On-the-Job: A Teacher in Hungary

Peter Dibuz, who speaks Hungarian, taught English privately.

Though I was born in the U.S., my parents grew up in Hungary. I learned to speak Hungarian before I learned English.

And I still speak Hungarian with my parents and their friends, most of whom are Hungarian. Consequently, when I go to Hungary, I can be both Hungarian and American, so my perspective is a little strange.

I guess that I can point out how living in Hungary is different from living in North America. I’m not really sure where to begin. If you’re not sure where you want to go in Hungary, I can offer a few helpful generalizations about the different regions. Northwestern Hungary, which extends north and west of Budapest, tends to be more cosmopolitan and sophisticated. Historically, the Austro-Hungarian Empire made the greatest impact on this part of the country. It’s evident in the architecture, and in the people, too. You will find that people here are more cultured and better educated. Northeastern Hungary, on the other hand, tends to be less interesting for visitors because it’s more industrial and the people are generally not as well-educated. Both southeast and southwest Hungary are fairly rural. There are a lot of small towns that are populated by farmers. Most of these people have not been exposed to big city life, so you have to contend with more rigid attitudes.

No matter where you go, you should always use common sense, just as you would at home. Be suspicious of anyone who flaunts wealth. You’ll recognize the tell-tale signs. If someone is wearing a lot of gold jewelry or driving an expensive new car, it’s likely that they came upon their wealth dishonestly. Bureaucracy used to be the biggest problem in Hungary, now it’s organized crime and bribery. It seems like you have to pay bribes to accomplish anything important, whether it’s seeking medical treatment or getting a telephone installed in your apartment.

By the way, don’t seek medical treatment in Hungary if you can help it. Go to Austria. My uncle was mistreated when he needed a small skin graft. And I’ve heard lots of other horror stories.

Hungarians are well-known for their hospitality. If you’re invited over to someone’s home or out to dinner, you can expect to be offered great quantities of Hungarian food and drink. So it’s important to learn how to politely decline an offer of another helping or another drink. Be especially careful of how much alcohol you consume, because Hungarians are known for putting down copious quantities. When someone offers a toast, make sure that you look them in the eye when you clink your glasses and don’t take a drink until the person who gives the toast lifts the glass to their mouth. Also, make sure that you take a drink before you set down your glass, otherwise you’ll look like you’re rejecting the toast. Another thing, never toast with glasses of beer. If you go out to dinner with someone, make sure that you put up an argument when it comes time to pay the bill. It’s impolite to just let someone else pay without putting up a fight. Of course, what goes around comes around. After you get to know people, you’ll be expected to pay now and again. Make sure that you don’t overspend when it’s your turn. And be wary of freeloaders. Anyone who doesn’t pay every once in a while is probably along for a free ride.

If you go to Hungary to teach English, remember that Hungarians are taught to be quiet and respectful in the classroom. For the first few weeks, you probably won’t get many responses from your students when you ask questions or try to stimulate dialogue. Be patient. It takes time for them to get used to speaking up in class.

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