Intercultural adventures – Another Englishman in Veszprém

The introduction of the foreigner teachers of the University of Pannonia continues this month, too. This time I asked Matthew Chen, who is one of the native English teachers at the English & American Studies Institute to tell something about his Hungarian life.

Please tell me something about your life. Where did you come from, why did you choose this career? What kind of jobs have you had before?

APH_20150218_0078-EditI was born and grew up in Haywards Heath in the county of West Sussex in Southeast England near the city of Brighton. I graduated from the University of Sussex in 2006 with a Masters in Chemistry but chose not to work as a chemist since I wanted a job that involves contact with people. For the following year I worked as an apprentice for my local church before successfully applying for a job at Nationwide Building Society (a major bank) where I worked for 2 years.

Whilst working for the bank I got to know my wife, Detti, who was working for a primary school run by a church in Veszprém with whom my church in England has a strong relationship. We visited each other several times, spent countless hours on Skype and decided that it would be a logical decision for me to become an English teacher in Hungary as a native speaker who is keen to meet people. I completed a TESL course, we got married in the summer of 2010 and I started working for Balatonalmádi Bilingual Secondary Grammar School that September where my wife studied and at that time taught.

How did you find Veszprém and the University of Pannonia?

Originally I started working for the University of Pannonia in September 2013 as part of the Lystra smartphone language-learning application project for one and a half years. After completion of the project I was offered a position as a native English teacher at the English & American Studies Institute and have worked there ever since.

Why did you decide to stay here for a longer period? Are you happy living and working here?

In this respect I am fighting against the prevailing current. The majority of Hungarians would choose to live or at least work for a period of time in England rather than Hungary but I thought otherwise. As a native English teacher there are numerous opportunities for me to work in Hungary. My wife is also an English and History teacher so it would be difficult for her to find work in England as a non-native English teacher at least. Therefore in terms of job opportunities it made sense to stay in Hungary. My wife is also an only child and I felt that my wife’s parents and wider family would benefit from our day-to-day presence much more than my parents and older brother in England who are quite independent. Compared to the UK, getting on the property ladder is much easier here in Hungary. Property prices are far more expensive in the southeast of England due to its close proximity to London. I love so many aspects of Hungary too – I am a keen Telekom Veszprém handball fan and hiker, continue to find the balmy water of Lake Balaton a novelty during the summer compared to the chilly waters of the English Channel, love Hungarian cuisine which to be honest is far superior to the British, and find the importance of family and the slower pace of life refreshing here in the ‘vidék’. Most of the time I feel at home here in Hungary but occasionally get homesick if I have too much free time, e.g. during the summer holidays.

Would you be so kind to share your thoughts about teaching? What do you think about the Hungarian students and the education system?

The Hungarian education system is quite different to that of the UK and the teaching cultures of secondary schools and universities in Hungary are also very distinctive. Students, on the whole, at the secondary school in Balatonalmádi are gifted and enthusiastic learners. The members of each class also get well and interact with each other during lessons so teaching English to them is a pleasure most of the time as long as they’re not hungry or the lesson starts at 8am! At the University of Pannonia the culture is quite different. Unfortunately, I observe that there is little chemistry between the students in most groups, probably because each student chooses courses individually and as a result has a unique timetable. Perhaps many students on the same degree programme don’t meet often so trying to encourage the students to interact with each other during English classes, which is obviously of paramount importance, is often a struggle. It would be wonderful if more students would express the intrinsic motivation of most students at my secondary school in Balatonalmádi, after all, they did choose an English programme.

The Hungarian education system focuses on the absorption and recall of information rather than the implementation of knowledge in everyday practical life. In England students at primary and secondary schools as well as at universities have to complete projects for many subjects, even Maths, forcing students to put their knowledge into action. This is a major weakness of the Hungarian system and an area that has to change. At the university level many students in the UK choose ‘sandwich’ degree programmes where students spend 2 years studying at their university, followed by a year working in industry and then a final year of study back at their university. These programmes provide a stepping stone for students to gain experience and establish relationships with potential employers.

What do you think about this country generally? Which cities or towns have you visited during your stay? What do you like the most here?

I love living in Hungary and particularly love Veszprém. There aren’t many towns of a similar size that offer so much – the second best handball team in Europe; 2 theatres; a mall; close proximity to the largest lake in central Europe, Budapest and Austria; tranquillity; and safety. I haven’t visited many cities in Hungary. Before I moved here, I visited Kecskemét several times whilst participating in summer camps organised by the church in Veszprém. Originally, I thought Hungary was flat and sandy like the Great Plain so was pleasantly surprised when I visited Veszprém for the first time! Budapest is a magical capital city, I am always astounded by the magical view from the River Danube at night, usually whilst driving or on a bus and how clean the city is compared to London. I have visited Győr a few times and also love the combination of old and new in this beautiful city. Sopron is also an elegant city and home to one of my favourite restaurants, Chen’s Cooking Wok & Grill Restaurant. I am looking forward to visiting the so-called tropical city of Pécs at Easter where my wife’s cousin studies. I would also like to visit Szeged as I’ve heard it’s a gorgeous city, plus as a Telekom Veszprém fan I am obliged to go to a Szeged vs. Veszprém match of course!

People are so polite and friendly here, no one would ever consider greeting the shop assistants as one enters a shop in the UK or even neighbours. You have time for each other unlike in southeast England where the vast majority of people are always rushing from one place to another. Hungarians value what they have and are often satisfied with what they have unlike in the UK. As a man I guess what I appreciate the most is the abundance of food that the hosts cook if you are invited for a meal. In the UK, normally the host cooks just enough for a second helping but from my experience in Hungary, you cook enough for at least the next 3 days! Hospitality is a true Hungarian speciality!