“So, are you Estonian or American?” On heritage, nationality and grammatical conjunctions

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Hyphenated Americans exist in many combinations. This article explores how an Estonian-American identifies himself.

The year was 1994. The setting was the Hell Hunt pub in the Old Town section of Tallinn. The beer in my hand was a varietal of Saku. The hour was late.

This was my first visit to Estonia – a young man born in the United States to Estonian refugee parents – and I was having a pleasant conversation with a couple of locals. After chatting about life in the United States vis-à-vis life in Estonia, my familial connections to Estonia and the Song Festival that was beginning in a few days, I was asked a question that caught me somewhat off guard: “So, are you Estonian or American?”

I don’t remember my exact answer, but it had something to do with being firmly attached to my heritage and yet proud to be a citizen within the framework of the US Constitution, despite our faults. I don’t remember the exact response, but it had something to do with making sure I honour my ancestry, despite the distance between the two shores.

Although many years have lapsed, every so often and to this day, I hear the question as if I was still sitting in that crowded and dimly lit cellar pub. I hear the question and I’m taken back to my roots in a faraway land. I hear the question and I fixate on the “or” ultimatum – do I consider myself Estonian or American?

I ponder it some more. And I realise, the grammatical conjunction is all wrong. This really isn’t a case of either/or. I am Estonian and American. American and Estonian.

I am Estonian because that’s where my parents were born. I am American because that’s where I was born.

I am Estonian because I can correctly pronounce the tilde straddled double vowel in õun. I am American because my predominant tongue is deprived of amusing vowels crowned with squiggly accent marks.

I am Estonian because my passions tell me so. I am American because my loyalties tell me so.

I am Estonian because I know the legend of Kalevipoeg. I am American because I unfortunately know the legend of the sisters Kardashian.

I am Estonian because I am proud of my heritage. I am American because I am proud to live in a nation drawing from so many heritages.

I am Estonian because I can dance the Kaerajaan. I am American because I can dance the Macarena. (Ok, you got me, I can hardly do either.)

I am Estonian because I can speak an odd yet beautiful finno-ugric language. I am American because I can hear many odd yet beautiful languages as I walk down the streets of New York City.

I am Estonian because I know 19 different ways to prepare a potato. I am American because I know 19 different ways to prepare a bacon cheeseburger.

I am Estonian because I fly the blue, black and white flag. I am American because I fly the Stars and Stripes above any other flag on the pole.

I am Estonian because I know where to find Lake Peipus. I am American because I like Pepsi and steak.

I am Estonian because I have contemplated carrying my wife across an obstacle course in hopes of winning a year’s supply of beer. I am American because a year’s supply of beer sure sounds good, even if I have to carry my wife across an obstacle course.

I am Estonian because I have an Estonian name. I am American because nobody has an American name.

So if you ask me that same question again today – are you Estonian or American? – my answer would simply be “yes”.

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Cover photo: Estonian Americans celebrating Estonian Independence Day at the Lakewood Estonian House, New Jersey/By Liisa-Mai Karuks for the Lakewood Estonian House.

About the author: Andres Simonson

Andres is first generation American of Estonian descent. An enthusiastic Estophile, he is an environmental consultant holding a Bachelor's degree in Environmental Science and a Masters of City and Regional Planning, concentrating in environmental planning. He resides in Red Bank, New Jersey with his loving wife and three darling daughters.

  • Ulla Wolfslayer

    proud to be estoinan from my parents but born in Germany and live in USA

  • Lisa King

    As Another Estonian AND American, I loved this!

  • Merike Saarniit

    YES! – JA!

  • David Martin

    My paternal grandfather was born in Parnu, Estonia when it was still part of the Russian Empire. His name was Martinson and he was a ship’s carpenter who sailed on ocean liners in the Atlantic.

    I recently had my DNA analyzed on 23andme and met an Estonian DNA 3-5 cousin. We have tried to discover an ancestral connection, but have not been successful; family trees expand exponentially.
    Since then I have been trying to learn as much as I can about this corner of my heritage (which also includes grandparents from Belgium, Germany and Poland). Perhaps there is still time to visit.