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