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Which Is Which?

A Riddle from the 1980s

Mi a különbség a román és a magyar macska között?
Két macska közül honnan tudod, hogy melyik magyar és melyik román?

What is the difference between a cat from Romania and one from Hungary?


A magyar kövér és jóllakott, a román sovány és éhes,
de a nyaka körött van egy egérjegy.
vagy: büszkén viseli az egérjegyét.

The Hungarian is fat and satisfied, the Romanian is skinny and hungry, but he has a mouse-ration-card [food-stamp] around his neck

Or: ...he proudly sports a mouse-ration-card around his neck.

This riddle/joke was told among the Hungarian-speaking inhabitants of Transylvania, Romania, in the 1980s. President Ceausescu of Romania was paying off the country’s international debts by exporting most all the food-products. The people of Romania were issued monthly ration-cards, but this did not guarantee that the “scientifically determined,” basic (i.e. ridiculously low) amount of rations will actually reach the table.

I’d say that the riddle functioned on two levels.

  • We, as children, giggled at the image of a mouse-ration-card around the cat’s neck, while being fully aware of how worthless food stamps can be, and subconsciously adopting into the life-principle of laughing it up instead of admitting that we have reasons to cry.
This was the openly used meaning of the riddle, but it also had a political undertone. The reason for comparing the Romanian cat to the Hungarian one wasn’t rooted only in the fact that Hungary’s economy seemed to have been better than ours. Transylvania used to be part of Hungary before, and as Hungarians by nationality, we might have felt entitled to a better life.

  • And this hidden idea gave reason enough for adults to exchange furtive looks, or just smile and nod their heads, when the second version of the punch-line was uttered, “...the Romanian is skinny and hungry, but proudly sports a mouse-ration-card”: …[Sigh] Only if we could stop hiding our heads into the sand, …and change the situation…

Do you have a joke, riddle or story that has to do with the Hungarian culture, Hungarian foodways? ("Mainland" Hungary and Hungarians abroad alike.)

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