Emigration to Montreal — a Transformative Experience

Yes, it is a stressful undertaking. It is like starting a business without a business plan while lacking all the necessary skills. I know, not every emigrant faces challenges to this extent; I did. Oh, for sure I had dreams, but I would not call that a plan.

After spending six months in a refugee camp in Rimini, Italy, Canada was generous to offer me and my wife the opportunity to start afresh with our lives.

We landed in Montreal early January in 1974. A grey, rigid morning greeted us — minus 19 Celsius — not their best, they told us. However, my heart was full of gratitude that I felt towards the country that opened its doors and extended its welcome to us.

I hardly spoke any English — not the kind that English-speaking people could readily recognize as their language. The issue of not being able to speak the language that others were doing so effortlessly, weighed on me heavily for years to come. Every time, I finished saying something, I felt that not even a quarter of me came through. You may have sophisticated, subtle thoughts, but come through as a 'simpleton' — and you know it but cannot help it. That was the single, most challenging issue for me. I made up my mind. I will not rest until I mastered the language, so I could color it with humour in English, just as I was doing it in Hungarian. Until then, I considered myself illiterate.

It was fun blending into the new culture that I found myself in - more than anything else. I never felt that opening to the new demanded to disown my Hungarian heritage. There are many great achievements in the Hungarian culture that I embrace. Besides paprika, gulyás and wine, we have Liszt, Bartók and Kodály. However, I never had the ambition to further the Hungarian culture here in Canada, or demand special treatment. I have never joined crowds, banging the doors of embassies or consulates. I live in Canada, so I am Canadian. I commit to be a contributing member of the society that built this country, envy of the civilized world.

As an immigrant, I never took on to recreate the societal conditions that I left behind or were escaping from. Canada opened its doors to us emigrants, offering the opportunity to integrate into the society we aspired to join before we landed. I wanted to enrich the freedom that Canada offered me; doing it by being ‘free’ in my own unique way, respecting the uniqueness in all of my fellow Canadians.

I came from a monolithic Christian culture. At the time, we had the communists who were atheist and morally inferior - according to everybody else non-communist. The rest of us were Christians. We had ‘fault lines’ of some sort in the enlightened crowd too. For example, Catholics knew for sure that Protestants and Calvinists were less worthy – in the eyes of the Catholic God that is, than those who decided to stick with the Pope in Rome. On the other hand, Protestants and Calvinists had an easy time to point out the deep corruption that settled into the fabric of the Catholic Church’s organization throughout long centuries. I made a conscious decision on leaving my country to cast of the dysfunctional ingredients of my ‘culture’, for good.

Here in Canada, people with religious associations I’ve never heard of before, were all around me. I had to find a sensible way to deal with this new, unsettling experience. There are a few of us who escape into a smug attitude when challenged by the new. They spend much energy trying to uphold an attitude of superiority to hide their felt or real inadequacies. Arguing about the shape of my hat, or how much of my body I can cover — what is the point? Can I show flexibility and welcome the new?

Am I trying to force the symbols of my culture I left behind, onto others? Is this the best way to contribute and become a member of my chosen community, collaborating with my fellow humans? Am I human first before I am Christian, Jew or Muslim?

Do I practice my religion to become a more evolved human being as a result? Alternatively, do I use my religion to build an abyss all around me so I will be untouchable? How does the symbolism of my religious practices create spirituality, a content that has its roots in our human nature?

As an immigrant, am I open to take a fresh look at some of my religious tradition, and find the substance? For example, how does my ceremonial 'saber' promote an all-inclusive, loving attitude? Do I love my Jew and Christian compatriots in my Muslim way so that it opens their heart?

In my case I can emphatically state that nobody forced me to come to Canada. The onus is on me, the immigrant, to find out all the important customs and social rules people follow in the country I intend to make my new home. Shouldn’t we as immigrants spend more time and energy on searching for, and finding ways to work together more than preserving and magnifying our differences? We came here to join forces with all members of society to create prosperous and carrying communities across this great land, haven’t we?

Living in my new country I adapted a few decades ago, I still feel I am a gypsy. My home where I grew up to become a 'human' is gone. I do not want to go back, and yet, my adapted country — as much as I love it, is not the 'real' home. It'll always be the second-best choice while I lost the first one forever. It is a psychological scar that we emigrants all carry. Do not feel sorry for us though. It was our choice to undertake this 'let's play gypsy' metamorphosis; and most of us would make the same choice again - under similar conditions…


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