Saburi Ken: 66 impressions of Estonia

Saburi Ken, a Singaporean student who graduated from the University of Tartu, shares his thoughts, impressions and opinions of Estonia and its people.

My thoughts are not systematically written nor ranked in any significant order. They’re random at best. They include the good, the bad and the awkward. I don’t want to be biased and try to view things as they are. I believe I am the first Southeast Asian and Singaporean writing his impressions of Estonia, thus it should be a little more refreshing than reading the occasional ones written by Americans and other Europeans.

Here we go, my sixty-four impressions of Estonia:

1. Potato haven.
2. Forests everywhere!
3. All of the trees look like Christmas trees to me.

By Sven Zacek

4. The clouds seem to be closer to the ground compared with Singapore.
5. Low-rise buildings.
6. Visible stars.
7. Sparsely distributed buildings.
8. The number of lakes is too damn high.


9. Old towns, castles and everything medieval rocks!
10. Favourite museum: Saaremaa museum. It’s a museum in a castle!
11. Favourite city: Kuressaare, Saaremaa.

Kuressaare Castle

12. Favourite drink: kefir (buttermilk) with kama (an Estonian cereal).
13. Favourite food: mashed potatoes with grilled herbal sausages.
14. Favourite song: It’s a tie between Metsatöll – Küü and Metsatöll – Külmking.
15. Estonians’ poker faces are legendary. Simply void of any emotions.
16. Huge respect and admiration for Estonian drivers respecting zebra crossings.
17. Estonians are tall.
18. Estonian ladies do walk fast, like really fast. I’m from the country of the world’s fastest walkers so I think my words hold some validity.
19. Estonians are really physically strong people.

Suur Tõll by Lembit Michelson

20. Estonian women are strong as hell. I’ve seen Estonian women lifting 10-15kg of goods without any problems.
21. The locals look at me in funny and curious ways.
22. The older generation is more impressed, compared with the younger people, when a foreigner tries to speak Estonian.
23. I’ve done cultural sharing presentations in several middle and high schools, and I respect the teachers for being so friendly.
24. Making friends with an Estonian 101: share a similar interest. As for me, mine would be metal music.
25. The Estonian dark humour is hilarious. Watch clip 1 (self-explanatory with English subtitles) and clip 2 (a wife asking her husband to pass the bread, but it sounds like seppuku…)
26. If you can’t get an Estonian to talk, buy him or her a drink. Alcohol always works.

27. The Estonian word “sama” also means “same” in the Malay language.
28. The Estonian label “mats” is quite similar to how we label the Malay-ethnic individuals of similar characteristics in Singapore.
29. It is true that quality friendship with an Estonian remains forever.
30. Living with people from Põlva for a semester is really fun.
31. Time passes slower in Estonia.


32. Quiet and tranquil.
33. I like the practice of taking off your shoes at the doorstep. Similar practice back home.
34. A few companies enforce the “take-off-your-shoes” practice, which is great.
35. I literally believed in the hype of Estonia being an e-country. I thought I would have wi-fi in the most isolated and darkest corner of the forest. Feeling cheated.
36. I didn’t know that you have to pay for plastic bags in supermarkets in the beginning (in Singapore, they’re free).
37. Supermarkets have implemented a brilliant initiative: when an item is reaching its expiry date, it will be offered at a discounted price. Brilliant!
38. When I got a little better in Estonian, I was scared off by the patriotic lyrics in one of the laulupidu (song festival) I’ve attended. We don’t have very patriotic songs in Singapore or at least songs that are laced with that level of patriotism/nationalism, but hey, the history and circumstances that brought Estonia to its independence are very different.

Song Festival Grounds I

39. Quite a number of locals thought Singapore is in China.
40. Heating and electricity costs are darn expensive.
41. McDonald’s restaurants are ridiculously more expensive in relative terms when compared with Singapore.
42. I initially thought Estonians are really rich judging by the number of German cars on the road, then I discovered that cars are a way cheaper due to geographical and EU taxation reasons. (For example: The approximate cost of the cheapest first-hand Audi A6 is €165,000, excluding road tax (about €50,000) in Singapore.)
43. I personally think the natural potato hair colour is beautiful.
44. If you want to get a reaction from Estonians, tell them sauna sucks. *At your own risk.*

Sauna Marathon VII

45. People don’t say “excuse me” when trying to squeeze or glide their way through a crowded area, they just bulldoze their way through bumping and pushing everyone in their way. It’s more amazing when the ladies literally use their boobs to push you away. Surreal.
46. The Estonian language has no gender and future tense.
47. Say anything remotely related to the past occupations of Estonia and Estonians will drown you with the misery and remorse the people have suffered.

Estonian War of Independence map

48. However, if you have a close Estonian friend and mention the above topic, they will respond along with their black humour gusto, “There’s a reason why we don’t look like inbreds and why we are good-looking people.”
49. Estonian policemen/policewomen look badass!

Nadežda and Arno from Estonian Police

50. Waitresses do not smile and instead of politely asking for your orders, they order you to make your orders. Generally speaking.
51. Online voting is quite awesome.
52. Estonia is one of the least religious countries in the world, which is great, in my humble opinion.
53. Estonians are pretty hardcore. Just look at kiiking, their extreme swings!
54. Kohuke is the best treat for me.


55. I still chuckle whenever I pass the cake section at a supermarket. Cake is “kook” in Estonian.
56. Seriously, everybody knows everybody in Estonia.
57. I’ve heard a friend’s friend who discovered his crush is his cousin at a relative’s funeral/wedding (can’t remember which event was it.)
58. Estonians are multi-lingual individuals. It’s quite easy to find people who can speak at least three languages.
59. Eurovision is horrible, but somehow, it’s the perfect excuse to gather your friends for a drinking game.
60. I don’t get the tanning craze at all.
61. More Estonians should pick up fencing. With their recent accomplishments on the international stage and Estonians being one of the tallest people in the world, it’s the best sport for them.
62. I didn’t like must leib (rye bread) in the beginning, but it grew on me.
63. Don’t get the obsession of trying to be considered a Nordic country. Estonia can be cool and great just by being itself. No need for labels to determine your qualities.
64. If Estonian men were to take a little more care and attention to themselves, lay off the booze once in a while, and smile a little more, they would actually be quite good-looking men. (Intelligence gathering from foreign girls.) Eesti mehed, kuulake!

Johann Urb I

65. Estonians and Singaporeans have the same “scream” when they accidentally hit themselves against an object. Estonians will scream, “Aiaa” (you have to read it in Estonian). Singaporeans scream, “Aiyaaa”. It’s basically pronounced the same way.
66. I speculate Estonians are shape-shifting hedgehogs. They aren’t humans, they are hedgehogs!

As a final note, Estonians should love one another even more, to work together as a country and not as individuals. This country is bound for greatness when the people accept one another regardless of race and ethnic backgrounds, stop judging, tone down that all-about-me-and-myself-individualism and come together as a united country.

Reason for my optimism? When tiny Singapore said it will be a developed multicultural nation right after gaining independence in 1965, everybody laughed and dismissively said that we will always be a fishing village south of Malaysia. If Singapore can do it, I believe Estonia can reach great heights in 25 years with the right mind set, systems, guidance and love. You guys can do it!


Read also: 

Ten things Estonia needs to do to attract all the international talent

100 ways to know that you are from Estonia

This article is an amended and enhanced version of the original article, which was published on University of Tartu’s International Student Ambassadors websiteCover: A hedgehog. 

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About the author: Saburi Ken

Saburi Ken is currently rocking out with an awesome team in Funderbeam as a part-time researcher. Originally from Singapore, he graduated from the University of Tartu where he studied business administration.

  • Ammar

    Some stereotypes are true. 3 years on you surely have explored and lived on the Estonian experience.

  • Laura Kivimägi

    Hilarious and true!! Estonians need to love each other more!

    • Egert

      I love you! =D

  • Great read. Some points were really eye opening as I haven’t thought about them through the eyes of South-east Asian.

  • K.

    True story 🙂

  • Stephen Morley

    Seems in Tallinn if you own a expensive German car the general rules for parking correctly, stopping on amber/red traffic lights and marked speed restrictions don’t apply to the driver, it’s meant only for the people with cheaper cars.

  • lyellepalmer

    Lifelong friends indeed! Staying in touch and exulting over independence and opportunities. The underlying sadness exists in regard to those victims (family members and friends) who endured persecution and didn’t make it to this promised land. Estonians have a right to celebrate on behalf of all of those who are no longer with us but who had dreams that are now fulfilled–“someday” happens, so celebrate!

  • Rainer Lipand

    Respect man – most of the impressions were spot-on. Great collections 😉

  • Raido Zopp

    Was great to have you in our school and on top of that you like Metsatöll aswell…
    Thats awesome list!! 🙂

  • :)

    *bows* ‘täh!

  • Toomas Vaher

    Väga vahvad tähelepanekud! Tänud. /kummardab

  • Inna Viital

    Hi. Living west way overseas myself, and being fed up of seeing the snobbish,
    patronising attitude and ‘common opinion’ about Estonia…, I was
    impressed by your almost-spot-on observation, shall I say, in a short
    period of time. Thank you for your message, it will be appreciated.
    All the best!

  • Röövel Ööbik

    jejee…no need for an other Singapore … Culture is not a plain text in the books, Culture is a historically proven way of life in particular region in The World…person from Singapore must know this.. as a member of ancient nation as well…

  • Airika

    So true but about 36. I didn’t know that you have to pay for plastic bags in supermarkets in the beginning (in Singapore, they’re free). – They´re free in Estonia too. I´ve never been in a shop where I should pay for them.

    • Karolin

      Mm for an example, every time you get a new bag in Selver it costs you 10 cents. It’s my home supermarket but pretty sure Rimi and Prisma etc have the same policy and have had at least for 10 years.

      • Airika

        Yeah. Big shopping bag costs some cents but sorry Maybe my bad but I did understand that he meant those tiny plastic bags where you can but fruits and stuff in.

  • Albert Hansa

    Well done for a young lad and a foreigner! Finally someone put our “best” qualities in one pot:)

  • Eeli-Ethel Polli

    Very funny :), I got a good laugh for reading this 🙂

  • Dmitri

    Great article! Sorry to bring some criticism, but there are couple of points I disagree with: individualism is a distinctive trait of western societies and such societies appear to be the most prosperous in the world, so I don’t think your advise for Estonians to become more “communal” as in Eastern societies is a good one. Also, I don’t think that individualism in Estonia is at any extreme level that it has any negative effects on the well-being of the nation. In my opinion Estonians are on the right track and they have built very good society. It’s even more praised given its long history of being occupied my Eastern “communal” society.

  • Tuuli Reinsoo

    you forgot about our short summer, but I guess you blinked.

  • sooooo true and well pointed out. Aitäh Saburi Ken!

  • Lauren Harvard

    n°67= (my personal adding) Estonians don’t change a thing. Love from France! 🙂

  • Tuule Iil

    Nice :p Try to listen Loits, Ulguränd, Tapper, Urt or Zorg, they’re also really nice metalbands 🙂

  • Fantastic! And this is also my experience:
    “Seriously, everybody knows everybody in Estonia.”

  • Piret

    “Singapore is a mutlicultural society”? Come off it -just as many ethnic tensions there as anywhere. Plus if your relatives had been dragged off to Siberia to starve and die there (even at the age of 18 months) I think you’d be more than just “unhappy” with those people still being around you & behaving as if nothing had mattered in the past.