esmaspäev, juuli 03, 2006

When does a Hyphenated Estonian Become "Just Estonian"?

Most of the news coming out of Estonia over the past few weeks has been largely financial - the acquisition of Silja Line by Tallink, or about Metallica - James Hetfield's interview in Tallinn about the band's next album has been widely circulated around Internet by metal-lovers.

But the other day we were talking in the car about a different kind of issue - the Estonian identity one - because we went to college and like to talk about such crap. We were trained to dig into murky 20th century topics like identity and nationality and, like what does it all mean, man? Zoinks!

One portion of the conversation touched upon something of increasing relevance in Estonian society - when does a non-Estonian (ie. someone who has ancestors that didn't live on the territory of Estonia for 2,000 years) become "just Estonian." Kristina Šmigun - the Olympic skiier - is prime example of this. Kristina is from Otepää, but her father, Anatoli Šmigun, is an ethnic Russian. But no Estonian will tell you Kristina is Russian. She is "just Estonian" - and there seems to be some nuanced way that Estonians can determine who is one of "us" and who is one of "them."

There are lots of mixed families in Estonia - Finns that married Estonians, Ukrainians that married Estonians, Russians that married Estonians, Belarussians that married Estonians, and more frequently, Americans that married Estonians, Germans, Swedes, what have you. They go both ways. The stereotype though is that it is the Estonian women who are more willing to have a "foreign" husband, though this is not always the case.

Unfortunately for the children of Slavic fathers, they have inherited extremely long surnames in a short, punctual language. But if Estonia has room for Jaan Kaplinski, Jaan Manitski, and Julius Kuperjanov, I am sure it will have room for Helle Retsetnikova, Aivar Balanovski, and Pille Pokeshkova. I've even met an Estonian family with the last name Pushkin!

I recall standing in Tallinn Central Hospital looking at the list of maternity doctors on the wall, and seeing either Russian surnames with Estonian last names (Olga Sepp) or Estonian first names with Russian lastnames (Pille Ivanova). I had to wonder, at what point will the established caste of non-mixed Estonians determine that these people - most of whom are bilingual - have become "just Estonian?"

What makes one "just Estonian"? - well, people will say that the number one thing is fluency in the lovely, vowel-laden Estonian language. That's a good start. But even people that were born in Estonia and can speak Estonian, but speak Russian at home and are named Sergei don't seem to qualify as "just Estonian."

It seems that "just Estonians" need to also act Estonian. For example, the lady at the Tartu playground with the colorful paisley dress and fluorescent blonde hair that smiled at my daughter and told me she was an "ilus tudruk" with a bit of a Slavic touch didn't strike me as "just Estonian." She was just too friendly.

So, in order to be "just Estonian" you must also obey rule #2. No smiling. Unless you're drunk. Plus no talking about bullshit of any kind. You want to talk about Colin Farrell's new movie? Go to Ireland. In Estonia the only proper conversation can be:

1) Do you want something to drink? Ok.
2) I think our prime minister is an idiot. Me too.
3) What's with all these Russians living in Lasnamae?
4) What time does the bus leave? 4 pm.
5) Estonians are the most beautiful, most intelligent people in the world. I agree.

Another detail is that Estonians love to drink, but they are more discreet about it. So when a cadre of young males piles on the bus with beer in hand and it's not even noon, I have a hunch that these gents still have a while to go before they become "just Estonian." Ditto for those old guys who sit outside the apartment houses in Tallinn passing around a bottle of vodka. "Just Estonians" don't do that. They go to the designated place to destroy their livers, like the local pub - not the back of the bus.

People think that Estonia is a weak country because it is small and it's people all look the same so you can imagine there are actually only about 35 Estonians and they are all just playing the roles of all the other Estonians you meet. This is untrue. Estonians are actually pretty tough when it comes to integration. Being a non-Estonian speaker in Estonia is like feeling the weight of a fat, honey-loving Estonian-speaking bear sitting on your face. You've just GOT TO LEARN.

This is misconstrued as German Nationalist Socialist-like xenophobic tendencies, coupled with Nordic, Saga-like revenge for that whole USSR thing. But it goes on in every country, even these United States, where every white guy named Smith with a beer is hammering his fist on the table next to his swimming pool and yelling about "those damn Mexicans' whose worst offense is that they "don't speak English."

The fact is, that, after three generations, even Mexicans (!) start speaking English. And Spanish is a big ass friggin' language. It's not some lightweight next to the mighty English tongue. Mexicans could survive speaking Spanish ONLY in the US indefinitely. But for some reason, they switch from "los sandwiches de jamon y queso" to "ham and cheese sandwiches" within three generations. It's because Americans, like Estonians, and like most nationalities, put immense social pressure on those that aren't fluent in the national language and force them into the mainstream. It's some sort of national survival mechanism.

The only question is when that happens - and it is happening in Estonia as I type away - will the non-mixed Estonian community see the Signe Ivanovs and Triinu Pushkins of the world as "just Estonian"?

Ma arvan jah.

21 kommentaari:

Anonüümne ütles ...

A shortcut around the language requirement could be the value of one's portfolio:

Giustino ütles ...

Pssh. And I thought Rummo was a principled poet.

Giustino ütles ...

I'm not sure the language test is even worth the grief anymore - but I guess if so many people have taken it and passed, it's sort of unfair to not make the remaining slackers off the hook...

Spinning Girl ütles ...

tõesti fantastiline kirjutis.

Anonüümne ütles ...

If you are interested in identities I suggest you listen to a world famous Estonian composer Veljo Tormis. The music is powerful and captivating. He also has a great work on the folklore of the perished brothers of the Estonians (Livonians, Izhorians, Ingrians, Vepsians etc.) called "Unustatud rahvad". You cant hear the Livonian language anywhere else really because there are very few fluent speakers left, also the other peoples languages are quite rare.

Anonüümne ütles ...

So when a cadre of young males piles on the bus with beer in hand and it's not even noon, I have a hunch that these gents still have a while to go before they become "just Estonian."

I'm pretty sure Just Estonians sometimes do it too, especially the younger generation ;)

Great article though, I have no idea what you do but it should be related with writing or atleast journalism, otherwise you're wasting some talent there.

Anonüümne ütles ...

PS: Estonians aren't much of a pub-going nation imo. They rather go to somebody's yard or to the basement of somebody's house (preferrably equipped with sauna and entertainment) and get drunk there :P

Giustino ütles ...

I'm pretty sure Just Estonians sometimes do it too, especially the younger generation ;)

That's just an anecdote. We were in Viljandi and these young guys with the top buttons of their shirts open (exposing their hairy chests) and with mustaches got on and, God forbid, began talking and drinking beer.

It must have been 11.30 am. I was thinking 1) who drinks beer at 11.30? 2) what 27 year old guy has a mustache? 3) what's with the 1970s get up?

Then I heard the "da"s and the "davoy"s and it suddenly made sense. But that's also a Viljandi/country thing too. You wouldn't see these characters on a bus in Tallinn.

Anonüümne ütles ...

This is certainly not any scientific certainty but, I think that the crux of the matter is an attitude. There are propably people that after three generations abroad are still going to be hyphenated. They stick to the culture of an old country with all the trimmings and thus send a strong signal not being like you. Another hand those of whom show enthusiasm about a new country by eagerly adapting to the language, way of life etc. might be able to loose hyphenation in a relatively short period of time. One shouldn't forget that, even within a country, regional differences play huge difference in acceptance.

Giustino ütles ...

Well, it's a weird situation. Roughly 30 percent of Estonia's residents report some other ethnicity.

But I mean, if you speak Estonian, and live in Estonia, and have an Estonian passport - are you really "Russian" or "Polish" or whatever?

You are certainly of that background, but you also have an Estonian identity. However, you might feel 'different' because the non-mixed Estonian community treats you differently.

They might still consider you a Russian, even if you had never even visited the country of your grandparents or parents.

Anonüümne ütles ...

"They might still consider you Russian, even if you had never even visited the country of your granparents or parents".

This to me is so sad and totally wrong. It's kind of depressing to think that we haven't advanced in our evolutionary path any farther than this primitive tribe mentality.

Giustino ütles ...

This to me is so sad and totally wrong. It's kind of depressing to think that we haven't advanced in our evolutionary path any farther than this primitive tribe mentality.

Well, Finns have a minority in their country - the Swedes. Are they considered "just Finnish" or will they always be "Finland Swedes"???

Anonüümne ütles ...

For what ever reason, propably an half of my "friends" are Swedish first speakers, and I was once even married to one. I can assure you that, what ever animosities there still might be, they are certainly not based on racial issues (both of us being undistinquishable) but on an old preception that a Swedish speaker got an unjustified economical clout. This might have been a good point a long time ago but today hyphenation is based solely on the Swedish speaking minority's desire to havit so. Never the less, they are as much Finns as this bear-trapper is.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Finns have more than one linguistic minority. The Swedish identity is important to the Finland Swedes, the Roma identity is important to the Roma and the Sámi identity is important to the Sámi. The Finnish and Swedish sign languages are also linguistic minorities of a sort, although they of course are subgroups of Finnish and Swedish speakers as well.

There is no need for a Swedish-speaker to become an ethnic Finn, since Finland is constitutionally a bilingual country. From that point of view both Finnish and Swedish speakers are part of the population that have majority rights, whereas the Sámi and Roma speakers are in a minority position.

Russian speakers in Estonia will always be a minority in a unilingual country, whereas the Swedish speakers in Finland live a bilingual country. Without a doubt the Finland-Swedish minority is so small that there are practical minority issues.

Another thing is that all the more of the Swedish-speakers in Finland have a bilingual identity. Which language school do you attend is a crucial deciding factor in which group you belong to, but the frequent bilingualism in the individual level decreases the confrontational aspect in the Finnish vs. Swedish situation.

Giustino ütles ...

A friend of mine believes that whenever nations mix, they produce beautiful offspring (his wife is half Estonian half Ukrainian).

I would guess that this could be correct - stronger, more diverse genes etc.

What do you think?

Anonüümne ütles ...

Giustino, prove it by posting pictures of you offsprings! :)

Jens-Olaf ütles ...

Few weekends ago there was a big festivity celebrating the New Hansa. Every year in another city. Now it was in Osnabrück. In my German hometown there were young representatives from Narva. Most of them Russian speaking. They presented Narva as an Estonian city. The Narva people were just proud about their city and didn't talk about Russia at all. The other side of the Narva river is the other side. Even for them.

Giustino ütles ...

I may be out of my league here, but a century ago, St. Petersburg - the Russian city closest to Narva - was a major intellectual center.

Yet today, I would assume that most of what defines Russia is coming out of Moscow, not St. Petersburg. St Petes is more of a museum than the place to be.

And it's a LONG journey from Narva to Moscow.

Anonüümne ütles ...

St. Petersburg is Putin's home town. That area has a special meaning for today's leadership in Moscow just like Texas is special for the folks in the White House.

There used to be a very strong Moscow vs. St. Petersburg rivality. Having a guy from St. Petersburg wielding huge power in Moscow somehow makes that city rivalry milder.

We Europeans love museums. So if a city looks like a well-kept museum, it means its status is going up, not down, among the political movers and shakers.

How you relate to museums and how they are appreciated might be a key difference in mentality between Europeans and Americans.

Giustino ütles ...

How you relate to museums and how they are appreciated might be a key difference in mentality between Europeans and Americans.

Do kids growing up in Narva look forward to getting their education in St. Petersburg or Tartu, Turku, and Stockholm?

Anonüümne ütles ...

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