Moving from Hungary to Singapore: a Christmas proposal

By Clara How, Dec 26, 2019

The time difference between Singapore and Hungary is seven hours, depending on the season. But after surviving years of long distance dating, doubts about their five year age gap, and cultural differences, Jonathan proposed to Kata on Christmas Day three years ago.

On their wedding day in Hungary

On their wedding day in Hungary

It took time to navigate each other’s needs, and time for Kata to adjust to living to Singapore – though she now proudly says that she can handle chilli better than Jon. After living with the in-laws for two years, the pair have recently moved into their resale flat, and continue to learn new things about each other – including Jon’s penchant for glass kettles.

This story begins with Jon’s proposal.

* * * *

Even though we started the relationship with the goal of marriage in mind, it took me a while to find the certainty I needed to propose. Eventually, I reasoned that marriage was a commitment to uncertainty. Twenty years down the road, both of us would be different people, and neither of us knew what that would look like. The only constant is the commitment to stay by each other; and I felt we could trust each other to do that much.

The metaphor of “falling in love” seems inadequate because for us, it happened slowly and incrementally. For a long time, I imagined myself growing old alone with many cats and books. When I met Kata at a church camp, she seemed sure of herself and her opinions, which made for interesting, effortless conversations. My dad was at the same camp, and he had an inkling of what was going on. He sneaked a photo of us talking to each other, and sent it to the family WhatsApp chat. But because I wasn’t interested in dating, I didn’t think of her as a potential partner. 

Things changed when I went to Ireland for an exchange programme. I spent a lot of time with two couples whose relationships blossomed from friendship into marriage, and their sharing helped me to look at my friendship with Kata with different eyes.

The only question I was left with was when to propose. The answer came during a conversation about how we imagined our timelines of when we wanted to have children. As I did the math in my head, I realised: Oh, I have to propose now!

I had an image in my mind of the ring I wanted: a blue stone, because her eyes are blue.

It was my dad who offered a ring that I might want. I don’t know why he broached the subject so suddenly or how he happened to have exactly what I was looking for, but it was perfect timing.

I chose to propose on Christmas, which probably sounds romantic, but was actually ironic for us because we don’t celebrate Christmas. Not that there’s anything bad about Christmas, but it’s not fundamental to our faith as Christians, neither do we see a need to celebrate it. So I knew she would not be expecting anything, giving me an opportunity for humour and surprise! On Christmas morning in the house where we had a sleepover with friends the night before, I woke up at 7am and knocked on her door.

“Merry Christmas!” I said – and she rolled her eyes.

“I’d much rather go back to bed right now.”

“But don’t you want your Christmas present?”

Before it was resized, the ring fit her middle finger better.

Before it was resized, the ring fit her middle finger better.

And that’s when it happened: both in our pyjamas with messy bed hair, and our friends asleep in the other room, I took out the ring and bent a knee.

* * * *

Kata shares her side of the story: the frustration of Skype calls, cultural cross-wires, and living in Singapore (and with the in-laws).

* * * *

The funny thing was that when Jon woke me up that morning, I was dreaming that he had proposed.

Perhaps it was because of the conversation we had the night before; it made us sure that we wanted to get married. He’s not the romantic type so I didn’t expect a grand proposal, nor did I want one, because I don’t like being the centre of attention. My first reaction when he woke me up was that I wanted to go back to that dream! But to have him propose was a surprise.

I first met Jon in June 2013, when he was 23 and I was 28. The church we both attend has fellowships around the world, and I wanted to experience fellowship in a different culture. So I travelled to Singapore and Bali for a three-week holiday on my own. Jon and I were both attending the same youth camp to Bali, and we met at Changi Airport.

I didn’t have a good impression of him: I assumed that if someone was good-looking, they were probably shallow and not trustworthy. So I was civil, but I didn’t bother to talk much to him. At the camp, Jon was in a team tasked with cleaning the tables and chairs. I noticed that even though his teammates had abandoned the tables, he continued cleaning them by himself for an entire hour. I realised that I might have been too quick to judge, because this small gesture showed that he cared about others’ well-being. We began speaking more, and became friends on that trip.

When I returned to Hungary, we occasionally kept in contact via text. It was only in January 2014 when he flew to Ireland for an exchange programme did we start chatting more frequently, because the time difference was reduced to an hour.

I only realised that Jon was five years younger than me at least six months after we first met. I had assumed he was around my age. By the time I found out, I felt it would be so hypocritical to have this impact our friendship, since we had been getting along so well and I knew that he was mature. His age never came up in our conversations, because it was never important.

We would meet face to face once again later in April 2014, and it was then when he confessed that our relationship felt like it was becoming more than a friendship.

My first reaction was to tell him that I felt the same way, then I asked him: “So, Singapore or Hungary?”

He thought it was funny because he’s the one who was brought up with the Singaporean mentality of liking to plan, but I was already way ahead of him! He explained that he was on a scholarship and had to serve out his bond, so he would have to remain in Singapore for at least the next five years. Because I was older and was already working, I felt like I was in a position where it was easier for me to move over.

We began a long-distance relationship that would last for around two and a half years. In that time, we had scheduled Skype calls three times a week, and took turns to visit each other once a year. Given the long distance, I initially found it very difficult to trust him. But I knew that his original life plan was to be single and have a lot of cats, so the fact that he was willing to be in a relationship with me meant that he was serious. 

Like every other couple, we had to overcome initial challenges, because how we communicate our care and our needs were very different. For me, how I show care is to share a lot about my day. For him, it was through asking questions. So I would share, and he would ask questions, but it was a one-way conversation. It took us a year for us to learn and negotiate what each other needed.

Eating lángos (pronounced “lung-osh”), which is like a flat, round youtiao (Chinese breadstick) served with garlic, sour cream and cheese

Eating lángos (pronounced “lung-osh”), which is like a flat, round youtiao (Chinese breadstick) served with garlic, sour cream and cheese

Another challenge was our differences in love language. His is quality time, but not in the way that I would define it. For my family, spending time means doing activities together, like cooking or gardening. We would never just “hang out” – that would imply unhappiness. So when Jon asked for time alone without doing anything, I freaked out, thinking that I must have said or done something wrong. 

One day when he was in Hungary and we were walking to the bus station, it clicked that his family and friends frequently meet up without a special purpose. So I asked him if this was what he meant by quality time, and he said yes. He just values time and attention in that moment.

Despite all the challenges, we both wanted to hold on to this relationship. In both our cultures, we come across as people with eccentricities. For me, coming from a family of engineers, I have a quirk of stopping and admiring building sites and smelling wet concrete. I also had a secret project of researching Renaissance painters, because it was something my dad taught me as a child. As for Jon, he has a very sarcastic sense of humour that doesn’t always go down well, but it works well with me because generally, Hungarians enjoy dark humour.

Jon not only tolerates this side of me, he embraces it. That to me was what is important.

I eventually moved to Singapore in August 2016 after being dismissed from my job. It was something that we had been speaking about: whether I could get used to living in Singapore. We already knew that Singapore was the better option than Hungary, because of the language barrier, and Hungarians are less accepting towards foreigners. 

I had already moved out at 18, as is customary in Europe, so my parents and I were accustomed to not seeing each other often. But they did share with me their concerns: that it would now take me 16 hours to come home in case of an emergency, and that they didn’t think Jonathan was that interested in me. Hungarians tend to be physically affectionate and extravagant in their gifts and gestures, which is not what Jonathan does. But I knew that he carries himself differently, so it didn’t surprise me that my parents were not able to pick up his signs of affection. 

When I was dismissed by my company, it felt like a sign from God. Our entire team was retrenched, and they gave each of us a very significant severance package. Even though I had the option of joining other teams, I felt like this was my chance. Even if it didn’t work out, at least I would have an answer.

I could stay with this company, continue the long distance relationship and it would be easy and comfortable. But if I turned down the internal job offers, it would open up the possibility of moving to Singapore for a longer time.

On holiday in Phuket, 2019

On holiday in Phuket, 2019

When I moved to Singapore, Jon guided me by explaining why Singaporeans do and say the things that they do. For example, the eating culture is so different. In most European countries, eating out is expensive, so people cook and bring food to work. People believe they shouldn’t impose on what others are comfortable with spending in restaurants. So you would have coffee with friends, because coffee is a standard price. But in Singapore, food is affordable and accessible. I also didn’t understand why people spoke about food all the time! I had never considered things like the texture of food, or presentation.

Enjoying durian (this was not my first time)!

Enjoying durian (this was not my first time)!

In terms of work, I also realised that what Europe sees as achievement is very different to how Singapore would define it. In Hungary, people are very conscientious about time. So we are a lot less careful about stepping on each other’s toes – we say what needs to be said because we want things to get done. Hungarians don’t have an issue with being confrontational. But I learnt that here, people value relationships and feelings over getting things done quickly, and this was something I had to get used to.

By this time, people were also telling us their concerns about our relationship. In Singapore, the aunties from church would tell Jon that my biological clock was ticking, and that if he wasn’t certain about me then he had to let me go.

On my end, my friends were concerned about how long we were dating, because in Europe, courtships in church usually have a shorter window. They felt like Jon should have decided by now. But we both felt like we wanted to be sure before we made this decision.

While we had been dating for almost three years, we had been apart for so long. Our relationship could only progress when we were physically together.

Jon proposed in December 2016. By that time, we had become more sure of each other. Before, we never had ‘everyday’ moments. Every time we met, one of us was always on holiday, and we felt like we had to maximise our time. But moving to Singapore meant that we now saw each other in our daily routines.

I saw him when he was grumpy, and what he was like when he was exhausted. I saw him in his entirety.

We did a short photoshoot after our wedding ceremony in Hungary.

We did a short photoshoot after our wedding ceremony in Hungary.

We got married in June 2017, and we had four wedding receptions: our Registration of Marriage ceremony in Singapore (which my parents flew in for), a ceremony on a farm in Hungary, and two lunch receptions in Singapore. They were all very casual – for the two Singapore receptions, it was a casual catered lunch after church, and a restaurant meal for Jon’s extended family.

My parents surprised us with a Hungarian tradition: sesame and walnut brittle formed in the shapes of a flower basket and the Marina Bay Sands! The groom is given a hammer to smash the structures, and all the guests take a piece of brittle.

My parents surprised us with a Hungarian tradition: sesame and walnut brittle formed in the shapes of a flower basket and the Marina Bay Sands! The groom is given a hammer to smash the structures, and all the guests take a piece of brittle.

A typical Hungarian wedding is an overnight affair: it can start in the morning and end with dancing till 4am! But Jon and I kept it simple with the church ceremony and lunch. We had guests who had flown in from all around the world, and we didn’t think a lengthy wedding would have been a good choice. Our honeymoon was a two week affair in December: we visited Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan.

Our first ryokan experience in Kyoto on our honeymoon

Our first ryokan experience in Kyoto on our honeymoon

I was living in Simei with friends, but after getting married we moved in with Jon’s parents. We didn’t want to spend the money on rent, and we had to wait until my Permanent Residency was approved before we could buy a flat. I was very excited to have a flat – not because I didn’t like my in-laws because we got along well, but having our own space allows us to do more things like hosting guests. We ended up staying with Jon’s parents for two years, before purchasing a resale flat and moving in a month ago.

At one of our lunch receptions, which took place at Grand Hyatt

At one of our lunch receptions, which took place at Grand Hyatt

I already knew Jon’s parents through church before we started dating. But I started to get along better with my mother-in-law after moving in, because she saw me in a different context. She saw me cleaning the house, doing the ironing, and these little practicalities mattered to her. Because it’s in my culture to be straightforward, I didn’t shy away from arguments between Jon and his parents. Jon believes that my presence helped to diffuse tension because I was able to give an objective perspective.

In Hungary, it is not unheard of to live with one’s parents as an adult, but it usually happens to address a life situation (like an unwell relative), or family logistics. Filial piety is not as systematic and as openly discussed as it is in Asia, but when it calls for it, the family makes the necessary arrangements to help. 

We only moved in a month ago, so are still in the process of getting furniture!

We only moved in a month ago, so are still in the process of getting furniture!

Now that we finally have our own place, it feels great but also a little strange. I did have a flat in Hungary, but I lived alone. Now that Jon is with me, the dynamics are different, even in the little things. He wants a glass kettle, but I have an irrational fear that it will explode, so we didn’t get one! We are constantly learning about each other.

This Christmas, we plan to take the teenagers from our church on a run around Punggol Park, and end the day with a group dinner.

In Europe, they say that Christmas is a celebration of love. But I believe that if you love someone, you love them each and every day.

The idea that there’s one special day just for this has always been at odds with me, and this includes things like Valentine’s Day and birthdays. Jon feels the same. To us, it’s another public holiday, but more importantly, it’s an opportunity to spend time with the people we love.

Photos provided by Jon and Kata. 

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