Mishka Kornai



When did your family immigrate to the US and where exactly did they move? What made them come?

My father came to the US from Hungary during the Cold War in 1980 to get his PHD at Stanford University. Study was one of the only ways to immigrate from the communist dictatorship in Hungary at the time. My stepfather is Dutch and came to California to work at IBM in the early 1990s. My mom was born in the US, but her father was a Hungarian immigrant who came to the US fleeing the Holocaust, while her mother immigrated as a baby from Sicily, Italy.


What is the first language you learned? Do you speak any other languages?

English, some Spanish, a little Hungarian, and a few words of Dutch. My father is a native Hungarian speaker and started teaching me as a small child, but my parents separated when I was five and from that point on I only had intermittent exposure to the language. My mother and stepfather are both fluent in Dutch, but they only speak English with one other, so I only picked up a few words here and there. My favorite Dutch word is “gezellig,” which has no direct English translation, but refers to the feeling of emotional coziness that comes from being surrounded by people you love.

What language do you primarily speak when with your family?

English. Not being fluent in Hungarian was very frustrating for me growing up, because I never felt like I was truly Hungarian. At five years old I started flying alone to visit my father in Boston every couple of months. My father and stepmother are both Hungarian, and after my half-brother and half-sister were born they would speak Hungarian almost exclusively in the house, despite the fact that I didn’t speak the language. These visits were extremely isolating and frustrating for me as a young child, and by the time I was an adolescent I completely gave up on even trying to understand the language. My lovely siblings are both fluent in Hungarian, something that proved invaluable when the family was forced to move back to Hungary during The Recession.


Have you ever visited or been back to your family's native country? If so, how often do you visit and for how long? What is that experience like? Do you have relatives there?

My father’s family, my grandparents, and my cousins all live in Budapest now and I try to visit every year when possible. I was 16 when my father’s family moved back to Hungary and they started speaking more English in the house after the move, which eased tensions significantly. I love my family so much, but they would often shame me for not being fluent in Hungarian, chalking it up to a lack of interest or effort. This hurt because I already felt deprived and ashamed of having never been taught the language in the first place. When my stepfather’s parents were still alive in The Netherlands, I would fly to Budapest via Amsterdam so I could visit them on the way. Unlike my Hungarian family, my stepfather’s parents spoke almost zero English, because they grew up during the Nazi occupation in WWII. Despite almost no common language between us, we still found a way to bond over little things like food and Sci-Fi television.


Describe your experience growing up in America as someone who is so closely tied to another culture. How did you feel? What things were easy? What did you find difficult?

I always felt a sense of separation from mainstream American culture growing up, but at the same time felt very much a part of it. My family raised me with a very European sensibility in one of the most liberal parts of California, and I was often confused by conservative social attitudes and practices as a child. I wasn’t allowed to watch Disney movies growing up and my family hated almost all sports, so those two pillars of American pop culture kinda flew over my head. As a child, my stepfather encouraged me to pursue competitive speed skating, a common sport in Holland, which was and still is pretty unheard of in California. At the same time, I was a pretty typical American kid who loved video games and McDonalds.

What type of food do you eat at home? What are some of your favorite dishes?

I grew up eating a variety of food. With my mom it was a mix of Italian, American, Indonesian, Japanese, and Chinese. At my dad’s place it was mostly Hungarian. My favorite foods are Csirke Paprikas (paprika chicken) and Risotto Alla Milanese (saffron risotto). Hungarian food is really special to me and I hope to cook more Hungarian cuisine in the future. My stepmother is a legendary chef and I have a long way to go before I can consider myself even a competent one.


Describe your experience making friends as a kid growing up in the UNITED STATES.

I was a quirky kid, obsessed with art museums and science fiction since I was four years old. I was an only child too, which lead me to be outgoing. I gravitated towards other kids who seemed unique or different and I was lucky enough to make a lot of friends growing up.


Do you consider yourself as more of an American or that of your parents' native country?

To consider myself anything but American would be a misrepresentation, but I definitely identify as a Californian more than anything else.

Are you proud to be American? 

No. This is a political question for me. I’m morally opposed to the concept of nationalism in general, and I also think that our nation in particular is responsible for countless injustices against the powerless and oppressed throughout our history and today. As the grandchild of two Holocaust survivors, it’s especially painful to see my country’s president utilizing the same type of xenophobic rhetoric used by the Third Reich that dehumanized my ancestors, to dehumanize Latin Americans, Muslims, and other people of color today.


Do you plan to pass along aspects of your parents native culture to your children (if you choose to have them)? What parts of the culture do you want to keep if any? If yes, how important is that to you, and how do you plan on doing so?

I think we pass on our cultural heritage whether we choose to not. That being said, I think knowledge is one of the most powerful things we can pass on to our children. Most of my extended family was killed during the Holocaust, including my great-grandfather who was killed in Auschwitz. My grandfather, who’s birthday celebration is photographed in the series, responded to the unspeakable trauma of his youth not with his fear nor with his anger, or even his sense of victimhood, (though surely he felt all these things after his father was taken away forever). He responded with his curiosity. Not a morbid curiosity, just an earnest and profound desire to understand the world around him, and particularly the ways in which economic systems both just and depraved are formed. He dedicated his entire life to academia, becoming an imminent economist, and even shortlisted for the Nobel prize. Occasionally his intellectual journey was lauded by the system around him, popularized even at times, but for the majority of his life my grandfather asked the questions that shouldn’t be asked, criticized powerful people and challenged the accepted status quo with hard science and instead of ideology. For me, telling his story is an important way to continue my cultural legacy.


Are there aspects of your culture that you don't enjoy, parts that you know you don't want to pass on?

I’m not sure I know the answer to this question, because I can’t be sure of how many of my own behaviors or beliefs stem specifically from my cultural origins. That being said, I think choosing to withhold, negate, or modify generational knowledge is just as important as passing it on in the first place. My mom, who’s birthday celebration is also photographed in the series, was born in 1948 just after World War II. Her father was on the last boat of refugees to leave Italy at the start of the war, which is the only reason he was able to escape the Holocaust. Long after his passing, on my 18th birthday, my mother told me something about herself that she had hidden previously. She told me that for most of her life she has had a profound hatred for German people, German products, German things, and that she has always felt this hatred as long as she could remember. She grew up as a child with the explicit knowledge that the German government, people, and industry all aligned to systematically murder people just like her, and in fact succeeded in murdering most of her extended family. She explained that she never wanted to pass that hatred onto the next generation, which is why she waited until I was an adult to even share these feelings with me. This type of cultural unlearning is vital.

What's one thing you wish people knew about your culture? 

Hungary has been oppressed by a variety of powerful political regimes for over a century now. The way Hungarians perceive themselves, fellow Hungarians, and the world around them is intensely impacted by that. Few people realize contemporary day Hungary is an autocracy like Russia and China, with almost no liberal democratic institutions to speak of remaining.


Are there any specific thoughts / inspiration behind the way you took your photos and what you took photos of?

This project came at an interesting time in my life. The birthday of my grandfather (on my father’s side) and the birthday of my mother are two days apart. Last year both sides of my family were insistent that I be present at these respective celebrations. Because of this, I chose to shoot the majority of my camera's roll in a three-day period between January 20th and January 22nd, 2018. Day one was my grandfather's 90th birthday celebration in Budapest. Day two was my 16-hour plane trip from Budapest to the California the following day. Day three was my mother's 70th birthday celebration in Palo Alto the day after that. A final photo was shot the following week on the day of my return home to Los Angeles. Millennials have adopted disposable cameras as a fun way to capture parties so I thought it would be interesting to bring the medium into two birthday parties celebrating individuals from much older generations.