We were well into the second half of our Fulbright experience to Hungary when we traveled to a nearby country for vacation. The owner of the guesthouse invited us to a neighborhood party, describing the route to take to walk to the celebration. We listened politely, my husband and I, our three young kids around our legs, while thinking we’d never find the place among the interwinding narrow roads that all seemed to bear the same name. “It’s simple,” he assured us, but I found myself lost in his description.
That year, I was teaching math at a dual language school in Hungary, having exchanged jobs with a Hungarian high school teacher. We had also swapped homes. Her family of four was living in my rural home in New York State, while my family nestled into her townhouse. Her children attended the elementary school that my children had just left. Our kids were enrolled in first, second, and third grade at their local school. We did not speak Hungarian.
I had lived abroad before. I loved the way a new culture invigorated me, opened new possibilities, and led me to explore not only new landscapes, but new terrain within myself as well. My first Fulbright was to Riga, Latvia. Single and without family commitments, I traveled extensively in the region, learning its history and culture, and meeting its people. As a result, I realized how little I knew about my own country. A year after my return, I was escorting high school students on CYC101: Classroom on Wheels, a ten-week transcontinental bicycle tour of the U.S. An experience of a lifetime overseas led to the unexpected experience of a lifetime in my own backyard.
Thirteen years later, there I was in Hungary, this time with family in tow. I wanted to once again learn, explore, and share. To me, there is nothing like a new culture to challenge my assumptions and allow me to learn more about myself through the perspective of others. I sometimes find myself defined by my physical and mental surroundings, the norms of my life. When I change the surroundings, I confront what I thought I knew about myself. I thought I knew how to buy groceries, mail a package, give and receive directions. Such easy parts of my life, I had taken them for granted. This time, I wanted my family to also experience this growth, this quest for self. For my young children, I hoped they would see outside themselves, and appreciate the beauty of the different but comparable norms of a culture. To develop empathy and understanding for others. To see us all as part of a larger whole.
Back in the guesthouse, we cleaned up after dinner. It was getting dark out and beginning to rain, but we wanted to honor our decision to say, “yes” to all the authentic encounters that a Fulbright grant offers. We grabbed our umbrellas and suited up, stuffing squirming children into their coats. The kids were excited for our little adventure. “Left, then up the hill, then straight until the split in the road,” I recalled our host’s words as we set out. The kids skipped ahead, but in a magical moment our oldest called back to us, “Well, that depends on what they mean by ‘straight’ in this country!” My husband and I turned to each other; on some level and in their own way, our children were learning to question and see the world through another point of view. We made it to the party and enjoyed a night of accordion and washboard music despite the pouring rain, celebrating in the yard with the people of the town.
Our year in Hungary was transformative; we made lasting friendships with colleagues from my school, my students, and the parents of our kids’ classmates. We shared each other’s food, games, customs, and stories. Our children successfully crossed communication barriers to make friends, developing their language skills along the way. Outings with our fellow Fulbrighters strengthened our common bond and created a sense of family. And once again, the unanticipated results: two Fulbright colleagues and I co-authored Our International Education: Stories of Living, Teaching, and Parenting Abroad. This collection follows our families through our yearlong journeys and shines light on the demands and triumphs of life in another county.
Monica Housen – Fulbright Teacher Exchange to Latvia 1997 & Hungary 2011