By Csenge Zalka
When a single girl from Eastern Europe goes to the USA to study, she has to face certain assumptions made about green cards, marriages of convenience, and other things no one prepared her for. Culture shock comes in many shapes and sizes, and graduate school orientations never tell you what “the L word” really stands for…
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Will-You-Please-NOT-Marry-Me
- What is a ‘marriage of convenience’ and why do people think it is beneficial for an immigrant?
- How would you describe marriage in your own culture? List marriage customs and traditions from other cultures that are different from yours and speculate about the reasons for these differences.
- What do we find out about the definition of ‘love’ from the story? What other definitions can you think of?
- The Subjective Atlas of Hungary (http://szubjektivatlasz.kibu.hu/?lang=en)
- Information for International Students who marry US citizens (http://iss.washington.edu/marrying-citizen)
- Crossing Cultures
- European American/Whites
- Living and Traveling Abroad
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
- Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, my name is Csenge Zalka. When you are an Eastern European girl studying in the USA, especially if you are single and, uh, you are in your early twenties, a lot of people automatically assume that you are here to marry an American guy for a Green Card. And they never tell you that at the orientations.
The first time I was in the United States, that was in 2007, I had to go through a series of orientations. One before I arrived (back in Hungary) and then two after I arrived. And they tell you a lot of important things at these orientations. They tell you, um, about the education system, about taxes, about driving in the USA, about drinking or not drinking in the USA and, most of all, they always, always tell you about culture shock. What they usually say is, “You are going to have it. You will go to the USA and there shall be culture shock. You are going to be there with a lot of people who speak a different language, listen to different music, eat different food. And you will feel lonely, and you will feel homesick, and you will feel depressed. And then you will know that you are having culture shock.” Everybody does, except I didn’t.
I had been studying English for about 20 years and I never had a problem with people speaking it around me. And people were listening to different music and eating different food but that was part of the fun. And I never even felt homesick. It felt like a year-long vacation that was exciting and new, and there were things to explore. And every time somebody brought up the topic of culture shock, I just said, “No, I never had it!”
And then, I started dating. They don’t tell you a lot about dating at the orientations. What they usually say is, “Use protection” and “Going Dutch means that the guy is not going to pay for your food.” And the rest, I just had to figure out for myself.
So, I had been dating this guy for about a month and then questions started coming up in conversations with people. Questions that I didn’t expect but they kept coming up over and over again. And the first one was always, “So, what’s going to happen when the semester’s over?” meaning that my visa was going to expire and my scholarship was over and I had to go back home.
“That’s what international students do” and that’s what I always answered.
And then came the second question, “But you could stay here if you married him, right?” And, at first, I just laughed at that because I’ve, I’ve never seen American students ask American students if they were going to marry their boyfriend of four weeks. But it kept happening and I always answered that legally, if I had an American husband, I would still have to go back to Hungary when my visa expires.
And then the conversations usually went on and then they circled back and came the next question, which usually was, “But do you think you would marry him if you could stay?” And that was the point when I started realizing what culture shock was. It was the feeling of being treated differently just because you were not from around here. Of course, when I go to France, they never ask these questions or, if they did once, they’d never ask again.
Um, but the situation got worse when some people started asking my boyfriend the same question. They started asking him if he would be willing to marry me so I could stay here. And imagine a guy in his early twenties having to face that question. I started to feel like those pop-up windows on the internet that say, “Find your beautiful Russian brides today,” or “Eastern European beauties waiting for rich American men.” And it just got really annoying.
But, interestingly enough, the brunt of the culture shock did not come from the Green Card questions. It came from one single word.
I had been dating this American guy for about 2 months and we were out on a date. It was a really nice day. We were happy; we were silly. And he did something romantic, I don’t even remember what it was. Maybe he bought me a flower or he said something nice. And I laughed and I just said, “See, that’s why I love you!”
And he just froze up! I watched his face go blank and I didn’t know what was wrong. And two days later, he broke up with me. And I was heartbroken and I was sad and I was upset but, most of all, I was very confused. “What have I done?”
So, a few days later, one of my friends took me out for lunch and he was a guy, so I asked him for his perspective on what just happened. And I told him about the date and about the weird reaction of my ex-boyfriend to that particular, uh, thing that I said. And my friend just froze up the same way and he said, “You said the “L” word?”
Here’s the thing. In Hungarian, “I like you” and “I love you” are the same phrase. And, of course, I’d seen American movies, romantic comedies where “I love you” is always said in pouring rain with flowers and a full orchestra playing in the background. And I always thought that was a movie cliché.
And it took my American friends a while to explain to me how “I love you” in English is a lot more serious than “szeretlek” in Hungarian. Here I was, Eastern European, in the United States. It was okay to ask me if I was going to marry the guy that I had known for a month but it was not okay for me to say that I loved him. And that was the culture shock!
So, the next time I started dating an American guy, I did two things. One, on the very first date, I looked him in the eye and I said, “Listen to me because I will only say this once. I do not need to marry you for a Green Card.” And, two, I waited ’til he said, “I love you” first.
And these days, I am one of those people doing the orientations and I still talk about the education system, and taxes, and driving in the USA. But when it comes to talking about culture shock, now I have a lot more to say.