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

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?

Estonian and 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.

An illustration of Kalevipoeg by Jaan Tammsaar.

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.

Järvemetsa Estonian summer camp in the US. Photo by Kadri Sepp.

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”.

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

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

  1. 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.

  2. Long live ESTONIA, being born in tallinn and having fled the country
    as a refugee to escape u.s.s.r. in 1987 we headed to what was then known
    as “THE LAND OF THE AMERICAN DREAM’ no one expected that you had to
    be asleep to believe it, this so called land of opportunity…. I guess
    its was solely my choice which one to take, cause i went with the cool
    kids hence leaving behind a typical bad paper trail before i realized
    how bad i screwed up, needless to say i feel worse for my grandma who
    in response to our relatives back in estonia bragging about how great
    soo and soo was doing had nothing nice to share about her grandkids,, i
    blame all this freedom we have here in the US and all the sex drugs and
    rock and roll only fueled the inferno of oppositional defiance of my
    fellow youth and myself. My grandma says that if we had stayed there my
    life would be completely different… i dont know for sure myself..but
    given im here now and older and definitely wiser i cant help but wonder
    if i could ever go back and start on a new clean slate to serve my
    purpose in this lifetime like i really wish i could have..after all we
    left to escape the communist regime and i never did get my citizenship
    for america. can i ever truly be estonian again ???
    p.s. we also own several acres of land including an entire island not far from hiiumma…

  3. EatYourVeggies

    My grandparents came to NYC from Tallinn. I would love to find any distant relatives over there. Is it a difficult process to track down relatives over there? I don’t speak Estonian either, do many people in Estonia speak English? Any comments would be appreciated!

    1. Most people speak English here in Estonia. To track relatives is very easy. Most families have done their family trees in Geni.com.
      How is this possible you don’t know any relatives in Estonia? Your grandparents haven’t had any communication?
      I can help you to find relatives. You can contact me in facebook. Sirje Ma

  4. Yes indeed. Then comes the conversation of what makes a “real” Estonian. Being on the yank part of Estonian, we never knew communism. Our grandparents and parents worked tough jobs as immigrants and had a world class work hard/party hard life.
    Then when in modern Estonia, you know what a past generation knew. Your Estonian sounds like their great grand parents. Kind of like you are a time traveller.
    I hold nothing against the born and raised Estonians,
    EXCEPT..modern Finns and Estos, what have you done to the perfect food?!?! Pirukad do not, nor should they have rice in them! Heck, even in the US rice wasnt popular until the 70s. And no, meat pirukas is not Russian..its the original.

  5. Your Country Receives Great Reviews In The American Press, of late.
    Our country would benefit from a little emigration from yours! We’re glad you joined NATO; We’re hopeful Mr Putin won’t be dreaming of annexing The Baltic states! All The Best from Syracuse…oh, I just remembered my question: Are the non-Lutherens “Eastern Orthodox”, or do they follow the Pope?

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