Interview: Owen Pataki

Where being Hungarian is cool

by Laky Zoltán, in Heti Válasz, 7.23.2015 issue

“Americans have a positive image of Budapest.”

In recent weeks, 30 young Americans and Canadians of Hungarian descent have been discovering their roots, thanks to ReConnect Hungary. Among them is Owen Pataki, son of George Pataki, New York’s 39th governor and a current Republican presidential candidate. The 27-year-old, newly demobilized Army officer says that Budapest is among the world’s coolest cities, and doesn’t rule out moving here one day.

The number of U.S. Americans declaring their Hungarian ancestry has increased by 100 000 over the past ten years, for a total of one and a half million. This recent surge is largely attributable to a younger generation, often with no knowledge of the Hungarian language, discovering their roots. Why do you think American twenty-somethings find being Hungarian interesting?

This is not limited to any particular nation. Young people in general are increasingly interested in their cultural heritage. Genealogical research has also become popular. These trends have been embraced by Hungarians too. It’s probably because, in the United States, Hungary is perceived as a rapidly developing country. To be more exact, Budapest has a reputation as a European city where “things happen”. While older generations associate Europe with London or Paris, Budapest also springs to mind for many young people. It’s a young, sexy, cool and exciting city, which also happens to be beautiful and full of history.

Has the news arrived to the other side of the Atlantic that Budapest is the party capital of Europe?

It’s more than just tourism. Several of my friends are actually thinking of studying or living in Budapest. It seems to me that the country is on the right track economically, a view that my visit enforced. We met startup entrepreneurs at the Design Terminal and heard success stories, which struck me as great news because I don’t remember these from my trip here seven or eight years ago. Basically, Americans have a positive image of Budapest. This makes those with Hungarian heritage proud, and they begin researching the stories of their ancestors.

This isn’t the first time you’ve discovered the Hungarian in you. Your father George Pataki, who is also ReConnect Hungary’s patron, took you to Hungary several times, and your sister Allison is the program’s ambassador. Did you have a choice?

No one forced me to do this. The only reason I didn’t apply for this trip earlier is because I didn’t have the time. This program is now in its fourth year, and in the last three years I was busy serving in the U.S. Army. But I would say that my dad did force the Hungarian thing upon us when we were young, whether we liked it or not. Of course, I’m grateful for this now, because otherwise I would probably not be here today. Dad is very proud of our Hungarian heritage. His grandparents were immigrants from Hungary and only spoke broken English. My grandfather grew up in Peekskill, in upstate New York, still speaking Hungarian. Unfortunately, we’ve lost the language, but our family still regularly holds Hungarian-style cookouts.

One of the program’s objectives is to have its participants be “ambassadors” for Hungary upon returning home. How do you plan to take advantage of your experiences here?

I have no concrete plans, and I don’t think anyone does at this point. What’s certain is that we’ll remember Budapest and Hungary as investment-worthy places. Some participants are even considering moving here. If life ever presents us with some sort of crossroads, Hungary will always be an option. I’m not facing any such situation right now, nor could I, at the current prices, buy an apartment on my own in Budapest – but I could easily see myself living here one day. But it’s unlikely that I will begin learning the language in the near future, because I find Hungarian very difficult.

It’s great news that you can imagine living here, but such a visit shows you mostly the positive side of the country. Your group didn’t visit the villages of Borsod County.

This is true, but the serious problems facing Hungary weren’t kept from us. We didn’t witness these, perhaps, but we did take part in panels where these were discussed. And we visited not only Budapest but also Lake Balaton and Esztergom, and our impression of the more rural areas is that of a developing, growing country.

Doesn’t it put you off that Hungarian-American relations have hit rock bottom? In Europe, there is no end to misconceptions regarding Hungary.

To be honest, I wasn’t familiar with the details of these conflicts before the trip. Even now, I have only a superficial knowledge, but I believe that relations are perceived in the US exclusively as a political question. Most Americans know little of Hungarian politics and the relations between the two governments, but even if they read something about it, they don’t project it onto the entire country. There’s no mistrust against Hungary.

What are the three most recent news items about Hungary that you heard about in the US?

I only remember two. One of them is the crisis in Ukraine, the other is the migratory crisis, which affects all of Europe, but especially Hungary. CNN and the other news channels deal with Hungary mostly in the context of international issues such as these.

Doesn’t the migration debate evoke a sense of déja vu in you? Illegal immigrants and fence-building on the southern border are also hot topics in the United States.

Yes, the situation seems similar. I’m aware that Hungary has been heavily criticized for its attempt to take a proactive, if not aggressive, stance against immigration. We too had debates on the militarization of the Mexican border and the construction of a border fence, so it would be hypocritical to point fingers at Hungary from America saying that the country shouldn’t seal itself off. Hungary has the right to protect its borders. This is just my opinion, but I think most Americans would agree with me.

Another issue that causes similar rifts in both countries is same-sex marriage. Although it seems that the US is a paradise for gay rights, four out of ten Americans are opposed to same-sex marriage.

That’s true, but if you asked the program’s participants, you might come to a different conclusion. Most of my contemporaries are far more liberal on social questions than previous generations, not only concerning gay marriage but also legalization of marijuana. Even the majority of young Republicans support same-sex marriage.

It’s no coincidence that your father, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, says that Republicans are better off not even addressing this issue, because it can only lead to lost votes. Are you planning to campaign for your father, or perhaps follow in his footsteps?

Politics is not among my plans. Although I recently demobilized from the Army, I’m going to be studying at a film academy in London starting in September. I also write, and I’d like to get into show business as a scriptwriter. Maybe even with my sister, who has already published two successful novels; we’re good at working together. I’ve been a fan of films from a young age and I’d like to find a job in the film world.

That would be a big shift, after the Army. And you’re not the only soldier in your family; your brother Theodore used to be a Marine. How did you both end up in the armed forces?

Peekskill, our hometown, is a couple of kilometers from West Point – the Academy stretches out on the other side of the Hudson River. We were regulars at their events and games, and we received a patriotic upbringing – and our grandfather told us many stories of the Second World War. The only thing I regret in my military career is that I didn’t serve together with Hungarians. From all of my fellow soldiers who did, I heard that they’re among the best.

SIDEBAR: Our People in America

The idea for ReConnect Hungary was conceived in 2011. George Pataki, hearing of the [discriminatory] language law in Slovakia, proposed that Hungarians ought to have a “birthright” program to enable youth of Hungarian descent to discover their roots, similar to existing programs for other large diaspora groups, such as the Irish, the Greek and the Armenians. The New York-based Hungarian Human Rights Foundation proceeded to create just such a program, and this year is bringing “home” its fourth group of 20-something Americans and Canadians, with the support of the State Secretariat for Hungarian Diaspora Relations of the Prime Minister’s Office. Last year, there were six times as many applicants as spaces in the 15-person group, so this year the group size was doubled. Thus, the total number of participants has reached 70 as of this year – while the oldest birthright program, the Taglit in Israel, is at the half-million mark. The program is not limited to tourist sites; the group meets with entrepreneurs, government officials, Hungarian-American businessmen, such as Christian Sauska, and they also visit a bio-farm and a cultural festival. “Our goal is to send back 30 little ambassadors,” says Program Manager Máté Vincze. Already, he can cite results: program “alumni” recently participated in a telephone campaign to encourage their Congressional representatives to take a stand in the Foreign Affairs Committee with respect to the restitution law in Romania. The ReConnect program also encourages its alumni to get involved in the work of aging Hungarian-American organizations. ReConnect Hungary targets the 18-27 age group, specifically those who do not speak Hungarian (those who do speak Hungarian have many other scholarship opportunities to choose from). Originally, there was an option for grandparents to give the trip to grandchildren as a gift; but as this option did not prove viable, today the program seeks applicants who want to participate on their own initiative. Extending the program to youth from Latin America, Australia, New Zealand and Israel is also under consideration.