Found in Translation

Up to a certain age, you don’t even notice that you belong to an ethnic minority. Then comes confusion, followed by indecision and conflicts with the majority.

Ilustrație cu un băiat care se dă în leagăn deasupra a două armate care se luptă.

I was born on October 13, 1980, in Miercurea Ciuc, right in the heart of the Szekler region. I’m not saying that it was a good or a bad thing. It just happened. I was given a double identity – Hungarian and Szekler, one language, Hungarian, and very few explanations about who I was. Anyway, when you have a happy childhood, it doesn’t really matter who you are.

I was aware of the fact that I spoke Hungarian, and I couldn’t even imagine there were other languages in the world. At home, at church, at my grandparents’, at my cousins who lived in a neighbouring county, almost everyone spoke Hungarian. I remember I once heard someone speak another language, and I asked him if he was a foreigner. I had recently found out there were other places where people spoke other languages, and I was curious about where he came from. My mother felt ashamed, as she knew that the comrade worked for the County Council and he was speaking Romanian. Fortunately, he didn’t speak Hungarian and we ended up having a parallel conversation.

At school, things got complicated. In the beginning, all my colleagues spoke Hungarian, and the teacher was also one of us. There was nothing to predict the changes that would occur in our lives. After I learned how to read, write and sing a few songs, all in Hungarian, there came a day when I had to learn a new language, which I was told was called Romanian. But my learning style was quite odd.

I remember being at home and struggling to memorize the poem “Mama lui Ştefan cel Mare” (Stephen the Great’s Mother). My mother, who taught Hungarian and was also my private tutor of Romanian, was not home yet, and I wanted to go out and play. This was our daily routine: she came home, I would learn the new words, then the poem, and then I could go play. As I was in a hurry, it occurred to me that I could speed up the process. When she got home, she discovered I had already learned the poem by heart, but I did not understand its content. All I knew was that Ştefan had been locked outside the castle, and that his mother was really upset. I also knew that he had lost a battle, but I was not sure if this was the reason for their argument. But I could not recite or understand where it was said in the poem that they were upset and that Ştefan was knocking at the gate. (The same happened with English, a lot later, when foreign music became available on casettes.)

Otherwise, I was a typical child. I liked playing outside and I absolutely loved reading. I think I read all the books in the City Library. I got good grades; I was a little model citizen. I believed all I was being told in school. I believed in the party, in comrade Ceauşescu, I was a proud communist pioneer. Things were going so well for me, that the comrades chose me to hug the mighty leader and hand him a bunch of flowers on his visit in Miercurea Ciuc.

I got medically examined every day for fear that I would give some common disease to the most beloved man in the country. The comrades in the county council liked me, the test results were good, and I was anxiously waiting for the big day. But my world fell apart when a high-ranked comrade from Bucharest discovered something that was not unusual in Harghita County: I didn’t speak Romanian. The risk of me saying something stupid was too great, so they brought a diligent pupil from somewhere else, depriving me of the chance to have an enlightened day.

Though I was only nine years old at the time, I remember the Revolution clearly. At the beginning, I couldn’t understand why someone would want to boo or replace Ceauşescu. I had just taken my oath as a “pioneer,”and I had been given a leader’s lace. So I felt that the Revolution could jeopardize my bourgeoning career. My parents told me that Ceaușescu was in fact a bad man who had killed innocent people. The thought that all the rules and teachings so far were false left me a bit confused.

On Christmas day in 1989, we had a full house, since many relatives had taken refuge at our place. We were a bunch of kids running up and down chanting “Ole, ole Ceauşescu is no more,” though we didn’t really know what it meant. I also remember that on Christmas evening, the greetings were displayed in three languages, which was a moment of euphoria for us. Even I, as a little boy, caught the importance of such a moment. It was that moment in the history of Romania when we rose again as a people. It’s not that we didn’t exist until then or that we didn’t know we were Hungarian. But after dozens of years of being ostracized, we were finally acknowledged, even respected. That Christmas had a simple message: we live in a Romania that belongs to its citizens, and it doesn’t matter who you are.

We could finally have a country where people respected one another, but we squandered that opportunity shortly after.

At the time, I did not understand the infamy of the conflicts between Hungarians and Romanians that took place in Târgu Mureş in March 1990. For me, it was more like an adventure film. I watched what was happening on TV. I saw people driving a truck into a crowd. I saw people beating and killing one another, and I was unable to grasp the shock, the sadness, and the anger of those around the house. I was staying with my cousins in Sângeorgiu de Pădure, 36 kilometres away from Târgu Mureş. My cousin, who was 11 at the time, told me with youthful enthusiasm that all the people in the village had gathered at the train station, armed with whatever they had, waiting for the train coming from Târgu Mureş. No one knew exactly what was happening, but there were rumors that the bullies were also heading towards other villages inhabited by Hungarians. In the end, either no one came, or no one got off the train. One thing is for sure though: they waited at the train station for nothing.

As children, we understood only part of this story. That these were ethnic confrontations and that at any time Romanians could come and beat us too. I only knew one side of the story, but I knew it well. Even today, when I think about that particular event, I feel a helpless anger. I hate neither the attackers, nor those who defended themselves. I only hate those who orchestrated the whole event.

Just about that time, the “Petőfi Sándor” Middle School merged with School no. 9 to avoid segregation. I think I even had Romanian teachers who spoke no Hungarian. I wouldn’t have had anything against this decision if I could say more than “Ana are mere” (Ana has apples) and “Cosmin se joacă cu mingea” (Cosmin is playing with a ball) in Romanian. And though I had no problem in deciphering the spelling book, when it came to speaking, I had serious trouble understanding even most basic expressions. It wasn’t out of rancor or because I didn’t want to, but if my parents, my relatives, my friends and acquaintances only spoke Hungarian; how could I have learned Romanian? Sure enough, the impossibility to communicate did generate segregation within the school. We separated into small groups and we spent most of the time fighting. We probably didn’t have any reason to do that since when we ran into an “enemy” in the street together with his parents, we always greeted politely.

When time came for me to go to high school, I chose a Hungarian one. I probably would have done well at a Romanian one as well, but it would have required some extra hours of work. And no child wants that. I wanted to play, compete in sports, and watch TV. 

Puberty made things even more complicated and I was more confused than ever. As if it wasn’t enough that I discovered the fundamental differences between men and women, I also had to cope with an identity-defining process. It’s not easy to define oneself as belonging to a minority. Especially if you’re used to being the majority. Growing up makes you realize that there is life even beyond the city borders, that there are other cultures, other languages, that there are sides, and you have to take one of them. I never liked this.

I was a gamer and whenever I played, I always had a hard time choosing a side. I wasn’t fascinated by the bad guys, so I usually picked the good guys. But if faced with several choices and several truths, it was difficult. When it comes to identity, it’s impossible to identify the good guys and the bad guys. And the community you live in does not make things easier. I remember this man who lived in the same village as my cousin, a prominent member of Vatra Românească, a nationalist group; he told everyone, everywhere that he was being persecuted. He had lived there for years, and I don’t think anything ever happened to him. Actually, I think that this is what he was after: something to validate his complaints. But nothing ever happened to him, and his movement faded away. I’ve toyed with the idea of being hostile towards such people many times. Luckily, I was taught differently: to identify myself with what I am, not with what others are not.

In the meantime, I understood that whenever you can’t understand the language of a community, you stress out. I got annoyed whenever someone would refuse to speak Romanian to me in the Republic of Moldova. And it was not my national pride that was hurt, but the stupidity of the situation. I, who was a minority in Romania, was suddenly nothing but a Romanian from Romania and I was given the same treatment as everyone else: I was spoken to in Russian. When something like this happens, it becomes obvious how childish these divisions can be.

In high school, I began questioning things, but I didn’t become aware of all this. I played on the basketball team, and our great rivals were those at Goga, a Romanian high school. I only had Hungarian friends, and even if I didn’t resent the others, I didn’t really mix with them. Afterwards, we became friends. As we started playing at school every weekend and going out for beer, my perspective shifted. I discovered there were no fundamental differences between us. They liked Hungarian girls, the same way I was attracted to Romanian girls. We played the same computer games. We got drunk in the same way. We loved basketball just as much. We knew that there were nationalists among them, but we had our share of nationalists as well.

It was then that I started hating idiotic generalizations, such as: “I have nothing against you, you’re OK. But I can’t stand the rest of the Hungarians.” There is no such thing. There are only people you respect, and people you do not. In high school, I learned that a minimum level of common sense made all the difference. Fortunately, my new friends possessed that minimum level of common sense. 

If boys didn’t laugh every time I opened my mouth to say something in Romanian, girls weren’t as nice. They were constantly teasing and mocking me. It was then when I learned that rivalries shape our lives. And in this case, the male-female rivalry was above the Romanian-Hungarian one.

Reality struck when I went to college in Cluj. In a city where nationalist mayor Funar was able to get elected three times in a row, the atmosphere was not always friendly. I had no problems among students and in most academic environments, but in the city I came across all sorts of people: some ruder, others more refined. In my first week there, a taxi driver told us that if we spoke Hungarian in his car, we had to get out – he wasn’t going to take us anywhere. On several occasions, we were rebuked on the street. Not to mention Funar’s billboards, displaying the quote from the Constitution about Romanian being the official language.

Every day, I felt like an outsider. Especially when I went out and asked for “două coli” (two sheets of paper) instead of “două cola” (two cokes) (In Romanian, nouns have a singular and a plural form. The word “cola” – coke is an exception and has the same form in singular and plural). The more I tried to pay attention and avoid mistakes, the more I made them. So, once again I chose to isolate myself and get closer to my Hungarian friends. I made new friends, also Hungarian. My classes taught in Hungarian and I went to Hungarian parties. I tried to create my own micro universe, following the example I had from back home.

In my third year, my parents were having a hard time paying my rent, so I moved to the dorm. There, I met students from Buzău – who were nationalists at the time – and I began to abandon my state of self-imposed isolation (we’ve stayed good friends). I was already involved in the Hungarian Students’ Organization, which I joined when I realized, after one year of non-stop partying, that I should do something useful with my life. Then I decided to move to the next level, OSUBB (the Students’ Organization of the Babeș-Bolyai University), and most of its members were Romanian. Within a few months, I became executive manager. We created a strong movement, got involved in all decisions concerning the students. In the end, I became the first Hungarian honorary member of the organization.

It was then that the romances began. The dorm revealed a whole new world to me, an exotic one. I had my first relationships with Romanian girls. What’s funny is that some of my former girlfriends were quite nationalistic at first. I don’t know if they behaved like that to defy me, or if they actually believed the stereotypes. One thing’s for sure: they all became more “user friendly” in the end. Some of them were surprised to find out that I did not own a horse, that I did not perform pagan rituals, or that I did not store meat under my saddle.

No doubt though that my first language was Hungarian.

The best method to test your first language is while in bed next to a girl, half-asleep. Even today, every time I feel like saying something nice, I say it in Hungarian. It is an unconscious, sincere and profound gesture. Some say that what matters most is the language of your thoughts, or the language in which you count. To me, the point of reference is the language in which you feel like speaking to your lover.

After four years spent at the university, I decided it was time to attend school in another language, and I chose a master in English and Romanian and a PhD in Romanian. My decision was influenced by my mentor and diploma coordinator, Andrei Marga, a professor of incredible open-mindedness, who allowed me to write my paper in Hungarian, and who encouraged me to discover studies in other languages. He was also the one who pushed me to take my first steps in politics. I was aware of his liberal sympathies (ideological, not political), and of the fact that he supported the involvement of the academic world into society. I decided to give it a try.

My family was not at all surprised when I joined the Romanian Liberal Party, my father having been a member since 1993. But others did not understand. Why hadn’t I joined the ethnic party? Many Hungarians accused me of caring only about my career, and said I wanted to sell my identity for political capital. My colleagues in the party were surprised that I chose to get involved. It was a gesture of going against the tide, but it was also a conscious decision determined by the people who had taught me that nationality is not the most important thing; competence is.

My career took off. In 2004, I ran for an internal office, and was elected president of the youth branch in my county. In 2005, I was already the vice-president of the Liberal Youth at national level and, in 2006, I became the president of the South-Eastern European Liberals. In 2007, I was elected member of the European Parliament.

Once on top, things got more complicated. At the beginning, my colleagues corrected my Romanian and some would persistently recommend that I take private lessons. For my birthday, they gave me a spelling book. But I was no longer scared or frustrated by such gestures, as I would have been in my teenage years. I knew they were friendly gestures. It was a sign that my colleagues believed in my potential.

I tried hard not to let them down. I even tried going over my old grammar books to improve my speech. I tried to deliver written speeches to avoid cracking the audience, but looking at the paper made me tense, and I made even more mistakes. There were things thet baffled me, and which continue to baffle me today. In Hungarian, there is no gender, and this proved a difficult obstacle to overcome. After so many TV shows, appearances, speeches and written pages, I still can’t understand why in Romanian my sexual organ is of feminine gender, or why the objects must be masculine, feminine or neutral. What is neutral?

I decided that I didn’t have to be perfect, but I had to be sincere, that it was OK to make mistakes now and then as long as I talked from my heart. After a while, a colleague of mine from southern Romania told me that the errors and accent were part of my charm. He said they made me more European. And I succeeded in making myself accepted as a politician, though sometimes I would eat “an apple”, and other times I would eat “a apple”. Or Lord knows what.

Even so, few people believed I could make it to the European Parliament. Even my most enthusiastic supporter, who was the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies at the time, Bogdan Olteanu, told me that he really doubted the success of my project. In a public speech, he reminded me that I was young, I was Hungarian, and I only lacked being a woman to gather all the “qualities” necessary to secure my non-election.

Yet, politics was what finally destroyed all my prejudices. Although there were a few leaders who systematically turned me down because of my nationality, most of them supported me. I was scared when I first pre-campaigned in southern Romania, as I was aware of the existing legends and preconceptions. But the parliamentary office I had there became the one I visited most. If in Harghita, my home county, I went no more than 15 times during my mandate, I went down south every two or three weeks.

In Harghita, I was welcomed by many people, but I strongly believe that I didn’t get many votes. Apparently my gesture was far too avant-garde. Although I didn’t lack popularity in the Hungarian regions, I didn’t want the ethnic votes; probably I couldn’t have gotten them anyway. Not even from my relatives. It was absurd that the party accepted me more than some of the people I grew up with. In Olt, I could be proud that I was Hungarian, while in Harghita, I sometimes felt embarrassed.

Today, I am no longer a politician. I took up journalism.

What’s even stranger is that, after four years in Bucharest, it is only now that I realize how cosmopolitan this city really is, despite all its drawbacks. I have been called many names here, but I have never been called Hungarian. I have been told that I am a peasant, that I am a farmer from the countryside, from Ardeal, from Transylvania, but I have never felt threatened.

I no longer struggle to find my identity. I don’t need a box. I know who I am, and I know what I want to do with my life. I realized that there are things that can be changed, and others that cannot. My references are my family, the people close to me, not concepts. Although, technically, I have always belonged to the “minority,” I have always felt I was in the “majority,” without hiding the fact that I was different.

Regardless of who you are or the place you come from, people will always try to define “the enemy.” For some people, I probably was “the enemy” because I was Hungarian. Had I not been one, I would have probably been “the enemy” because I was too young. Or because I had a beard. Or a cap. Or who knows what else.

Therefore, I’ll go on being what I am: a guy from Miercurea Ciuc, with a difficult mother tongue and an accent, who makes funny mistakes when he speaks Romanian. A man who loves the community he comes from, but who is just as comfortable out there in the big wide world. A man who cannot stand those who try to impose limits within society. A man with an impossible name.

I’m Magor. Nice to meet you. 

Magor Csibi is the editor of Think Outside the Box ( He considers himself a failed politician, although he can’t tell if it was politics that failed him, or if it was him who failed politics.

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