Sociation Today

Sociation Today

ISSN 1542-6300

The Official Journal of the
North Carolina Sociological Association

A Peer-Reviewed
Refereed Web-Based 

Spring/Summer 2013
Volume 11, Issue 1

Cultivating a Symbolic Ethnicity and Resisting Assimilation:
Identity Work Among Hungarian Immigrants


Orsolya Kolozsvari

College of Coastal Georgia


    Upon arrival in a host country with considerable ethnic diversity, such as the United States, immigrants are frequently confronted with various different perceptions of local, ethnic, and racial categories and identities. Living in the United States often challenges immigrants to reconsider, modify, or reconstruct their previous identities. This has happened, for example, to Eastern and Southern European immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s (Brodkin 1998; Conzen et al. 1992; Jacobson 1999; Goldstein 2006; Guglielmo 2003; Ignatiev 1995; Roediger 2006; Ungar 1998), and more recently to Korean, Filipino (Espiritu 2003), Mexican (Portes and Rumbaut 2006; Yinger 1981), Khmer (Hein 2006), and African immigrants from Ghana and Cape Verde (Kaufert 1977; Sanchez Gibau 2005), who all have had to reinterpret their identities upon arrival in the United States. Many new immigrants start thinking about themselves in ethnic terms for the first time and (re)discover their ethnicity. Through 20 in-depth interviews with Hungarian immigrants this study explores ethnic identity construction among Hungarians in the United States.

    In the last few decades immigration research has devoted vast attention to ethnic identity. However, most studies have focused on the racial and ethnic identity construction of first-generation Black, Asian, or Hispanic immigrants (Espiritu 2003; Hein 2006; Kaufert 1977; Portes and Rumbaut 2006; Rezende 2008; Sanchez Gibau 2005; Yinger 1981), or on Black, Asian, or Hispanic ethnics of the second generation and beyond (Bailey 2001; Butterfield 2004; Dhingra 2007; Louie 2006; Portes and Rumbaut 2001, 2006; Rezende 2008; Sarna 1978; Song 2003; Trieu 2009; Zhou and Bankston 1998). An extensive body of research has explored the ethnic options of white immigrants of second or later generations as well (Alba 1990; Conzen et al. 1992; Gans 1979; Nagel 1994; Portes and Zhou 1993; Song 2003; Waters 1990; Yinger 1994). While numerous studies have covered the assimilation (or lack thereof) and ethnic identification of first-generation white immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s (who at the time were not considered white) (Brodkin 1998; Conzen et al. 1992; Jacobson 1999; Goldstein 2006; Guglielmo 2003; Ignatiev 1995; Roediger 2006; Ungar 1998), it has been rarely discussed how first-generation, recent European immigrants construct and negotiate ethnic identities (for an exception see Erdmans 1998). This study endeavors to fill this gap by exploring how a particular group of European immigrants, notably Hungarians, choose and maintain ethnic identities in the United States.    

Theory and Literature Review

    The concept of ethnic identity is difficult to define, especially because it is very seldom fixed; it tends to shift over time, as well as vary in different situations and across different audiences (Alba 1990; De Vos 2006; Dhingra 2007; Easthope 2009; Gans 1979, 1992; Howard 2000; Kaufert 1977; Nagel 1994; Rezende 2008; Sanders 2002; Sarna 1978; Song 2003; Trieu 2009; Waters 1990). Nonwhite immigrants and ethnics today are severely constrained in their ethnic choices; in contrast, white immigrants and ethnics face less discrimination and are less socially visible, consequently, they can freely choose which ethnicity they identify with, under what circumstances, and whether they identify with any ethnic group at all (Alba 1990; Bradley 1996; Cornell and Hartmann 1998; De Vos 2006; Gans 1979; Nagel 1994; Waters 1990; Yinger 1981, 1994). Therefore, while for nonwhite minorities ethnicity is still more fixed, socially determined, and a part of everyday life, for white European immigrants and ethnics it is increasingly personal, individualistic, flexible, fluid, symbolic, and situational (Alba 1990; Bradley 1996; Cornell and Hartmann 1998; De Vos 2006; Easthope 2009; Gans 1979, 1992; Howard 2000; Kaufert 1977; Nagel 1994; Rezende 2008; Sanders 2002; Waters 1990; Yinger 1981, 1994). Ethnicity does not organize or determine the lives of European immigrants and ethnics, and they can embrace or discard an ethnic identity any time they choose to do so.

    As ethnicity becomes more individualistic and symbolic, its meanings and manifestations might vary considerably. Ethnic groups are "constantly recreating themselves, and ethnicity is continuously being reinvented in response to changing realities both with the group and the host society" (Conzen et al. 1992:5). In this case, the question arises how "real" or authentic ethnic identity is, especially in a postmodern era. In "Simulacra and Simulations: Disneyland" Baudrillard (1988) questions how real reality is in the postmodern era. He points out that in the age of simulations distinctions between true or false, between the real and its simulations blur, or even disappear. The simulation might substitute reality, and reality ceases to be real; it becomes hyperreal, an imitation of itself, of something that might not even exist, or something that is even more real than its "original." This idea can be applied to personalized and highly symbolic ethnic identity as well: it might substitute fixed, collective ethnic identity that is agreed upon as the "real" or most authentic manifestation of the ethnic identity of a particular group.

    As immigrants and ethnics spend more time in a host country, they become more likely to adopt pan-ethnic labels to refer to themselves (Alba 1990; Bailey 2001; Dhingra 2007; Hein 2006; Portes and Rumbaut 2001, 2006; Song 2003; Yinger 1994). This can be reinforced by a country that stereotypes ethnic groups and ignores their differences, but pan-ethnicity can also become a tool to encourage unity, political mobilization, work for a common goal, or emphasize differences from groups that are more stigmatized (Alba 1990; Bailey 2001; Dhingra 2007; Hein 2006; Portes and Rumbaut 2006; Safran 2008; Song 2003; Yinger 1994). While pan-ethnic identities become more likely over time, their adoption is not inevitable, and they do not necessarily signify a shift from an ethnic identity. An ethnic and a pan-ethnic identity can exist simultaneously, each surfacing in different situations, but multiple identities can be present within one situation as well (Dhingra 2007).

    Immigrants, especially if they are first generation, are still more likely to adopt ethnic than pan-ethnic labels or identify as American (Alba 1990; Bailey 2001; Hein 2006; Portes and Rumbaut 2001, 2006; Song 2003; Yinger 1994). If acculturation is additive, that is, immigrants do not simply give up elements of their own culture and substitute it with the new culture, but add some elements of the new culture to their original culture and enrich it, immigrants can develop a dual identity (Yinger 1994).

    Welcoming an American identity often indicates being mostly acculturated and assimilated. However, an American self-identification does not always need to be tantamount to the abandonment of ethnic and pan-ethnic identities. Many immigrants associate being American with U.S. citizenship, and in that case it becomes less closely related to identity and self-identification. Other immigrants, predominantly nonwhite ones, link being American to being white (Bailey 2001; Espiritu 2001; Hein 2006; Zhou and Bankston 1998), which means that being American is forever out of reach for them. Interestingly, white immigrants rarely consider themselves instantaneously American upon arrival just because they are white. Furthermore, some immigrants do not strive for an American identity because they associate being American with several negative characteristics, such as being too fun-loving, promiscuous, uncaring about family, materialistic, pushy, and selfish (Espiritu 2001; Zhou and Bankston 1998). In this case actively rejecting an American identity and contrasting it with an ethnic identity that is believed to be morally and culturally superior can become a source of ethnic pride and fortify an ethnic identity.

Data and Methods

     I have conducted 20 in-depth, qualitative interviews with Hungarian adults who have been living in the United States for at least two, but no more than 15 years. Ten of the interviews have been conducted with Hungarian women and ten with Hungarian men. I recruited my respondents by contacting the Hungarian Language Meetup Group in a southeastern city, which at the time had 270 members.

    I sent a recruiting e-mail to the organizer of the group, who forwarded the e-mail to all members and encouraged members to volunteer for the interview. Respondents were recruited as individuals. Although most of my respondents are married, I interviewed either the husband or the wife, not both members of the couple. I used a semi-structured format when I interviewed my respondents. The interviews were conducted at a place of the respondent's choice, which was their home in most cases. In a few cases, interviews were conducted in a coffee shop or fast food restaurant.

    The interviews took place in a southeastern city and were conducted in two phases. Women were interviewed in spring 2008, while men were interviewed in the summer and early fall of 2009. On average, interviews lasted an hour (with a range of 45-110 minutes). I conducted the interviews in Hungarian and subsequently translated them to English. For confidentiality issues, any time I refer to my interviewees, I use pseudonyms. All the interviews were transcribed, and in the course of the data analysis they were coded line by line. 

    I measured the salience of Hungarian ethnic identity by self-definition, the frequency of speaking the language, cooking ethnic foods, and attending ethnic events. I posed specific questions addressing these issues, such as "Do you think of yourself as Hungarian, American, or something else?;" "What does it mean for you to be Hungarian? Has it changed since you came here?;" "How often do you speak Hungarian?;" "How often do you cook Hungarian foods?;" "How often do you attend Hungarian events?"

    Indicators that suggested a Hungarian self-definition, a Hungarian ethnic identity that has become more salient as a result of immigration, speaking Hungarian every day, cooking Hungarian foods at least once a week, and attending Hungarian events at least once a month were coded as "strong Hungarian ethnic identity." Indicators referring to a Hungarian American identity, a slightly weakened Hungarian ethnic belonging, speaking Hungarian at least once a week, but less often than every day, cooking Hungarian foods at least once a month, but less frequently than at least once a week, and attending Hungarian events at least three times a year, but less often than once a month were coded as "moderate Hungarian ethnic identity." Indicators insinuating an American identity, a considerably weakened sense of Hungarian ethnic belonging, speaking Hungarian less often than once a week, cooking Hungarian foods less frequently than once a month, and attending Hungarian events less often than three times a year were coded as "weak Hungarian ethnic identity."


Strengthened Ethnic Identity

    For several of my respondents immigration to the United States has led to the discovery of their ethnic identity. As Réka puts it, "[Before emigration] I didn't even think about being Hungarian. I don't think it's important until you leave your country." Sixteen out of the twenty Hungarians that I interviewed claim that they think of themselves as Hungarian, and they openly embrace a Hungarian ethnic identity. Eight of them emphasize that their Hungarian ethnic identity has developed and got stronger as a result of living far away from the homeland. Róbert shares that "I can appreciate being Hungarian more now that I'm away." Zsuzsa has become much more proud of being Hungarian, "For example, I'll run at a marathon, and I'll put a Hungarian flag or coat of arms sticker on my shirt. So, here I'm proud to be Hungarian." Márton echoes a similar interest and pride, "[Being Hungarian] has become more important. I have started reading more on Hungarian history and culture. I have become more occupied with my own origins." Ákos has become more excited about Hungarian culture and customs as well:
Now I can listen to Hungarian folk music, which I used to hate. I am looking forward to the folk dancing performances. . . . I attend all Hungarian events. I wouldn't want to miss national holidays.
    Considering the hermetic ethnic boundaries, which are more rigid, less fluid, and not closely related to national borders, as well as polarized ethnic identities, which are strong, durable, and exclude identification with other groups (Hein 2006: 40) of Hungarian ethnic identity, it is not surprising that the overwhelming majority of my respondents have preserved a robust Hungarian identity. It might be more puzzling why some of them report a strengthened ethnic identity away from the homeland. The most likely explanation is that in Hungary ethnic identity was taken for granted. It was an inherent, but sometimes not consciously recognized part of some of my respondents' identity. Being away from the homeland and not being surrounded by other Hungarians any more have shed light on the importance and conscious cultivation of an ethnic identity. Before immigration those of my respondents who claim a strengthened ethnic identity might have viewed their ethnic identity as a given attribute, while in the United States they realized their active, individual part in its maintenance.

    The previous statements, especially those of Ákos and Zsuzsa illustrate how the adoption and expression of ethnic identity for white immigrants and ethnics is often personal, individualistic, and symbolic (Alba 1990; De Vos 2006; Easthope 2009; Gans 1979, 1992; Howard 2000; Kaufert 1977; Nagel 1994; Rezende 2008; Sanders 2002; Waters 1990; Yinger 1981, 1994). A symbolic ethnic identity is very frequently manifested in attending ethnic festivals and celebrations, which tend to involve ethnic food and customs that are considered inherent to one's ethnicity (Alba 1990; De Vos 2006; Gans 1979; Kaufert 1977; Nagel 1994; Waters 1990; Yinger 1981, 1994). Ákos' words underscore this point; for him attending Hungarian events has become a cornerstone of Hungarian identity, and while living in Hungary he disliked folk music, dance, and customs, in the United States these symbolic, outward signifiers of Hungarian ethnicity have turned significant. The most likely explanation is that in Hungary ethnic identity is a given, it does not need to be demonstrated, while away from the homeland it can only be expressed and nurtured by conscious efforts and outward signifiers.

    My results support the conclusions of previous research; I found keeping the language to be the single most essential tool for cultivating and preserving a Hungarian identity, followed by cooking ethnic food, and attending Hungarian events (Alba 1990; Waters 1990; Yinger 1994). As Szabolcs summarizes it, "Here you're looking for ways to retain your Hungarianness. It can be through the language, foods, and relationships." András emphasizes the importance of the language and customs as well, "We preserve Hungarian customs and traditions. We speak in Hungarian at home, of course." Szabolcs and András are not the only ones of my respondents who speak in Hungarian at home; in fact, thirteen of my respondents do (the rest of them are either single or married to a non-Hungarian, and they do not have children, therefore, they mostly speak in Hungarian when calling their relatives in Hungary). Almost all of my interviewees who have children talk to their children in Hungarian as well.

    When Hungarians get together for some events there is usually Hungarian food and many Hungarian immigrants speak in Hungarian, both at home and during events of a Hungarian community. However, it is something to consider whether when Hungarian immigrants are "recreating," "reinventing," (Conzen et al. 1992), or "simulating" Hungarian experiences from the homeland (Baudrillard 1988), they might shift the actual reality and modify what being Hungarian incorporates – at least for them.

    For instance, Ágota, who immigrated to the U.S. eight years ago and has not been back in Hungary since then, comments, "It's sad that I haven't used the most up-to-date Hungarian language for years, and there are words I haven't uttered for 8 years." Other Hungarians I interviewed emphasized that whenever they cook Hungarian meals in the U.S., they never taste the same. These examples prompt us to raise the question how authentic Hungarian ethnicity and culture in the U.S. are if Hungarian immigrants simulate culture from the homeland, but they distort it in the process. Therefore, those Hungarian immigrants who have not been back in Hungary for a while and who embrace a Hungarian ethnic identity in the U.S. might imitate and internalize a Hungarian ethnicity that is simulated and nonexistent (at least in the homeland). However, for them this simulated perception of being Hungarian might become more real than being Hungarian in Hungary, which underscores how personalized and symbolic ethnic identity has become.

Pan-ethnicity As Empowerment and Resistance

    None of my interviewees adopt a fully American identity. The closest they approximate an American identity is by declaring a dual, hyphenated Hungarian-American identity. Bea and Mariann (the only citizens) embrace a Hungarian-American identity, which underscores that immigrants often associate being American with citizenship (Bailey 2001; Espiritu 2001; Hein 2006). Bea and Mariann also exemplify how additive acculturation, that is, preserving elements of one's culture while adopting some components of the host culture can result in a dual identity (Yinger 1994). As Mariann puts it:
Hungarian-American. I don't separate the two. I'm proud to have grown up in Hungary because I had been exposed to a lot of culture. I'm trying to merge European culture with American ways of thinking. The positive way of thinking that nothing is impossible. I really love that. I'm merging the best qualities of Hungarians and Americans and I've brought my children up that way.
    Mariann's description touches upon pan-ethnicity as well and the adoption of a European identity. As immigrants and ethnics spend more time in a host country, they become more likely to adopt pan-ethnic labels (Alba 1990; Bailey 2001; Dhingra 2007; Hein 2006; Portes and Rumbaut 2006; Safran 2008; Song 2003; Yinger 1994). I found this to apply to my sample as well; those of my respondents who embrace Pan-European ethnicities, such as Mariann, Róbert, Viktor, Norbert, and Ágota have been living in the United States for at least 8-10 years. Róbert describes his self-identification the following way:
[B]y leaving Hungary my horizons have broadened, and I often refer to myself as a European. So, when someone asks me where I am from, I tend to say I am from Europe.
    Pan-ethnicity might be pushed on immigrants by a host country or become a tool to facilitate unity and political mobilization, or it can serve as a way to highlight differences from other groups and claim superiority (Alba 1990; Bailey 2001; Dhingra 2007; Hein 2006; Safran 2008; Song 2003; Yinger 1994). My respondents tend to adopt European pan-ethnicity for the latter reason: to differentiate themselves from other groups, including Americans, and boost their confidence by declaring membership in a group that is generally regarded prestigious. As Róbert explains it:
For a while I felt kind of out of place for having an accent and being a foreigner, but then I realized I should look at the other side of the coin, that I'm unique and not an average American, and no offense, but the average American sometimes is lacking in intellect. . . . I prefer an intellectual conversation to NASCAR or something. So, it has helped to turn my own thinking around and view myself as a sophisticated European.
Viktor expresses a similar sentiment by contrasting Europeans with Americans:
As far as the way you act and manners, I like the European way so much better. You know, having common courtesy . . . if you go to an event, you dress appropriately. . . . You know, the American arrogance is why now a lot of people hate Americans.
    While several of my respondents express positive views of Americans, others, like Róbert and Viktor, do not refrain from engaging in negative stereotyping. My sample does not include enough immigrants who have lived somewhere else in the United States other than the South to be able to make conclusive comparisons, but it seems that in my sample those who have lived in the South only are more prone to engage in negative stereotyping of Americans than those who have lived in other regions of the United States as well, and while they might not realize this, their generalizations of Americans tend to reflect stereotypes of American Southerners. As Zsuzsa contends, "I see a lot of lazy Americans. Maybe it's the environment I'm in, but it seems they are lazy and not hard-working, and not that smart either." Some immigrants do not strive for an American identity because they equate it with negative characteristics (Espiritu 2001; Zhou and Bankston 1998), and I found this to be true in the case of some of my respondents as well. For example, as Adrienn puts it, "The America that wears a baseball hat, eats hot dogs, and goes to games, or stays at home with a beer to watch a game is really not for me." The stereotypical picture that Adrienn paints of the United States discourages her from wishing to identify with Americans. The same is true for Róbert, "I haven't assimilated. But I don't want to either. I will never be a NASCAR and football fan, or anything."

    Ágota found herself drifting toward what she perceives as becoming American, but when she realized it, she deliberately stopped herself. As she explains it, "When I opened my closet and it was full of clothes I hadn't even worn, I realized that, oh my gosh, I've become too American, so I held back a little." Ágota's approach illustrates a conscious attempt to avoid becoming American when, at least in her mind, it is tantamount to becoming too shallow and materialistic.

    Similarly to Viktor, Róbert, Adrienn, Zsuzsa, and Ágota, most of my other respondents express a lack of desire to embrace an American identity. As Ákos describes it, "I don't think I'll ever think of myself as an American. I mean, it is not my goal to completely assimilate here." Levente adds, "I never really wanted to become an American." The lack of interest in an American identity on the part of the majority of my respondents stems from two major sources. First, those Hungarians in my sample who associate negative features with being American actively reject the American label and self-identification because for them it would be a step back, especially compared to a Hungarian and European identity that they consider morally and culturally superior to being American. Therefore, embracing ethnic and pan-ethnic identities becomes a site of resistance and increased self-esteem for several of my respondents. Second, a few others, such as Ákos and Levente do not hold any negative stereotypes against Americans, but they feel that a strong ethnic identity and an American identity are mutually exclusive, and they are not willing to sacrifice the ethnic identity they cherish for an American identity, which seems foreign and inaccessible.


    This study has some important implications for practice. First, it illuminates the distinction between national identity and ethnic identity and highlights that sometimes they do not overlap, especially in the case of a group of immigrants, such as Hungarians whose ethnic identification is independent of national borders. The results of this research can serve as bases for comparisons with the identity construction and maintenance of other immigrant groups with polarized ethnic identities and hermetic ethnic boundaries, as well as those with ethnic identities more closely related to national borders, not only in the United States, but other host countries too. It can also be examined whether immigrants from Europe are more or less willing to adopt Canadian, Australian, etc. national identities in Canada, Australia, etc. than Hungarians in the United States, and how relevant pan-ethnic European identities become when a group of European migrants settle in a European host country (eg. Polish immigrants living in Ireland).

    Second, this paper not only reinforces previous findings about the symbolic, fluid, individual nature of ethnicity among white immigrants, but it further explores the implications of such an approach to ethnicity for identity construction. This study illustrates how Hungarian ethnic identity is not simply reproduced in the host country, but transformed and reinvented. Interestingly, this process of identity construction and metamorphosis does not make Hungarian ethnicity in the United States any less real. On the contrary, it results in a self-constructed ethnic identity that is personalized and more real, feasible, and salient than Hungarian ethnicity in the homeland – at least for those who adopt it in the United States. This specific finding can be helpful for understanding the construction and reinvention of not only ethnic identity, but any form of identity as well in situations that are similar to immigration.

    Lastly, assimilation and the adoption of an American identity have often been perceived as primary goals for immigrants and avenues of acquiring power in the host country. My findings contradict this assumption and suggest that the rejection of the national identity of the host country, and a salient ethnic and pan-ethnic identity (as long as these identities yield positive connotations, or even rewards) can be very empowering, at least in a social psychological sense.


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