinese immigrants to enter Hungary. The only exposure the average Hungarian had to Asians at the time was Jackie Chan. Growing up in the midst of all that was challenging, to say the least, and I picked up a few personality quirks. Some for better, and some for worse.

Jialin as a child in a traditional Hungarian costume

One Little Girl Standing Up

It was particularly tough in my younger years, when I had just started elementary school in a small rural town in Hungary. My family had moved away from Budapest to start a new business venture and in that town we were the first and only Asian people. Naturally, we were a spectacle everywhere we went.

I remember my first day in 1st grade, when we had to go to lunch as a class, and all the kids needed a partner to hold each other’s hands on the way. Every time we had to do that, it was incredibly stressful for me. I would look around my classmates, hoping for a welcoming look, but I’d always end up holding the teacher’s hand. That was the first time I truly felt less than my peers. It made me feel like that was just where my place was.

However, things didn’t stay that way for very long.

One day at lunch, some of the kids got curious about my necklace. It was a small carving of the Buddha in a pouch. I was thrilled that they finally took an interest in me, but my excitement was short lived when the kids started making fun of me for believing in Buddha and not Jesus.

That’s when one little girl stood up for me and told the other kids to leave me alone. She told them off and made the others realise that they were being mean and hurtful. She became my first friend, and because of her I started to gain acceptance among my classmates.

All it took was one person to do the right thing, and the rest would follow. It was just one gesture by that one little girl, but it changed my life in school for the better.

I also got a Hungarian teacher to tutor me outside of class. She did far more than that. She treated me as if I was her own, taught me Hungarian culture, invited me to her vacations, but most importantly, she truly believed in me and supported me. Eventually, my classmates and my Hungarian teacher became my safety net. Among them, I felt accepted, safe and myself to an extent.

The Fishing Rod

Outside of my safety zone, however, I still had to deal with overt racism on a daily basis.

Whenever I walked the streets alone, older kids would shout things like, “Ching, Chang, Chong!” point at me, and laugh at me. I would always ignore it. It happened on such a regular basis that I just began to accept it as part of who I was and what I had to deal with. I got used to it to the extent that I didn’t even bother to tell my parents about it until a few years later.

One day I was going home from school and as usual a group of teenage boys shouted at me from across the street. That day I found my Dad had come home early. He asked me how was school and everything, and I casually told him it was fine and that some boys had made fun of me.

I didn’t realise that it was such a big deal until I told my Dad. He got furious. I’d never seen him so angry before, and I was shocked.

I kept trying to calm him down, saying it wasn’t a big deal, that it happened all the time and that it was normal.

Needless to say, that only made him angrier. He shoved me out the door and demanded that I show him the kid that made fun of me. I didn’t dare to do anything other than comply.

He grabbed his fishing rod from the back of his car and went down to the park near our house where the kids were. He asked me to point out the kids, and that instant marched right up to them, fishing rod in hand, scaring the living hell out of them. He warned them to never bother me again. He did all this in broken Hungarian, but he was so furious that the kids for sure got the message.

It didn’t stop there.

My Dad demanded to know who else had made fun of me. Honestly, at that point there were so many, that I couldn’t even remember. Half of the time I wouldn’t even look at them when they shouted, I just walked away.

The next day both him and my Mom took me to school and both of them asked me which kids were the culprits. I recognised one girl and one boy. These two liked to shove me to the back of the line at the snack shop whenever I was close to the front.

Before I pointed them out, I tried to talk my parents out of it. I didn’t want them to make a scene in front of all the kids at school. I was afraid that people would make fun of them, too, but at that point nothing would stop them.

Let’s just say that they were extremely effective. I am still surprised to this day that the parents of the other kids didn’t come find us. My Dad dropped me off at school and picked me up every day for a month after that incident, just to make sure that no kid would attempt anything anymore.

Jialin with her father and little brother at her high school graduation

Anxiety Is There So That You Remember

Unfortunately, there is only so much you can do to fight against those who just can’t see beyond the colour of your skin. I still chose to ignore racist abuse, the only difference was that I no longer internalised it. I stopped assuming it was happening because of something wrong with me.

However, in elementary school I began to develop social anxiety. I would be pretty outspoken and outgoing with people I was comfortable with, but when I met new people, anxiety would wash over me.

I became hyper-aware of the looks I would get from people I had just met. I would be very conscious and afraid of how people perceived me. I preferred not to be perceived, and not to be seen. I became terrified to enter a room by myself, and whenever I had to, I would try to just sneak in and sneak out so no one would notice me.

Saying “Hi” and “Bye” to people was an absolute nightmare for me. Especially because Hungarians would kiss every single person on the cheeks, and for me that meant being seen by every person in the room.

It meant I couldn’t hide.

It was a nightmare, and it wasn’t only hard with Hungarians, but also with our Chinese acquaintances. My Mom would get furious at me for not being respectful and loud enough when greeting her friends. But I just couldn’t do it. The best I could manage was an awkward, “Hello everyone,” in an almost inaudible voice.

This anxiety over greetings is still very much present in me today. I’ve just learned to mask it much better. However, occasionally it slips through the cracks, and most people assume I am rude.

White-washing Oneself

In my years spent at the small town, I eventually became white-washed. I often forgot that I was Chinese when I was with my classmates. This immersion and complete adoption of the Hungarian culture was what allowed me to be completely accepted by my peers.

Chinese things were mocked and looked down upon at the time. China was known in the Western world for manufacturing cheap and low-quality goods, which also transferred to how Chinese people were seen.

Whenever I brought Chinese snacks to share with my classmates, the snacks would end up in the trash can. When I tried to exchange my Digimon stickers with my classmates, the others would laugh at me and call my stickers a knock-off of Pokemon (both of these are popular cartoons originating from Japan).

So, I turned my back on my own culture and chose acceptance instead. I was celebrated for the betrayal of my heritage, in a way. My teachers would be filled with pride when I told them that I thought of myself as Hungarian and forget that I was even Chinese. I was invited to recite Hungarian poetry for the local TV, and people marvelled at how proficient I was in Hungarian.

I stayed white-washed until we moved back to Budapest at the end of 4th grade.

I didn’t get into the school I wanted to attend in the small town, so instead I asked my mother to transfer me to an English school in Budapest. From a very young age I knew that I didn’t want to be stuck in a rather limited country with limited opportunities. My mother would always tell me that she wanted me to study in America or the UK, become a lawyer or a doctor. Typical Asian tiger mom expectations, but I wanted that future as well.

So, we moved back to Budapest for me to start studying at an American International school. In retrospect, not getting into the local school was the best thing that could have happened to me, because my life took a major turn after the move.

Jialin (second from the left) at the graduation party of the Lausanne Hotel School in Switzerland

The People Who Support Us

Attending the international school gave me a culture shock at first. It was tough, because I had to learn English as a new language. All of the kids spoke fluent English and I spoke none. However, in my class there were also other Asian kids from Japan, Korea, and China. The culture at the international school was predominantly American, but somehow all cultures were well-integrated and accepted, celebrated even.

Still, the first friends I made there were Hungarian. I simply felt more at home with my Hungarian classmates, but they were different from the typical Hungarians I had come across so far. They were aware of other cultures and had other Asian friends. I was not expected to fit their mold, I was allowed to be myself amongst them.

I made my first Chinese friends at this school and gradually started to let my Chinese side come back to me through them. I was able to make friends with different groups of people, without the fear of being rejected by others. I began to regain my confidence and accept myself, all thanks to the people who surrounded me.

Later I further increased my exposure to different cultures and values by going to Switzerland for university, and then to Germany for my first job.

Jialin Wu now works as a digital project manager in Germany

Today, I am immensely proud of my heritage, my family, and my story. I had the opportunity to shape my own values after experiencing so many different cultures. I am completely free to choose who I am and what set of values I adhere to. I’ve developed my own unique set of values that I have chosen.

I’ve also had the opportunity to see that my story isn’t really a story about how I fought and overcame hardship by being brave and confident myself.

This is a story of privilege, my privilege. The opportunity to have lived through such experiences has offered me immense opportunities for growth. I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without every single one of those painful moments.

However, my story became one of privilege not through my own merit, but through the people who supported me. My parents, who sacrificed more than I could ever repay, to make sure I would have every opportunity to succeed in life. The friends I had made over the years, the ones who accepted me, shaped me, and supported me.

Without these people, a story like mine would be a story of tragedy. Without a proper support system, children subject to racism and discrimination can end up damaged beyond repair.

We often expect a story of discrimination to be a story where the main subject fights for themselves, but discrimination isn’t something anyone can fight alone. Every one of us has the responsibility to be the person who does the right thing and stands up for those who need it. More so today, than ever.

(Written by Jialin Wu. A digital project manager by day, Jialin is passionate about discovering and building new ideas. Occasionally fluctuating between being a dork and a professional napper.)

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