The Estonian American Experience > Do You Need Estonian to be Estonian?

Can you be Estonian without Estonian?
Virve Vihman

"I had been living in Tartu, Estonia, for about a year in the mid-90’s, teaching English in a high school, when a colleague of mine asked why I was there, adding that he suspected I was only there to improve my language. I was immediately on the defensive: not only for my language! It’s more about the culture, about finding my roots… “Well, what is Estonian culture then, apart from language? What kinds of roots have you found?” he asked.

I have to admit, at that point I was stumped. I groped for the things I’d been brought up to connect with my Estonian-American identity: Eesti Päevad? Rahvatants, laulupidu? None of these seemed convincing, or relevant to my everyday life in Estonia as a low-paid secondary school teacher. My colleague laughed at me: “It’s the language, I knew it.” But why shouldn’t it be the language? Why was I defensive? Perhaps it meant admitting my language was less than adequate. Or maybe I didn’t want to accept the equation that Estonian culture equals language, nothing more and nothing less.

It was about more than the language, though. I was learning something every day: about the world of my students, who seemed to have a sense of group cohesion I’d never known; about the early post-Soviet economy and its effects on people in different walks of life; about the Peace Corps volunteers who were teaching English like me, but conceiving of it as a project to bring American values to emerging democracies. But my personal aims were certainly also linguistic: it was about finding a world and a role for the private language I’d grown up with. I relished figuring out how to pronounce an American brand (Snickers, Camel, Pantene) in an Estonian store.

I later realized my colleague was genuinely curious, and just as interested in the question of what constitutes Estonian culture as he was in my reasons for being there. The Estonian sense of identity is strongly connected with language, but perhaps not as exclusively as one might think: in a recent survey, almost half of the participants who live in Estonia said ‘yes’ when asked whether someone who was not fluent in the language could be considered to be an Estonian. The results were substantially different among Estonians living abroad: a whopping 84% of the those who left Estonia in the wave of WWII-era emigration said yes, one can be Estonian without having command of the language, whereas among people who emigrated recently, only a third (34%) agreed.

Why such vastly different responses? When your identity feels threatened, it takes on a heightened value. Someone moving abroad develops a much stronger sense of national identity and searches for ways of expressing it, celebrating Estonia and connecting with other Estonians. With children, the question of language, taken for granted back home, becomes a crucial parenting issue. Hence, it is not surprising that two-thirds of recent emigrants feel that being Estonian requires speaking the language. The great gap between the old and new emigrants illustrates how fundamentally living abroad can change a person.

Attitudes of people who left Estonia more than a generation ago, like my father, may have changed considerably. They have seen their children grow up and have generally accepted the dominance of English in America or other languages elsewhere. My father spent over half his life abroad. He maintained a connection with Estonia, but found other ways to do this than reconstructing an Estonian world inside his home. Many Estonians in the USA have realized that the connection with Estonia is only part of their Estonian-American identity. Considering Estonia’s small size and strategic geopolitical position, a continued connection between domestic and global Estonians is crucial. Beyond that, however, Estonian-American society includes activities meaningful in their own right, not simply as a stand-in for an out-of-reach, “original” culture. My father moved back to Estonia at the end of his life, only to discover that he was no longer at home there. Only then did he realize that not only his kids, but he himself had truly become Estonian-American.

Culture exists in our minds, in our relationships, and in opposition to what we see ourselves as not being. To understand ourselves, we need to understand those around us. Americans with Estonian “roots” will gain a better sense of their own place in the world if they investigate what being Estonian might mean to them. This could involve travelling to Estonia, or just meeting other people with an Estonian background. Choirs and dance groups are not for everyone, but economists, engineers, educators may find other ways to make connections with Estonia, to help build bridges between the USA and Estonia.

Language goes a long way, but it isn’t the only way to see into a culture. Being part of a small community has its own rewards, and it’s never too late to discover how this might play a part in your own life. Estonians may not have been used to people speaking with an American accent in 1996, when my colleague confronted me with his questions, but people like Mark Kostabi, a US artist who knew of his Estonian roots but didn’t speak a word, were making a splash. Toomas Hendrik Ilves was raised in the USA, but has now been elected Estonian president for a second term. He is intensely aware of the centrality of language to Estonian identity, but also of the need to be inclusive. Estonian identity may end up becoming stronger for this sort of attitude: not cracking under pressures for globalization and immigration, but bending with the winds of change. Estonian-Americans might come to view themselves more like Italian- or Swedish-Americans, who after several generations in the US are connected through various ties, associated with their heritage language but not bound to it. It’s up to Estonians abroad to show both interest on their own part and an alternative view of the Estonian community, tied together through a vital and complex set of connected activities, not all of them linguistic.

I don’t know where my old colleague is now, but I could tell him that my language has improved, and that the culture I found behind it was complex –coming to Estonia, I found a deeper sense of what both my identities mean to me, and participating in two cultures, I’ve found that culture is the very fabric of life."

March 7, 2013 | Registered CommenterPosted by Linda Rink

What are Estonian-speaking Russians?
Edgar Kaskla

Virve Vihman’s article, “Can you be Estonian without Estonian?,” raises a host of provocative questions regarding national identity, where that identity comes from, and how it is to be maintained.

The short answer to Vihman’s question, is yes. But the real question needs to be: Is Estonian culture and identity sufficiently malleable and adaptable to allow for Estonian identity to go beyond traditional language skill criteria? That answer is being determined even now.

Estonia has been independent for more than 20 years, and the first generation of Russian-Estonians born, raised, and schooled in Estonia are graduating from school, going to university, and entering the workforce. Though there are exceptions, most of these young people are able to use the Estonian language, but still are not 100% Estonian nor should anyone expect them to be. It is possible to be an Estonian language user and not be an Estonian. And the bigger point is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Russians can be assimilated into Estonian society based on language and yet hold on—understandably so—to their Russian heritage, their fantastic cultural heritage (think music and literature), and their own language at home. Over time, it may be that Russians will be increasingly assimilated into the national community as well, but that will play out over a much longer period of time.

Things are changing and so those living outside of the country’s borders may ultimately come to benefit from an identity much more broadly understood than in whether a person makes a grammatical error talking in Estonian out on the street. Estonians have to change, adapt, and accept. Many take pride in Estonian stubbornness and rigidness. We don’t give up, we don’t give in. That’s what has kept our culture going for such a long time, or so the thinking goes. But even the very conceptions of what it means to “give up” or to “give in” do change over time. We do change, and so it simply becomes a matter if admitting it. And we have to. After all, there are only about a million of us anyway. We need us.

March 7, 2013 | Registered CommenterPosted by Linda Rink

Language Fluency is Essential
Madli Puhvel

Virve Vihman's interesting essay analyzed the age-old question of how to define one's national identity. I think we assume that someone who identifies himself as 'Estonian' can also speak the language. This is true for most nation states. After all, who could imagine a Frenchman not fluent in French, or a Finn not fluent in Finnish?

For global Estonians, be they Estonian-American, Estonian-Swedes, Estonian-Australian, Estonian-Canadian, or Estonian-whatever, the question is more complex. Fluency in the language can no longer be assumed. Nevertheless, all hyphenated Estonians should be encouraged to take pride in the Estonian part of their heritage whether or not they are fluent in the language. They should be encouraged to acknowledge this heritage when identifying themselves, and made to feel welcome when visiting the old homeland, or when participating in Estonian activities in their adopted countries.

In my opinion fluency in the language is essential for identifying oneself as 'Estonian' without the hyphenated addendum. Our unique language is our greatest treasure. It is the basis of our heritage and culture.

March 7, 2013 | Registered CommenterPosted by Linda Rink

Non-verbal Estonian Communication
Maia Linask

I recall a conversation in a high school hallway. The topic is long forgotten, but I remember clearly that the discussion began with me standing on one side of the hallway and ended on the other side. Every time Mike took a step closer during the conversation, I took a step back to reassert my personal space. I imagine that these small steps were unnoticed, but the fact that I remember the incident for its nonverbal cues rather than the spoken dialogue points to the power of unspoken communication. My steps back to preserve my personal space were a particularly Estonian form of communication, even though we were speaking in English.

Numerous books and thousands of scholarly articles document the fact that a significant portion of communication happens via unspoken signals, including hand gestures, posture, facial expressions, tone and vocal cues, and of course personal space. We have all heard someone talk about “the look” that a teacher gave students, conveying displeasure without saying a word. And before learning to speak, infants learn and communicate via gestures and facial expressions.

Since so much communication happens nonverbally, this seems to suggest that it is possible to communicate in (nonverbal) Estonian without a knowledge of the Estonian language. In this sense, it is entirely possible to be an Estonian (or Estonian-American) without speaking the Estonian language. One can still behave as an Estonian, sing and dance as an Estonian, and even communicate as an Estonian.

March 7, 2013 | Registered CommenterPosted by Linda Rink

Inevitability of Language Loss
Leif Erik Fritzell

Vihman is correct in stating that cultural identifiers like language can take on a heightened importance when an ethnic group is threatened. However, this makes comparing the perceived threats to Estonian identity among resident Estonians and Estonian-Americans a bit difficult because of the nature of the threats involved.

In the U.S., the odds of generational language retention have always been grim for immigrant families, not just the Estonians. Indeed, the only groups that have withstood this phenomenon in the long term are insular religious communities like the Mennonites, Amish and Hasidic Jews. All others have eventually succumbed to the preeminence on English. Sadly, we Estonians will be no different. To keep the Estonian American community distinct given this linguistic inevitability, it is not surprising that many second and third generation Estonian Americans have downplayed the perceived need for fluency in Estonian in favor of affirming their intrinsic blood ties.

For Estonians living in the Republic, the situation is a bit different. Due to years of Soviet era colonization, Russification and asymmetrical bilingualism, use of the Estonian language has become a contentious issue. Despite the restoration of the Republic, the battle over the seemingly radical notion of speaking Estonian in Estonia is very much alive. Because this aspect of Estonian identity is perceived as under threat, the opinions of recent Estonian emigrants will reflect this defensive position.

So, can one be an Estonian without knowing Estonian? The answer will depend upon what the Estonian answering is most fearful of losing – a shared heritage or a mother tongue.

March 7, 2013 | Registered CommenterPosted by Linda Rink

I was born in Germany in 1947 and spent the first four years of my life there. My parents and I then immigrated to the US, where I have lived ever since. I have only been in Estonia once, for a two-week period, when I was fortunate enough to have been offered an opportunity to teach a seminar at Tallinn Law School on American jurisprudence in 2010.

Nevertheless, there is no question in my mind that I am an Estonian. Why? Because both my parents were Estonians. They, like thousands of other postwar Estonians were forced to flee their homeland and found themselves in displaced persons camps. Quite literally, we were displaced from our Isamaa. Nevertheless, my parents, along with all the other Estonians that ultimately found themselves in foreign countries strived to keep our nationality and heritage alive and intact. As a matter of fact, until I began school in the US I could only speak Estonian. Gradually and naturally however, the American way of life and speaking English became dominant. Nonetheless, we spoke Estonian at home and with all our Estonian friends at the various social functions and in church. There was no question, ever, that we were Estonians living in America.

Slowly, over time, the older Estonians have died and their children and grandchildren have been largely absorbed into the American culture. As a result, the Estonian language is becoming more difficult and scarce to hear spoken in many areas of the US where it was once quite prominent. Which finally brings me to my point. I too have lost the ability to speak Estonian like I once did as a child and young adult. Oh, I can still understand most conversations, when I do have the opportunity, but I must admit, speaking the language has become quite challenging. At this point, reading and writing in Estonian is most difficult. The reason of course, is because I rarely have the opportunity to speak the language with anyone anymore. As they commonly say in the US, if you don’t use it, you lose it.

My point is this: even though I have lost my ability to speak Estonian as I once did and even if I forget everything about the Estonian language, (which I certainly hope doesn’t happen) I will always be an Estonian. Being an Estonian is more than being able to speak the language fluently. It is also a matter of nationality, culture and common values, beliefs and aspirations.

I hope I didn’t overstate the matter!

March 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMati Järve

what about those of us who become Estonian through marital osmosis, as I always like to call it ? I was married to a first generation Estonian American for 31 years , until he passed away recently . His first language was Estonian and he didn't speak English until he started kindergarten . when we got married I tried to learn Estonian, and even drove 3 hours each way from Buffalo to Toronto to take the class. I also went with him to a total immersion summer camp somewhere in Canada ! but it's a difficult language to learn and although I could understand a little bit ,I was never able to carry on more than a very basic conversation . however I was actively involved in the folk dancing in Buffalo and Albany for almost 10 years , and even performed with our group at Esto 84 in Toronto. I considered myself to be part of the Estonian community even though I wasn't Estonian and could only speak very little. we move to Long Island and became involved in the Estonian House with its sauna, swimming pool, summer camp , bonfires, Christmas parties , etc, always bringing our 2 young children along. our children however had no interest in learning Estonian, even though my husband side of the family would
try to get them to learn it . they are now in their early twenties and are only minimally involved in anything Estonian.They consider themselves to be half Estonian, not second generation Estonians. I imagine that their children wi!ll consider themselves to be 1 quarter Estonian and by then the language will be totally lost . however other parts of the culture will survive longer , such as an interest in food , folk costumes, music, dance, bonfires, and saunas. so the question remains : are my children and future grandchildren estonian even if they don't speak the language ? I think so !

March 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara Lindemann

I think it is important to be specific when one considers if he/she is Estonian.

I and both of my parents (descendents of generations of Estonians) were born in Estonia so I am Estonian by birth and ethnicity.

My family immigrated to the US when I was seven and I became an American citizen at age 13. So I am American by nationality.

I still speak Estonian, read it with some effort, and enjoy Estonian culture (food , folk costumes, music, dance, bonfires, and saunas) so I am culturally Estonian.

March 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTonis Niilus

I am delighted to see that this topic is generating interest and comments. I have some questions about being and feeling Estonian about which I'd like to see other people's thoughts.

An American Estonian community to participate in is how most of us learned about Estonian culture and met other Estonians. Who is going to keep these communities going, in whatever language, if the new generations perhaps know about their Estonian roots and ancestors, but don't have an active interest in participating and devoting time to keep them going? How many people need to be involved to keep Estonian culture and activities alive in the U.S.? Is it important to do so here, or should those who have an interest cultivate ties in Estonian instead?

And what about the new wave of Estonians who have come from Estonia in the last 20 years? They have the language. Can we use them to keep our organizations and Estonian Houses going?

March 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarju Rink-Abel

I am proud to be an Estonian. My parents still live in Tallinn. But I also consider myself a citizen of the world. Being fluent in five languages (including Estonian) helps with broadening one´s cultural horizons and adhering to too many restrictive labels. In my humble opinion, we need to enthusiastically embrace anyone who is interested in learning about Estonia. Our country is so small, it is a miracle if anyone even notices it! Too often I find ridicule about us foreign Estonians for ´´deserting´´ the homeland or jokes about foreigners who try to learn and speak Estonian. If the pronunciation of all the dotted letters or seven vowels in a row is not spot on... Cultural identity is a deeply personal feeling that can not be regulated by others´ opinion, as I discussed at length in one of my columns. http://www.ohtuleht.ee/blogid/aveameerikas/2376 More tolerance, citizens of Earth! And Estonia.

If one does not evolve, one becomes a fossil. A person living in a culture different from one's roots has to learn and absorb to stay viable. At the same time, one can and should preserve a core of one's most important and precious values, truths, if you will, and means of preserving them. In case of one's ethnic identity, the language can be the most valuable tool. In other cases, it can be the organized religion of one's ancestors. There are people who seem to be incapable of true multilingualism, so to survive, they must opt for the language of their current homeland. I am sure that they still can be very much attached to their roots. As a native of Estonia, I am blessed with 2 generations of offspring, who seem to carry the Estonian core. Some speak, read, write passable, even excellent Estonian. I have been corrected when I used an English word in conversation with them. On the other hand, the language skills can be rudimentary, the feelings and pride and "tooting the Estonian horn" are still there.

March 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMalle Kollom

i don't think one needs to be able to speak estonian to feel they are estonian in the same way that people of say, italian descent, don't necesssarily speak italian, but do identify as italians.

my mother's family is from eesti. they fled to germany at the end of the war and spent 5 years in dp camps and eventually emigrated to the u.s. i grew up with my grandparents on a farm in upstate new york, so estonian was my first language and i learned english when i started kindergarten. i am very thankful to be able to my grandparents, may they rest in peace, that i am able to speak, read and write in estonian. i do regret not having any formal education in estonian language skills.

growing up i watched my mother and one of my aunts assimilate into the american way of life and avoid the clannishness of the estonian emigre society in new york, while my uncle and my other aunt became very active in the estonian community and both married estonians.

i'm sort of a combination. when i was little i had two lives, my estonian one at home on the farm, and my american one at school. as a teen i was involved in estonian activities at the new york eesti maja and it was a large part of my life. when i went off to unviersity i left not only new york, but that part of my life behind and became for the first time more american and less estonian.

in the mid-80s, when i was in my 20s, i dfrited back to the estonian community and visited soviet occupied estonia three times in the late 80s. i connected with family and friends there and was so glad to have the language.

when estonia became independent, i once again drifted away from the community, but not from eesti. i've visited many times since and feel very much of a connection. it's difficult to keep language alive without practice. i've been fortunate to have become involved in translating estonian literature into english and also editing translations done by estonians. it's probably the best contribution i can make.

i identify as an american of estonian descent, and really only half estonian at that. my mother after all married outside of the tribe. and it bugs me when my estonian american friends who mostly socialize with other estonian american refer to their non-estonian friends as their 'american' friends. i have to bite my tongue not to remind them that we are all americans.

i am thankful for my estonian heritage and for the language.

March 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commentertiina aleman

Minu jaoks on olnud eestlaseks olemise moodupuu ikkagi eesti keel. Aga pean eestlaseks ka inimesi kelle ees-ja/voi perekonnanimi on Eesti paritolu.
Elan DC's 300 korteriga majas ja elanike nimekirjas on pr. Maripuu. Teatasin administraatorile, et pr. Maripuu on kohe kindlasti eestlane. Tema utles, et ei olevat,et ikka Rootsist parit.
Jaan kindlaks oma arvamusele, et eestlane- Rootsi oli vaid vahepeatus.

March 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnneli

To believe that you are Estonian is something I really have not to grapple with. My Grandfather,isa poolt on Prof. Ants Piip, Riigivanem ,jne., jne., jne. Ema poolt vanaisa on Mjr. Kpt. Jaan Klaar, Eesti merevae, his activities during the war of Independence are well documented. Ema poolt, the first tertiary qualified female school teacher, Lydia Noss.
Isa on Ants Tonis Piip, ja ema Leida Piip (sund Klaar).
In my humble opinion,to know what it means to be Estonian,comes down to one thing,and it is an emotion that stirs your soul and heart, OK, language may be rusty, attitude may be "so what",aga mis on koege tahtsam on mis sinu suda ette utleb.

March 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterToomas Henn Piip

To Toomas Henn Piip, "In my humble opinion,to know what it means to be Estonian,comes down to one thing,and it is an emotion that stirs your soul and heart, OK, language may be rusty, attitude may be "so what",aga mis on koege tahtsam on mis sinu suda ette utleb." really describes my opinion as well.

I wonder though, what do the Estonians in Estona think of the expatriates and their descendents. Do they think we expatriates are Estonians?

Who gets to decide who is an Estonian?

March 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTonis Niilus

hi tonis niilus,
i don't think all estonians in eesti think the same thing about this subject. those born in eesti who live abroad but with estonian citizenship probably considered by most to still be estonians. those who live abroad, but have given up their estonian citizenship probably have a different status. the folk who left against their will during the war are certainly in their own categry. and those of us who were not born in eesti, but feel connected to our heritage are yet in another category. who gets to decide? if it's citizenship then the estonian government decides if you get citizenship. if it's a question of how you feel, then you get to decide how you identify. at least that's how i see it.

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commentertiina aleman

I am an Estonian American. This is a heartelt and soul deep certainty. Born and raised in Philadelphia, I went to school where no one, but no one had ever heard of Estonia. It wasn't cool to be ethnic in any way in the 1950's and 60's, so I resisted events at the Eesti Maja in Lakewood, Eesti Kiiri, Leire, skautide laagris, and the Estonian language classes that my mom pushed so hard for me to attend. Now I wish every day that I could speak Eesti keelt with my mom who passed away last year.

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKatrin Lindepuu

My father is Estonian and my mother is a descendent of Mormon pioneers. From my earliest memories I have known that my Estonian heritage was unique and something to be proud of. During my growing up years my father never talked of his experiences during or immediately following WWII. However, I was always aware that he was proud of his Estonian heritage and I was always fascinated by it. Throughout my school years I chose Estonia as the topic for many research projects and class assignments.

Thoughout my life people who meet my father and hear his accent will later ask me where he is from. After I tell them, the next question has always been, "What language do they speak in Estonia?" I have then had the opportunity to explain to them where Estonia is and what family of languages Estonian belongs to. Frequently this has led to other questions and more indepth conversation about my Estonian heritage.

Estonian was not spoken in our home because, although my mother attempted to learn Estonian, she was unsuccessful. I'm certain this was due to my father's determination to become fluent in English as quickly as possible in laying the groundwork for a successful career here in the U.S. As a young teenager, I began corresponding with the only family member in Estonia who spoke English, my father's younger brother.

In 1977, I was granted a visa by the Soviet government to visit Estonia and spend a month staying with my uncle and his family in Tallinn. Even though I didn't speak a word of Estonian when I arrived, my father's family (all of whom lived in Estonia during the years of Soviet occupation) always treated me as not only a member of the family but as an Estonian in exile. When I arrived in Estonia that spring, I understood for the first time how a Jew would feel going to Israel. I felt like I was returning home.

Although I know a great deal about the Estonian language, my vocabulary is only about 100 words long and I am completely unable to carry on a conversation. Several years ago, during a visit with my relatives in Tallinn, I told one of my cousins that I would really like to learn to speak Estonian. His response surprised me. "Why? We all speak English," he said.

I have never been involved in the Estonian organizations here in the United States although my father made sure that we are on all the mailing lists. It is not because I am not interested. I went to the Estonian house in Los Angeles with my father once and, while I enjoyed the evening, I felt very much like an outsider because I didn't speak Estonian and couldn't understand any of the conversations that were taking place.

This article in the EANC Newsletter is the first that has ever drawn my attention because it is the first I have seen that addresses my situation. I have spent much of my life learning about and telling others about Estonia. I very proudly let people know that I am half Estonian. In fact, during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, I became the Olympic liaison for my children's elementary school. At my suggestion the school chose Estonia as their partner country in the "One School, One Country" program. I visited every class in the school (some more than once) giving presentations about Estonia. I also kept up a display case throughout the school year that taught the children various things about Estonia and let them know about the Estonian athletes competing in 2002. The children would see me in the halls and call me "the Estonia lady."

I have shared "The Singing Revolution" with many people and have watched it many times myself. Through this documentary, I have realized how much my inborn love of singing, folk dance, and folk music are tied to my Estonian heritage. In 2009 I realized one of my life-long dreams of attending the song and dance festival in Estonia. I have also made sure that each of my six children have had the opportunity to visit Estonia and learn more about that part of their heritage.

One of the primary reasons that I have never paid much attention to EANC or other Estonian happenings in the U.S. is the fact that I don't speak Estonian. There have been times that I've felt that Estonian speakers in this country are only interested in whatever financial means I may be able to contribute.

So what is my answer to the original question: "Can you be Estonian without Estonian?" I am 50% Estonian. That is a fact. Whether Estonian speakers treat me as an Estonian will have a great influence on my desire to participate with them in Estonian activities.

April 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGayleen Gandy

“To be Estonian” are the loaded words, because even as they conjure up different feelings, meanings, and sensations for different people, I’ve always felt, that there was a tacit agreement among the “elite” leaders and top-tier people of organizations about what one’s obligations are “to be Estonian.” Speak Estonian (better if you can read and write, too); as a child, attend Estonian scouting, camping, schooling, and church events; Become a junior Estonian leader; Sing and folk dance with Estonian groups (Better if you can attend many performances); as a young adult, join Estonian fraternity or sorority; attend formal Estonian dances; date amd marry an Estonian (or at least a Finn or other Balt); know how to cook traditional Estonian food (better if you can eat them, too); be able to recount Estonian history and know the major literary figures; distinguish yourself with some artistic talent or scholarly knowledge of significance to Estonians; visit Estonia (but best to have held off until after independence re-gained); attend demonstrations (more in the past); become a spokesperson about Estonian affairs … did I leave some out? These were enormous accomplishments for the refugees to have set up.

But as a first generation child born in the U.S. after the war, those of us kids who were involved were asked to do ALL of those – and honestly, I don’t know many who had the resilence and resolve to do so, and many were lost to Estonian circles altogether. The generation before us (born in Germany mostly, or being very young leaving Estonia) have been much more stalwart, and I believe it really had to do with the context of their beginnings which in many ways were much more homogenous in threatening circumstances. Others here have written well about the difficulty of double allegiances for those of us born here. I think the children or grandchildren of those born here are also much more taken up with Estonian activities, and more freely than any of the others – to them it’s a joy, an opportunity and they really choose it; but, though they win the enthusiasm award, many are missing whole sections of the list above, including the language. So, how to look at it?

The language is deeply rooted and spectacular. No question. But the realistic picture is that not everyone will have it. One view is that being Estonian collectively will thrive from the mosaic of what individual people carry inside themselves and offer up, center-stage or quietly. Some will learn folk dancing and even try to lead it, and some will love knitting Estonian patterns that educate and impress the world, and some will find partnerships between Estonia and another nation, some will write poetry or reflections on a blog that exists on this website, some will become performing stars in their own right and put Estonia in their light, some will create fantastic film debuting in EstDocs … The languages of music, art, dance, theater, film, writing, co-operation, folk studies, travel-logs and more are totally worthy essential elements of being Estonian and need to find a place of worth when they emerge singly in individuals by those who gaze upon them.

April 13, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkaera-jaan

Ma soovin avaldada ka oma mõtteid küsimuses, kas saab olla eestlane ilma eestikeelt oskamata? Vastuseks: iga inimene võib eesti keelt õppida, nii on väga selge, et see ei ole ühe ``eestlase`` ainus omadus. ``Eestlane`` ja sellega koos ``eestlus`` kui kellegi isiku definitsioon aga nõuab et see isik oskab eesti keelt, aga sellel lisaks, tunneb ja armastab eestlaste maad ja kultuuri kui midagi omapäralist ja erinevat, eriti oma naabermaadest. Mõned kutusvad seda ``isamaalaseks`` olemine.

Kuidas on aga siis lugu nn. ``estofiilidega`` kes ka armastavad Eesti kultuuri ja oskavad eesti keelt, aga siiski ei ole eestlased, sest nende isamaaline truudus on mujal, kui Eestis. Sedasi me jõuame lõpuks vastusele, et ``eestlane,`` või mõni teine rahvuslane, olla on hingeline tunne, lisaks keele ja kultuuri tundmisele. Sellepärast paljud nn. ``Ameerika eestlased`` lakkasid olema ``eestlased`` kui nad ennast n.õ. välja lülitasid meie rahvuslikust tegevusest USA-s. Noortele on see küsimus raskem, sest paljud nendest on ainult tuttavad selle Eestiga, millest nende vanemad räägivad. Ma arvan, et sellest pole küllalt ja nad peavad isiklikult oma ``isamaa`` avastama, kas see on siis Eesti või USA või mingi segu nendest kahest.

April 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJüri Virkus

From Karan Fairchild, Portland, Oregon:
I very much enjoy the newsletter and will continue to support your organization! I appreciate that so much of it is in English, as I and my siblings unfortunately did not learn Estonian as children. I studied some with my grandfather, but do not have a very good grasp of it. But I and my siblings identify very strongly with being Estonian, so we appreciate the newsletter.

October 27, 2015 | Registered CommenterPosted by Linda Rink

This is a sensitive issue, as always, because it is a question of something very precious to us all, and that is identity, as well as actual heritage.
I live in the United States, yet I by birthright am a United States and Estonian citizen because my mother's side originated there and were forced to leave - and effectively stripped of a nationality - when Russia occupied Estonia and the republic of Estonia ceased, effectively, to exist until the 1990s. It was not at all that they intended to leave or even wanted to leave - in fact, we have traced our ancestry in Tartu and Tallinn for at least the last 500 years, so they clearly loved their homeland enough to stick around for so long (and evidence indicates they had probably been there for centuries, perhaps thousands of years, before that, judging by our genetic mapping). My ancestors fought fiercely for Estonian independents, fought the Bolsheviks, taught at both Tallinn and Tartu University, and for centuries were fiercely protective of their national and cultural identity, even in the face of constant occupying forces.

Then came the war, and the choice was either to face a likely trip to Siberia or go to Germany. So, they chose Germany (though some of us were indeed sent to Siberia). My Grandmother was taught to be a good German, even though she wasn't, and to forget her mother tongue and only speak German - it was the rule - you didn't DARE speak Estonian in Nazi Germany in public, as she told us. They tried to get her father - my Great Grandfather, an educated, enlightened professor from Tallinn and Tartu, to join the Nazi party. He refused. I'm not sure of the entirety of the story, but he was to be shot by firing squad, and escaped on foot over the mountains. He resented and hated the Nazis and he resented and hated the Russians and most of all, they hated that their culture and language was constantly being torn at by outside forces, attempting to steal it away from them.

But my Grandmother and her father didn't just let that go. They couldn't. It was who they were. She wrote later in her life, before she passed, of her experiences growing up in that era in Estonia and of having to flee the country. She wrote of foods and music and culture that was integral to their lives, and in reading it years back, I realized that she had been passing down these same traditions and values to us since our youngest age. I never identified as American, though I grew up here. I couldn't quite place a reason on it, but I knew that I did not fit in to the cultural preferences and values and traditions around me. I did not care about football. I did not care about popular American music. I did not care about pledging allegiance to that flag, or going to church, or talking about popular cultural things here. I found that it was difficult to make friends, and I was always viewed as an outsider. That I have a bit of an accent - I guess I might have picked it up from my Grandmother, I don't know - did not help.

My Estonian relatives were the ones I was closest to as a child. I didn't meet my father until I was 2, but my Grandmother was there at my birth and was by far the most influential force in my life. I lived with her parents, too, as a child, and so was lucky to be able to spend some time with that older generation. I never identified, though, the WHY of it until later - I never understood WHY I felt so out of place in the US and why I was a bit weird to the other kids growing up - and then when I looked at people in Estonia, I started to realize that they were a lot more like my family - I started to recognize behavioral traits and world views which I had not necessarily viewed as "Estonian" before - but I could see, for instance, the more introverted way of my relatives from there, like me, more softly spoken, non-religious, with a strong value placed on learning languages and on education and on preservation of self identity, among other things. Even our Christmas traditions, I later realized, were a bit unusual in America. I didn't know any other children in the US who at Christmas celebrated the day before rather than on Christmas day, or got plates of sweets like lebkuchen and marzipan, an orange or plum perhaps (something my Grandmother had as a child which she passed on to us - in her days, having a fresh orange was quite a rare thing and so was much more of a treat than in America, where it is very easy to obtain fruit). Other specific foods came to mind which Americans had never heard of and which I always thought as a child were the normal thing to have.

Later, when I discovered that we had a birthright to dual Estonian citizenship because of our descent, I felt relieved. It was as if there was some validation of those years growing up feeling like we had some identity distinct from the standard American one. I was thankful for having US citizenship and the freedoms it brought, but also felt a warmth because it was a connection - a connection to our history and our people and our motherland - this is a connection that would exist with or without actual citizenship status, but confirming that status was a powerful feeling. I am not sure I can accurately describe it, but it created a sense of comradery and kinship with a motherland which, frankly, had been robbed from us. We had been robbed of a chance to grow up entirely there. We had not asked to live in America. Perhaps it was a nice life here, but just the fact that only by being forced to flee during a war were we not born there, and somehow that angered me when I thought about it. I didn't like the "American" identity. I didn't feel it fit who I was, even as young as 5 or 6 years old and entering school, I had this feeling. I found I made friends with foreigners - I still remember a boy named Hans Stegge quite well - much more easily.

But the language was not something which my Grandmother could so easily pass along. Now, as an adult, I learn it - not because it is useful, like other languages I have learned (e.g. Mandarin Chinese, the language of my fiancee) but because it is a connection to the culture of my family. She had, however, been forced to speak German for so long that she actually spoke more of it than Estonian, which was her first language. This, I think, was heartbreaking to her, and I could tell she dearly wished to preserve her culture in us, though she was conflicted because she had also had German values drilled into her head for so many years, and wanted us to learn of those as well.

Now, I look to my ancestors and then I think of how fragile a hold on existence Estonian language and culture actually has. It is one of the smallest languages in the world in terms of speaking population, and one of the smallest countries in the world by population. Quite a few cities in the world have larger populations than the entire country, and so that culture is observed by very, very few indeed. This makes me feel more fiercely protective of it than ever - and it makes me feel the need to preserve the language by continuing to learn it and to in turn teach it to my children (this I realize will be a difficult task as they will already be expected to know English and Mandarin Chinese).

What I am arriving at is this: culture and language are connected - but language is only one facet of culture, and not the whole of it. Culture is not where you live, or where you grew up. Ethnicity is not where you live, or where you grew up. Language is not this, either. I do not think that anyone has the right to attempt to rob someone of their identity - particularly when so precious few of us actually share this linguistic and cultural and national heritage - and I think that if you grew up with Estonian culture, and learned Estonian values, and love Estonia, and identify as such, then not being in full command of the language is not something which can strip you of that identity - it can not make you "not Estonian". My Grandmother was Estonian by blood - with 500 or more years of heritage there. She was Estonian by cultural practices. Her first language was Estonian. She was born in Tallinn, and she certainly identified as an Estonian. In every sense of the word, she was as "Estonian" as you can be. But then she was forced to leave during the war. She was robbed of a nation. She was forced to stop speaking her language for so long, and Estonia didn't really exist as it had anymore so rather than stay in wartorn Europe, she went to the United States. Naturally, she forgot much of her first language (though she started re-learning it later in life). It was not safe, she said, to return there while it was under Russian rule, but shortly after the Soviet Union fell apart, she and her sister returned. SO, then, if to speak Estonian is what makes you "Estonian", is that to say that this woman, born and bred and raised in Estonia whose first language was Estonian somehow "stopped" being Estonian because she started to forget some of the language? I do not think so.

And that is why I think while language is a facet, it cannot be used as a measure of how Estonian one is, and considering how many countries have occupied Estonia for centuries, it is also very difficult to even say who is ethnically or genetically Estonian anymore - the country is an amalgam of influences - genetic and cultural - from East and West. But simple family connection might not be enough for you to consider yourself Estonian. For example, through marriage and sometimes through blood, we have traced our family via geni.com to the Dutchess Anastasia, to Konstantine Pats, to the current prime minister of Estonia, to Estonian singers Kerli and Sandra Nurmsalu, and in Russia to Lenin, and even to Stalin. We also have distant ancestry to an Asian nomadic group in NE Siberia. But Though we can trace some Russian connection through marriage of some cousins, we do not and have never identified as Russian. So then, what decides one's identity if not family connections or language alone?

Identity is complex. Very, very complex. The end conclusion, for me, is that identity is up to the individual, and yet there are so many people in the business of attempting to assign their own identity upon someone, based perhaps on place of birth or language or appearance.

May 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterWhitney Latt

Very interesting post, Whitney. I don't see you in EANC's database. If you would like to receive our free newsletter, please send me your post office mailing address. Linda

May 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Rink