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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