teisipäev, aprill 12, 2011

the missionary position

I was reading some of the colorful comments regarding an interview I did with ERR last month. While I decided not to join in the fray, I did come away from it feeling a little more bitter and less satisfied with life.

I actually have little reason to feel bitter today. The weather is gorgeous. Not a cloud in the sky. The huge mounds of dirty snow are melting. At lunchtime I went for a walk around Viljandi, took in the lake, the winding old streets, the proud renovated homes that gleam in the sun and the shanty-like dumps that still stand beside them looking as if the Germans only retreated yesterday.

Viljandi. I took a deep breath and tried to accept that winter is really over. In my heart I don't believe it is, but the weather and the calendar say it is so. I had resigned myself to an endless winter. Antarctica until the end. It's been months since I succumbed to the cold. And now it's suddenly mild? And I am just supposed to forget about all that? But I must adjust. I have no control over the weather just as I have no control over the condition of Viljandi's houses or sidewalks. Estonia just is what it is and I strongly suspect that I will be unable to change it in any meaningful way. How could I? I am just one man, and certainly not gifted with the self confidence or spiritual fortitude to join the ranks of Dr. King or Gandhi, both of whom were assassinated, I'll add. No, just a puny individual. Ok, I may be a little taller than most, but so what?

Just as I succumbed to winter and now spring, I have come to accept that I am not going to wean the drunks at the A ja O off the bottle. I am not going to stop your cousin from blowing his salary at this country's myriad casinos. I am not going to make your waitress more perky, or neuter your neighbor's cat so that your property doesn't smell like a club urinal during Spring Break. I am not going to "integrate" the Estonian Russians or tame the vehicular insanity of the Tallinn - Tartu highway. I can barely get my children to put their jackets on. How am I supposed to change Estonia? I can't even vote.

Yet, the impression I get from reading ERR comments, and the reason I stopped reading them on Baltic Business News a while back, is that it seems so many foreigners think that they can somehow change Estonia. That it would be easy, if only everyone listened to them. Not only that, it seems as if they are frustrated that Estonians haven't listened more attentively to their exceptional and brilliant ideas. It is my observation that when so-called Westerners come to Estonia they often fall into the trap of assuming this "missionary position." The perspective includes a) the belief that one has come from a superior culture and b) the same person is therefore entitled to lecture the locals about the "proper" ways to do things to make the inferior culture more like the superior one.

I admit, I have done the very same thing here on this blog, over and over again. It's most likely unavoidable and probably not just a symptom of the imaginary West-East or American-European divide. Estonians who find themselves confronted by the peculiarities of any given Western country also tend to gripe. "What, no free Internet?" "Paper checks? You guys are still using these old-fashioned things?" "You still have a landline?" "This bread is terrible." "What do you mean they don't sell astelpaju siirup at the corner store?"

Still, I doubt that any of these Estonians actually thought that by writing a well-intended blog post or commenting anonymously on an online news story they could change things. It's one thing to opine about paper checks. It's another thing to expect their immediate elimination based on the sharing of one's superior wisdom. There are only 1.3 million Estonians, remember, and they live in 132nd largest country in the world, right between the Dominican Republic and Denmark. Most are aware that changing the financial idiosyncrasies of the United States is beyond their means.

Given this sense of resignation, the sight of Western missionaries nudging into the Estonian melee to point out how things really should be becomes more and more hilarious. "Hey, you, disenfranchised Estonian Russian kid, learn Estonian already. And you, grumpy waitress, be more friendly. Haven't you heard, the customer is always right?" I may have been that very person, I probably still am, but if I am, I don't really expect Estonians to take an American like me very seriously anymore.

Maybe it's because I am an American. Fifty years ago I might have had the cultural firepower to go around bragging about my shining city on a hill, where the plumbers live right next to the doctors, but these days the doctors live beyond tall fences, down long driveways, far removed from the plumbers, who may or may not be citizens. And don't ask me. Ask everyone else. Sixty-three percent of Americans think our country is heading in the wrong direction. It is the majority opinion.

Sadly, rather than just bringing our bright ideas to Estonia, it appears us men of the West have also brought our bitterness and dissatisfaction. And if you read most online comments in Estonia, it's more of the same. Fingerpointing and vitriol. It makes you wonder if we really are so different.

34 kommentaari:

P. ütles ...

And then there was the sense of spiritual darkness – hopelessness – tSounds kind of similar to American Missionaries in Russia -

"Saviors of some sort from the West

"When we first came to Russia almost 10 years ago and saw the, then, 3rd world conditions in which many Russians were living, we were so quick to want to find something – someone – to blame.hat seemed so prevalent here. We thought, certainly these things must have been someone’s fault, and it was our job as workers in the Kingdom to find out whose was to blame.

So we came into Russia as foreigners, and almost immediately, we began deciding who was at fault for the things here that we’d decided were so wrong. Many things made the list for criticism, but the primary targets were the government, and the Russian Orthodox church.

Now first, it never occurred to us at the time that many of the things we’d decided were so wrong with Russian culture, were, in fact, just different from what we knew in the states. This same cultural insensitivity was heavily relied upon as well, in our judgment of the Russian Orthodox church, as so many of the practices of that church are very different than what many of us had always known growing up in the states.

So we came in, almost feeling like saviors of some sort from the West, with our sermons about how Jesus can not be found in the Russian Orthodox church, but can only be found by using the formats, and following the traditions, and singing the songs used by the protestant church from the West.

Now this approach created issues in several ways. One example – the huge division that we created between the Western and Russian churches flowed into the relationships of the Russians who did start coming to the Western churches. We were teaching that in order to come into a relationship with Christ, the Russian people needed to make a decision AGAINST Russian Orthodoxy. As most Russians were raised in the Russian Orthodox church, a decision against Russian Orthodoxy was considered to be a decision against their heritage, their family.

Further, our very public and loud criticism of the Russian Orthodox church in the earlier years also drew to us a great deal of attention, and a great deal of resistance, from those with the most power in the Russian Orthodox church. We came in and made ourselves enemies of the most powerful church in the country.

Now don’t get me wrong, I understand from believers in the Russian Orthodox church that serious issues do exist there in several areas, including understanding about who Jesus is and who we are in Him.

But I have to ask myself again – what do the issues of the Russian Orthodox church have to do with whether a member of that church is or can be a follower and a lover of Jesus Christ?
We in Russia are not the only ones guilty of this terrible error..."

P.

Kristopher ütles ...

That's a full spectrum of comments all right.

Sharon ütles ...

"where the plumbers live right next to the doctors"

If American plumbers charge as much as Australian plumbers, then that's not really an indication of a classless equality so much as the kind of supply and demand that goes hand-in-hand with a skills shortage...

Jens-Olaf ütles ...

Justin, these comments are almoust anonymus ones.
Fact is that after Scott didn t post about Estonia anymore, around 2005 or so, your blog became the one with the widest audience in the English blogosphere, for some reason.

Giustino ütles ...

The blog probably became popular because I was posting frequently. Most blogs die because their writers lose interest.

Kristopher ütles ...

For some reason = with good reason. I always thought it because it wasn't just opinionated -- you asked more questions, got people to think about things, didn't come across as a know-it-all.

Pardon my ignorance, but what blog is this where the person didn't post anymore after 2005, and is it still online?

Jens-Olaf ütles ...

Scott Abel, Baltic Blog (offline or private), working at Baltic Film and Media School.

moevenort ütles ...

Those inexpressive faces
Displaying useless minds
Idiots with a tan
And a one-year lifespan

I flip through the channels
I flip through different ways
Of humiliation
Different freaks every week

And for us this seems
Remarkable and sad
That folk need
To be stupid, to be bad
To gain fame
A fake respect
A revolting reputation
Is the key to the media nation

It's a battle of wits
There's no place in the headlines
'Cause BB blonde got new tits

Mingus ütles ...

This is very well written, and I mostly agree with it. I fit many or even most or maybe even all of the points you made. The difference--and this is where I disagree slightly--is how I see myself in Estonian society. Which is to say, "a part" of the country, after 13 years here. It's not that I as a foreigner would say, "This is how you should do it", but I as a legal resident, permitted to be here by the government and hence the people themselves, feel fully entitled to say about aspects of the state of Estonia, "Have you noticed this? Is this what you want to choose? May I make a suggestion?" My children are Estonian citizens and it is my duty to do what I can. I contribute to an on-going dialogue, as do you, with the rest of Estonian culture. You and I are both a part of it, regardless of whether some rullnokk would agree. The current situation in my home country is completely irrelevant regarding my right to speak up, simply because there is no such thing as a bad idea. Better ideas, however, are chosen as a result of meaningful dialogue.

Giustino ütles ...

I agree, Mingus. The question of who gets to say what is interesting though. I noticed recently at a comedy show that the foreign-born comedians said they were in no position to criticize the government, as they were not citizens. And I noticed in an interview with the American-born CEO of Silmet that he said essentially the same thing. I understand him though. He was being asked to comment on integration, even though he was being interviewed as the head of a rare metals company. But one could imagine a foreigner easily taking the bait and preaching about how things should be.

It's very tricky territory. Because of the stereotype of the missionary American who inserts himself into any given foreign dispute, one might feel reluctant to play that role. I've been told before, "You just don't understand things" and provoked much eye rolling when I have made such "constructive" suggestions.

At the same time, I am not the kind of person to deny myself an opinion on account of being a foreigner, but I also don't want to be seen as a sanctimonious American wind bag.

Mingus ütles ...

Ha ha ha nice! But on that one subject we both know about, not all were like that. There is one...who still just usually chooses not to simply because it isn't important enough. So I've heard said, at least.

Regarding me, however, last December, an outsider's opinion is quite often fresh, even if it is unwelcome or unsolicited.

Piimapukk ütles ...

I've always loved the way Giustino finds a way to sugarcoat the life in Estonia. He is relentless in his choice of saccharine over bile. I admire it as I consider it a strength not a weakness.

As to resigning from changing the world - that kind of comes with age. Soon enough he'll be obsessed and content over improving and having some control over his golf swing. Until then, I keep enjoying reading his stories.

Keep 'em coming, Giustino! Don't change.

Marko ütles ...

I wouldn't worry about these comments too much. Remember, in Estonia it's not about what people say, but what they don't. If some say nasty things, then others likely think well of you. At least you know where you stand on the ugly side of things, and thats not too bad.

I'm originally from Viljandi, and would so like to return but I can't. It's too expensive for me to work and live there - the salaries aren't really much and I would really strugle. Instead I'm in this Dirty Old Town in United Kingdom - wich is just so depressing, as theres no space here, it's gritty, and people are rather nasty. But you know whats good about living here? It's cheap. And thats the strangest thing. The so-called 'Old-Eastern' Europe has become something else entirely, it's for the people who have done well in life. It's for people like you, and I think your parents should be really proud becouse while I, the native, can't - you can!

Hope that cheered you up a bit and the summers just around the corner and things will seem different when Spring really kicks in, trust me, they always do!

Liivimaa parim ratsutaja ütles ...

Just a thought, a controversial one, I guess - if you were an expat in say, France or Luxembourg or Amalfi Coast - would you have the same kind of dilemmas, anxieties, frustrations? I assume the answer is no.

So what is it that drives people to explore "lesser cultures"?

Why did the 7 missing estonian bycyclist chose to pedal straight into misery and anger rather than enjoy the tulp fields of Holland or widing roads in French countryside?

And now to my point - are we talking about the thrill of playing "White God" to the natives?

Tell me it ain't so.

:-)

Liivimaa parim ratsutaja ütles ...

Where can I get tax advice for an US expat living in Estonia? Turbotax is driving me nuts! How do you guys do this? Just eff the IRS? I am close to it.

Anybody? Heeeeelp!

Rainer ütles ...

"Why did the 7 missing estonian bycyclist chose to pedal straight into misery and anger rather than enjoy the tulp fields of Holland or widing roads in French countryside?

And now to my point - are we talking about the thrill of playing "White God" to the natives?"

I think you are being unfair here. People like that are usually in it for sheer exitement of adventure. It's the provincial petit bourgeois who go to Sharm-el-Sheik or Thailand to play "White Gods".

Giustino ütles ...

Where can I get tax advice for an US expat living in Estonia? Turbotax is driving me nuts! How do you guys do this? Just eff the IRS? I am close to it.

Anybody? Heeeeelp!


I called all kinds of hotlines in 2007 to figure this out. I pay state and federal taxes on time each year, but not local taxes (as my address is abroad). The best advice I can give is to work with an accountant.

You could probably "eff" the IRS. I know Americans who have been living here who haven't paid taxes in years, as their income is mostly earned and taxed in Estonia. Actually, I know Americans in America who pay no taxes, as most of their salary comes in the form of ca$h. It's probably too late now, but I could refer you to a good accountant.

Feel free to contact me.

Temesta ütles ...

"I admit, I have done the very same thing here on this blog, over and over again."

I think we can still make the difference between the arrogant position of people like moevenort and people like you who are genuinely interested in Estonian society.
I hope that it is still possible for me as a foreigner to criticize certain aspects of Estonian society without having to hear that I have a Western superiority complex.

viimneliivlane ütles ...

I find you singularly non-judgmental. Could it be that people who are looking for a fight are finding you to pick on? I continue to be amused by pundits on ERR public affairs programs who have spent perhaps one year at a university somewhere in the US and then consider themselves to be believable about what the US is all about – its history, its mores, its politics – everything and anything. Does the Estonian television audience really believe them over you? I don’t know what flack you have been getting, but I hope it is of the kind that could be taken as an indication that the ERR audience is becoming more sophisticated and more demanding.

For myself, you are not preachy enough, as I find in ‘Minu Eesti 2’ you missed the opportunity to assist Sigrid in Oslo out of the morass by offering her helpful advice like ‘If you don’t want to be mistaken for a Russian whore don’t dress like one’ or questioning the advisability of young girls visiting danger zones like Kashmir. Now that we have had seven bicyclists kidnapped in Lebanon who fearlessly peddled through a dangerous area (and a bunch of motorcyclists following them who evidently are bent on proving that that area is not dangerous) we are not hearing Estonian commentators saying that perhaps it is unwise to visit dangerous areas because the Foreign Ministry may not be able to help you if anything happens to you. This is the way the US State Department sends out their advisories to its citizens, and it goes without saying that American frugality dictates that American taxpayers would rather see their tax money going to more pressing national security issues than to looking for its citizens who didn’t heed their warnings...but this is where it gets preachy I suppose.

viimneliivlane ütles ...

@Liivimaa parim ratsutaja ...

Re tax tips – if your income isn’t large enough to warrant hiring an accountant and you think you can take care of it yourself, when I moved to Estonia in 2004 I filled out a form W-8BEN Certificate of Foreign Status of Beneficial Owner for United States Tax Withholding and filed form 1040NR U.S. Nonresident Alien Income Tax Return which bears a strong resemblance to the regular 1040 form. All forms can be downloaded from the IRS website.

Remember, even in the darkest hours, that paying taxes is GOOD.

I recommend registering with the US Embassy in Tallinn. They hold annual ‘town hall’ meetings albeit in Tallinn and Tartu only, where you can ask questions about taxes and anything else that comes to mind. Estonia and the US have reciprocity so you don’t have to pay taxes to both countries.

Liivimaa parim ratsutaja ütles ...

Thank you, Liivlane. If you truly are the last one, then they've definitely saved the best for the last.

This was very helpful.

Liivimaa parim ratsutaja ütles ...

I need to curb my enthusiasm as your advice appears not applicaple in my situation:

Quote:

"The W-8BEN form (entitled Certificate of Foreign Status of Beneficial Owner for United States Tax Withholding) is used in the United States taxation system by foreign persons (including corporations) to certify their non-American status. The form, issued by the Internal Revenue Service, establishes that one is a non-resident alien or foreign corporation, to avoid or reduce tax withholding from U.S. source income, such as rents from U.S. property, interest on U.S. bank deposits or dividends paid by U.S. corporations. The W-8BEN form should be given to the withholding agent such as a property manager, bank or stock broker, and not the IRS. The form is not used for U.S. wages and salaries earned by non-resident aliens (in which case form W-4 is used), or for U.S. freelance (dependent personal services) income (in which case form 8233 is used)."


And

"The forms 1040NR and its "easy" version 1040NR-EZ are used by nonresident aliens who have U.S. source income and therefore have to file a U.S. tax return. Joint returns are not permitted, so that husband and wife must each file a separate return. The 1040NR-EZ form can be used under conditions similar to those for the 1040EZ form.[4]"

So I am left where I am, which is nowhere.

:-(

Thank you, though.

Mardus ütles ...
Autor on selle kommentaari eemaldanud.
Justin ütles ...

I'm a frequent commenter on BBN. While there is certainly a fair share of childish vitriol like "All Estonians are stupid" comments, I'd say at least half the comments are fairly good. Also on average the comments are more intelligent than the comments on Delfi.

In terms of complaining about the country and desire for change, I see nothing wrong with this. Estonia in its latest form has only been around for a bit more than 20 years. There can be benefits which come from experience. Take the tragic fire at the orphanage in Haapsalu. Are there regulations or technologies used in other countries that may prevent this in the future? If so, why not consider them?

Another example: Lately in the news as the snow melts, there have been stories of homeowners in new developments where the land is flooding and everything has turned to mud because the developers failed to keep their promises to install proper drainage and services (Oru and Peetri külas are two examples), and have now gone bankrupt or otherwise disappeared. Maybe the policy in other countries, where developers have to place the funding for infrastucture improvements in escrow with the government would help here. Why not consider it?

One nice thing in Estonia is with its small size, it is possible to make a difference and actually effect change. There's a decent chance you've seen a member of parliament in a cafe or bumped into the prime minister at a restaurant. That just doesn't happen in larger countries very often. Last week, a minor change to the Estonian constitution was made. Compare that to the decade-long process to change it in the US (I realize there are certain benefits to this slow process also).

Your post was one of the first where you mentioned negative aspects of Estonia, like the drunks outside your local market. Why don't you write about these topics also? Is your blog only for positive information?

Justin ütles ...

Blogger seems to be acting up for me. Did my post with tax advice show up and is just waiting moderation?

If not, I'll post it again if someone still needs help with their taxes.

Liivimaa parim ratsutaja ütles ...

Please post again, Justin.

Mardus ütles ...

@Justin:
I don't think I can necessarily blame Blogger for loss of comments: I followed comments for this article via e-mail subscription and that's how I got your extensive tax primer.

A day before or so I deleted a comment to this article, because I wanted to post an improved one (no reply had appeared yet), but that wouldn't show after "the comment had been saved", though I did receive an e-mail with its contents.

Because this had happened before on Giustino's blog, I learned to save my comments just in case they don't appear and then post them on my own blog as a matter of documentation (and then I fail to post a URL of a lost comment in comments for a relevant article).

The best thing you can do is to save your comment beforehand, then post it and if it fails to show, publish it on your own blog. If you don't have a blog yet, then you can create one.

Justin ütles ...

Mardus: So my tax primer did appear? Do you have it saved anywhere so it could be re-posted? I'd prefer not to have to re-type it all (also it's no longer fresh in my memory).

The first time I tried to post it, the comment box seemed to think I was logged in with my Google account, but didn't show my username, so when I sent to post, it redirected me to login which I did, and then the resulting page to proceed with posting generated a server error.

So then I posted again (I had to retype it unfortunately) and it did appear as soon as I posted it, but when I went to check for it again a few minutes later, it wasn't there. Really strange.

Mardus ütles ...

@Justin:

I've now posted your lost comment at my own blog.

Justin ütles ...

Mardus: Thanks for re-posting it. If anyone has questions, they can post it in this (Giustino's) blog and I'll be happy to answer them.

Liivimaa parim ratsutaja ütles ...

You've done good to mankind. Thank you.

geoff ütles ...

Hi Justin,

I read some of those ERR comments myself today and pretty much came to the same conclusions which you elucidated so well in your post.

This was my first full winter here and part of me also seems reluctant to move on to fully accepting that spring has arrived (though the disappearing snow and spring flowers help a little). I think though that for me, the first day wearing shorts outside will be a true seasonal turning point (I'm from Sydney).

As to the tendency for foreigners to be so opinionated about Estonia, I too have done my fair share of well-intentioned whining to my wife and foreigner friends who call Estonia home. However, now when I read such comments and 'discussions' online I feel disappointed and annoyed about the preachy vitriol that fills these paragraphs and wonder if these people were as openly critical of their original home countries as they are of Estonia. Opinions are certainly ok to have, but perhaps our cohort of frustrated foreigners should make more of an effort to relax and enjoy themselves here rather than spending so much effort adopting the 'missionary position'.

Perhaps such online comments are simply a product of internet anonymity, but this 'preacher phase' seems to be too common an experience amongst 'westerners' who have settled here to write it off as that.

My thoughts are that it is generally part of the difficult process of adapting to life in a different country and culture. I personally had a similar reaction when living in northern England for a year, though for some basic reasons this reaction wasn't as strong (though I never did get used to the violence, aggro and general English malaise).

Despite continuing language barriers and lack of a job here, I'm feeling much more comfortable than I ever have before. I'd still love to see some of these dilapidated buildings and dirty snow covered footpaths across the country looking better, but at least I now accept that the appearance of a building or street says more about the affordability of building renovations and street cleaning rather than the character of the people that make these places their home.

By the way, we also call Viljandi home. Perhaps we could meet up for a kohv and a chat sometime?

Geoff

Marcus ütles ...

And then there are extreme examples, like Sami Lotila or Johan Bäckman, the former having an almost pathological need for attention a la all publicity is good publicity, but at least sometimes coming off sincere in asking "why the hell can't they do it right?" and the latter probably compensated with plenty of Rubles for his downright hateful and feud inciting opinions. To say that Johan Bäckman is provocative is like saying the Bugatti Veyron is a bit on the expensive side.

Marcus ütles ...

- Let the record show that Marcus is Estonian -