Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Art of Asking and Listening

Last night I faced a special situation: I found myself discussing local politics with several international students and Hungarian locals. One might think that's not very surprising because I am living in Hungary after all – but actually it is.
What was noteworthy about this evening was firstly that I was invited to a party at some Hungarians' home. Secondly, there were more Hungarians than Erasmus students: A Hungarian girl and her Belgian boyfriend invited had five Hungarian friends and four international students.* So far I have rarely met Hungarians at parties, and if I did they were in the vast minority. I am speaking about ratios of 2:30 and likewise.
Our discussion started because one of the Hungarians asked how I liked living in Budapest, and me and the other Erasmus students shared our experiences. We began to exchange and discuss our impressions of societal and political life in Hungary. It was very interesting and stimulating: What started as a conversation between two people soon had the whole group of 11 involved in a lively discussion.
(*It is not my intention to create any us-versus-them-feeling here.)

The Erasmus program has often been criticized for lacking possibilities of interaction between international students and local communities. It is comfortably easy to blame it to organizational circumstances. And, it is wrong.

Three weeks ago the Hungarians voted for a new parliament. In the subsequent week I asked some other Erasmus students if they were interested in the elections, or Hungarian politics in general. All of them negated. Their reasons can be narrowed down to one statement: they are only here for a few months and thus not interested in the politics. It simply doesn't seem worthwhile to them. Of course this is not a representative sample, and I have indeed encountered interested and somewhat informed students. I am not able to give any objective depiction of the interest of Erasmus students. But in general, I have the impression that Erasmus students are not very political.
(Do you remember my last post? Nobody said that 'Erasmus is about getting to know another culture' or 'learning about the differences between European societies').

This poses some questions for me. Should the Erasmus program and its students be more political? What does 'political' even mean? Do we have to read the newspaper every day, discuss election results at flat parties, or participate in rallies and demonstrations? (I would love to hear your opinion on this, so please comment!)

The conclusion I can draw for now refers to something the host of the mentioned party told me: If you ask two Hungarians about Hungarian politics, you will receive two different answers.
For me that seems to be just fine. After all, the important first step would be to actually ask and listen.

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