Life on two planets

Have you ever felt as if you inhabited two vastly different planets at the same time?

That’s about what it felt like growing up in two separate cultures, speaking two languages, playing by two sets of rules.

The Estonian part of my childhood involved automatically demonstrating great respect to anyone older than me, making a slight curtsey when I was introduced to an older person, recognizing that teachers and older people were always right, and so on.  I was to call all adults Mr. or Mrs. (Härra and Proua), or Aunt or Uncle (Tädi and Onu) if they were family friends, even if they were not related to us. I was pretty good at that stuff, Little Miss Polite herself.

But I had to keep all this excruciating politeness a dark secret from my American classmates, who would have laughed until they were sick. The day someone in the school cafeteria told me I ate like a chipmunk, I realized it was time to develop a façade of slobbiness in order to fit in. I put my elbows in the table and struggled to chew with my mouth open, even though, somewhere, Miss Manners wept.

My finest moment as Miss Polite came when I accepted my high school diploma and, shaking hands with the superintendent of schools, automatically curtsied, unable to stop myself. I still hope nobody noticed.

You will be assimilated

I’ve often thought of myself as too Americanized to be very Estonian, but at the same time loaded with too many peculiarities marking me as the child of Estonian immigrants to be a normal, average American. I’m sure there are many of us who have felt this way, just as immigrants’ children from many nations feel divided between cultures. In some cases, partially Americanized kids are required by their parents to wear special clothing in school, visibly indicating that they are different. Some are barred from dating or speaking with the opposite sex. Some must study hard at all costs to escape getting beaten at home for bringing home a B on the report card.

Luckily, Estonian-American kids didn’t have to face the hurdle of ethnic clothing, except for my little misadventure with stumpy shoes. We also don’t look different physically from average Caucasian Americans, except that some of us are a bit blonder.  In those respects we’ve been able to assimilate into American life much more easily than immigrants of other races and skin hues.

At the same time, there are rarely more than a couple of Estonian-American kids attending the same public school, because there simply aren’t that many of us. I was the only one in my school, except for my younger brother and briefly a girl his age who was half Estonian. She went to a different high school. It would have been lovely if there had been a few more of us, just to spread the weirdness around a little.

It was not easy explaining to my few close friends that I spent hours every other Saturday at Estonian school in Paterson. Or that we spoke a different language at home.  Or that I couldn’t join Brownies or Junior Girl Scouts, because I was an Estonian Girl Guide with a blue uniform and a white neckerchief. I so envied the normal American girls who wore their brown or green scout uniforms to school one day a week.

My secret identity

I had two lives, my public striving-to-act-American one, and my secret Estonian one. The differences became harder to balance as I got into my teens. In public school, I was an incredibly shy goody-goody nerd.

In my secret life as an Estonian girl, I was kissing boys at summer camp by age 9 or 10, expanding my vocabulary of cuss words, sampling cigarettes, and getting sips of beer from the older kids. At age 14, in 1966, I was going to New York City alone, riding the subways to Greenwich Village in a fruitless effort to see real hippies, or otherwise exploring the city. By then I was hanging out with a group of Esto friends, drinking beer at a bar near the Estonian House that didn’t card us. In New Jersey, the legal drinking age was 21, 18 in New York. I doubt my American classmates were doing this sort of stuff yet.

In high school I starved all week, eating nothing but a bag of Fritos and an orange for lunch every day, in order to save bus fare for Friday-nighters at the Estonian House. There we practiced folk dancing, mingled and had fun.

On Monday mornings I, SuperEstoGirl, put on my disguise as a mild-mannered loser who never got asked to parties or dances, and slunk back to high school for another boring week. I kept my Estonian life strictly separate, because I didn’t want to get a reputation as a wild partier, even though I was about average for an Esto kid in the 1960s.

How many other children of immigrants possess secret identities, struggling to appear as normal as possible in school, while keeping their families happy by dressing and behaving according to their ethnic traditions? For some kids the challenges are far more difficult than they were for me. We’ve all read about parents who punish or even kill daughters for stepping outside their cultural boundaries. This is horrifying. If parents are so hell-bent on keeping their children insulated from American life, why come here in the first place?

If one brings a family here so the kids can attend American public schools, one can’t expect those children to remain permanently immune to outside influences. I’m not saying that American culture is without flaws; there are plenty of things I’d like to see changed here if I could wave a magic wand. I’d love to see less violent television and movies, fewer video games, less material spoiling of children. And I wish there was a serious nationwide effort to eliminate the vicious bullying that too often makes school a nightmare for some kids. I’ve been there.

Victim of ignorance

Perhaps my worst experience as an immigrants’ child was in third grade. My mother came to a parent-teacher conference, during which she attempted to explain to the ignorant old bat who taught our class that we were Estonians. For some reason the teacher concluded that we were Russians, even though my mother tried patiently to explain that we were not. But to the teacher, Estonia was part of the Soviet Union, therefore we were Russians and godless Communists, and therefore Enemies of America.

From then on, that horrible hag singled me out and picked on me every way she could. She looked hard for ways to criticize me. I remember one day she asked the class to name all the root vegetables. I raised my hand, was called on, and said “Parsnip.”  She loudly told me there was no such thing, that I meant parsley, and she implied that I was very stupid. When I tried to write a poem about a bird, she loudly criticized it in front of the class (which backfired on her because it made me determined to write poetry. Ultimately I ended up giving poetry readings in college, getting a few things published in tiny literary magazines at college, and selling two poems to Cosmopolitan magazine years ago. So there, Miss M.)

The rotten teacher made me the class scapegoat, and the following year she  kicked me out of the school harmonica band on a pretext, in front of all the other kids. Her treatment led to my getting picked on by the meaner kids in the school, and this bullying lasted all the way to my senior year in high school. There were times I considered suicide because of it, but I was determined not to give my tormentors the satisfaction. The bullying was not related to my secret life as an Estonian, even though it started with the fact of being Estonian. Heaven help me if my schoolmates had ever found out about that.

I was never allowed to fight or talk back, because I was supposed to be Miss Polite Little Estonian, and when I wept about it to my mother, she told me that they were just jealous because I was smart. Hold your head up high and rise above it, she said. Not good advice. She or my dad should have shown me how to talk back and encouraged me to make fun of them on the playground. But that solution would not have been acceptable to my parents, nor would it have occurred to them. Good Esto kids did NOT talk back to anyone, ever.

Instead, I grew up wary and distrustful of people, even among my Esto peers. When one of the most attractive boys in high school asked me out, I refused, because I was sure he was doing it to make fun of me, and that if I said yes, others around me would burst out laughing. It didn’t enter my head that as a relative newcomer to town, he didn’t know about my history as a scapegoat, and just wanted to ask me on a date. (Sorry, Peter S. )

How many of you, dear readers, have stories or anecdotes about your life on two different ethnic planets? If you’d like to share them, leave a comment and I’ll get in touch with you.

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Struggling to turn American

I dreaded my mother’s visits to our school.

Normal American moms were a common sight at Pines Lake Elementary School. They came for teacher conferences and volunteered in classrooms back in the day when the majority of moms didn’t go to work.

Much as I loved Mama, around 4th or 5th grade I grew deeply embarrassed by her clothes, which positively screamed “I am an immigrant from someplace weird,  and not your normal American mom.”

That headscarf she wore, for example. She called it a babushka, the Russian word for grandmother.  It was a big square cotton scarf, folded in half diagonally, the ends tied under her chin, and the other corner resting  on her back.  You know, the Eastern European peasant look. Mama wore scarves outdoors most of the time, except in summer. I didn’t know anybody else at school whose mother wore a scarf like that.

The scarf wouldn’t have stuck out too much in Paterson, the nearby city where we lived until I was in first grade. Our old neighborhood was full of women who were recent immigrants. I remember seeing them hang  laundry and  converse over backyard fences in other languages, probably German, Dutch or Polish.  Our landlord, who lived upstairs from us, was Polish.  My mother fit in fairly well there, since she was fluent in German and knew some Polish, but my family moved to the suburbs for better schools and a bit of yard around the house.

Stumpy shoes with laces

In addition to the scarf, Mother always wore a dress or a dark skirt and a pullover, with  Hush Puppies shoes on her feet.  Usually she sewed the skirts herself. I never saw her in slacks until I was in college. Outside the house, she often wore stumpy leather shoes that laced up the front, with thick heels like the ones worn by nuns and old ladies.

Worse yet, she insisted that I wear similar stumpy shoes that laced up the front, only mine had a lower heel. She found them in some unimaginable shoe  store that seemed to specialize in ugly footwear. The shoes she picked out for me were, she said, of  good quality, good for my feet,  and would last a long time. (She was right about that last part, as I’ll explain.)

Normal American girls at school wore black patent maryjane shoes, penny loafers or something along those lines. Maybe kids somewhere in Estonia wore stumpy shoes that laced, but I attended school in Wayne, New Jersey, less than 20 miles from New York City, and I would almost rather have died than be seen wearing those shoes in public.

I was bullied and scapegoated at school, and knew for certain that wearing those shoes would make me even more of a target for mockery.  For the first time in my life, I objected to an order from my mother.

Wear them or else

The way my brother and I were raised, an Estonian kid didn’t ever argue back to parents or elders. Mother had no idea how much I suffered in school, nor did I dare tell her. She would have tied on her headscarf and marched to the school principal to complain, like she did when I was in third grade.  And later I would have felt repercussions from the other kids.

My mom’s response to my objections was “too bad” or whatever the equivalent Estonian phrase was.  She pointed out again that the shoes were expensive and of good  quality, so I had to wear them.

At this point, I felt I had little choice: wear the dratted shoes and be jeered at by classmates, or get sneaky. I got sneaky.

Every school morning in fifth grade I clomped out of the house in stumpy shoes, down the path through the woods to school. Once I was out of my mother’s sight, I put down the horrible big briefcase she forced me to carry, and took out a pair of tan canvas Kedettes, a slightly dressier version of Keds sneakers that she let me wear in the summer. I changed shoes in the woods every day, reversing the process  going home. It was not possible for me to petition for shoes like the other girls wore. We didn’t have the money, and that was that.

After a summer of blessed release from the obligation of wearing stumpy shoes, I started sixth grade, and somehow was allowed to acquire a pair of loafers. I wore them to school constantly. Mama complained that I never wore those nice, good quality stumpy shoes any more, even though they looked practically as good as new — as though they had never been worn!  I quietly said they were ugly and out of style. Unfortunately they still fit me, because I didn’t grow much.

Lime green stumpy shoes

Mom’s response was to buy a bottle of shoe dye in a particularly noxious shade of lime green, and paint the shoes to jazz them up. Now they looked more modern, and I could wear them in style, she said,  flourishing them in front of my horrified eyes.

Back I went to subtle resistance, smuggling loafers out of the house and switching shoes on the way to school. If life was tough in elementary school, it was nothing compared to the adolescent hormone hell of junior high school.

Around that time my mother started suffering intense back pain and headaches, thought to be arthritis. In consequence, she stopped supervising our before-school routine. Ever the opportunist, I ditched the Green Horrors in the closet, and wore my loafers every day.

I used to nurture a secret grudge against a pair of much-older second cousins, Inge and Olga,  who lived in a nearby town, because their mother gave me their hand-me-down clothes. Not only were the clothes at least eight years out of style, but some of them looked downright  awful to me. I particularly loathed a dark green plaid dress that  was too big for me and featured a small rhinestone poodle on a white collar. Then there were dirndl dresses.

How to look like a yodeling contestant

Dirndls, which are worn in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, have a white blouse with a wide neckline and puffy short sleeves, with a wideish black cummerbund sort of thing and a colorful skirt trimmed with rick-rack ribbon in contrasting colors. When I wore one, I looked like I was headed to a yodeling competition, definitely not like the Normal American Kid I yearned to be.  Those dirndls were meant for kids of average size, but I was small and skinny so they hung on me like flour sacks. Mother and Aunt Hilda thought I looked adorable in them, naturally.

Once Mother became ill, I was no longer forced to wear the poodle dress or the dratted dirndls.  I picked out a few things that seemed  less weird than the others, and made do with those. In 7th grade my classmates wore wraparound skirts, Madras plaid shirts, nylons and black t-strap shoes with pointy toes. In my hand-me-downs I still looked odd, but not quite as odd. Then  I inherited some clothes from my Estonian friend Kati, who was a year older. Her clothes weren’t out of date, to my vast relief.

To be fair, Mama wasn’t any happier among those normal American housewives than I was among their kids.  Most of the neighborhood women had high school diplomas or beauty school certificates, while she was one of the first women to study law at Estonia’s prestigious Tartu University before the war intervened.  Her father had a law degree from the same university, and her grandfather was a professor of theology there.  My mother was cultured, highly intelligent, and spoke four languages fluently. She was bored out of her mind in our community, longing to live in a city where she could visit the opera or ballet, and discourse with other educated people.

There were a couple of German neighbors she befriended gratefully, and she had Estonian friends who lived in other towns. However my father wouldn’t allow her to learn to drive, so the only times she got out of the house were for the weekly grocery trip on Saturdays, or accompanying us to Estonian school and church, rarely to visit friends.  Mama could have been one of the first female lawyers in Estonia, but she was stuck, carless, in suburbia. I’m sure this played a part in the deep depression she endured until  her death in 1975, when she was 54 and I was 23.

Trying to keep us Estonian

I understand now why she made me dress like an Estonian school kid, and why she forced me to bring the teacher a bouquet of flowers from the garden on the first day of school every year, like kids did in Estonia.  She wanted to keep me as Estonian as possible, in case Estonia regained its freedom from the Soviet Union and we could go home.  But my parents didn’t realize that the Estonia they left during the war no longer existed. Estonia changed with the times too.

Immigrant parents the world over want to teach their children their old ways, just in case they someday can go home. And like me, first-generation kids born in the new country get caught trying to balance between two worlds — their parents’ old world, and the contemporary world around them. It’s a struggle for everyone involved.  Especially if your family’s from a tiny country practically nobody ever heard of, and there aren’t other kids like you so you can stick together.

Women don’t drive cars – or do they?

The Old World-New World struggles in my family weren’t limited to clothes. I was never allowed to speak English at home until I went to college.  Worse, my father refused to let me learn to drive, because women weren’t supposed to drive cars. I got a boyfriend to teach me secretly and take me to get my license. Even though my father found out, there was nothing he could do about it after the fact. I’d become an expert at sneakiness with those ghastly green shoes.   Sneakiness to some, self-preservation to others.

I wasn’t supposed to go to college because there wasn’t enough money, and males went before females. I was supposed to live at home and work at some retail job while my younger brother went to college, only it didn’t work out that way. My  grades were good enough to earn me a full scholarship to Northeastern University, and a partial scholarship to American University. My father, however, wanted me to attend Paterson State Teachers College  (now called William Paterson University) because it was cheap, and because I could walk there from our house. This way he could save the cost of room and board, and avoid buying me a used car. Since my second cousins went there and became teachers, Paterson State was considered acceptable.

The application to Paterson State mysteriously disappeared into my school locker  and wasn’t unearthed until the application deadline had passed. Oops, I said innocently.

In addition to the scholarships, I was accepted at the new Livingston College  that was part of Rutgers University. My father grudgingly borrowed the money from my godfather, and I was free at last, free to try to become a normal American college student.

A belated Happy 10226!

It’s the Year 10226 for believers of Maausk, the Estonian native religion.

Obviously I’m a little behindhand in offering greetings, since their New Year began on December 25. We’re already a couple of weeks into the calendar. But what’s a few weeks, compared to more than ten millennia?

For the puzzled, who are doubtless wondering what kooky event this dating system memorializes, the answer is simple: it’s the birth of Estonia. And this is not Estonia as we know it today, a remarkably flat country with many forests. Back then it was a remarkably flat country most likely covered with a lot of mud and dying seaweed.

Billingen Catastrophe

It appears that 10,226 marks the number of years since the land now called Estonia appeared from the receding waters of the Baltic Sea due to what is known as the “Billingen catastrophe.”  This is when the waters of an ancient ice lake, known formally as the late Baltic Glacial Reservoir, penetrated an area near Mt. Billingen in what is now Sweden, to meet the Atlantic Ocean. It drained a heck of a lot of water from the Baltic, leaving behind new coastlines, islands and territories.

This was not a long, slow process. Research into sediment deposits makes it possible to date the event rather precisely. In 8213 BCE (Before Common Era), evidence indicates that water levels in the Baltic sea dropped about 30 meters in a single year, revealing – ta-da! – Estonia. Here is a more technical description of the event.

“The Baltic Sea, with its unique brackish water, is a result of meltwater from the Weichsel glaciation combining with saltwater from the North Sea when the straits between Sweden and Denmark opened. Initially, when the ice began melting about 10,300 ybp, seawater filled the isostatically depressed area, a temporary marine incursion that geologists dub the Yoldia Sea. Then as post-glacial isostatic rebound lifted the region about 9500 ybp, the deepest basin of the Baltic became a freshwater lake, in palaeological contexts referred to as Ancylus lake, which is identifiable in the freshwater fauna found in sediment cores. The lake was filled by glacial runoff, but as worldwide sea level continued rising, saltwater again breached the sill about 8000 ybp, forming a marine Vittoria Sea which was followed by another freshwater phase before the present brackish marine system was established.

“At its present state of development, the marine life of the Baltic Sea is less than about 4000 years old,” Drs Thulin and Andrushaitis remarked when reviewing these sequences in 2003.

“Overlaying ice had exerted pressure on the earth’s surface. As a result of melting ice, the land has continued to rise yearly in Scandinavia, mostly in northern Sweden and Finland where the land is rising at a rate of as much as 8-9 mm per year, or 1 meters in 100 years. This is important for archeologists since a village that was coastal in the Nordic Stone Age now is inland.”

Link to this website is http://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=127303

My note: ybp means years before present (time).

Whew. Got all that? I’m not clear on why they need to create so many different lake names. And the term catastrophe is a presumption, not necessarily a fact.

“This retreat (of the waters) is so sudden, and probably has such a profound effect on the early inhabitants of the Baltic area, that it is known as the Billingen Catastrophe,” says the unnamed author of a History Files website section on Eastern Europe.

Link: http://www.historyfiles.co.uk/KingListsEurope/EasternPrussia.htm

Was it really a catastrophe?

Catastrophe? Are they sure about that? Did they ask anybody who was there? Maybe folks stood there open-mouthed, staring until someone said, “Wow, new beaches! Last one in is a rotten… aieeeee…that’s cold!

Maybe some of those prehistoric hunter-gatherers looked around at all the mess and decided that this brand-new territory would make a dandy new homeland, if only it were cleaned up a smidgen. All the hunters (men) suddenly remembered an urgent appointment with a herd of elk, and took off running as if pursued by demons. This, as usual, left the gatherers (women) to gather up their prehistoric brooms and dustpans, shoo the kids out from underfoot, and begin the massive, unsung struggle to tidy up. That struggle continues, 10226 years later.

Who were those early settlers? I’m not sure if they were the ancestors of the Estonian people or not. The oldest known evidence of human settlement in that part of the world dates back to 9000 BCE, or 11,000 years ago, give or take a few hundred years. So people were living in the region well before the so-called catastrophe. Some authorities claim that those people were of Indo-European origin, reindeer-hunting ancestors of the Prussians, Latvians and Lithuanians who eventually settled parts of the southern and eastern Baltic coast. Others insist that the ancestors of the Finns and Estonians, or possibly the ancestors of the Saami (Lapps) people, were the first inhabitants.

Strange new land

How weird and wonderful to think of people witnessing the then-inexplicable appearance of thousands of kilometers of land in so short a time. It sounds like something from a fairytale. One wonders whether those early witnesses told and retold the story for many generations.

It reminds me of the well-known stories of Atlantis, and the Arthurian tales of the lost land of Lyonesse, which according to legend sank off the Cornish coast of England. One wonders what happened to the lands off the Atlantic Ocean that were affected by that sudden onrush of water from the Baltic region. Did some coastal settlements disappear under the rising water? Was that the basis for the legend of Lyonesse?

At any rate, those Estonians who practice Maausk in the present day have adopted the year of the Billingen event and the subsequent rising of Estonia as the beginning of their chronology. The native believers call this year “the birth of the land.” Estonia, they say, has been inhabited for about 10,000 years. They consider Maarahvas (Earth folk or Earth people) and their religion just as old as the land itself.

Link: http://www.maavald.ee/eng/uudised.html?rubriik=50&id=293&op=lugu

It must be pointed out that my translations of Maausk and Maarahvas as Earth religion and Earth people are not wholly accurate, since the word maa in Estonian has many meanings. Ahto Kaasik, scribe for the Maavalla community, explains it far better than I possibly can, on the Maavald website.

“When Maausulised (followers of Maausk) are told that Maausk is not a religion they generally agree, adding that Maausk is something much more than a religion. Maausk is our vernacular, our songs, our customs, our beliefs, our archetypes and culture. Maausk is thousands of years old, a tradition that binds us to our land,” Kaasik writes.

“To understand Maausk better it is essential to understand that the word maa in Estonian has many meanings and connotations. Maa can mean Earth, mother Earth, ground, land (as opposed to sea), cultivated land, earth (as soil), also country (state), country (as rural, opposed to the city) or finally as a suffix in the name of an Estonian county. But foremost maa denotes the land or country of indigenous Estonians. Thus Estonian’s have called themselves maarahvas, their country Maavald and their traditional nature-worship Maausk.”

Link: http://www.maavald.ee/eng/uudised.html?rubriik=50&id=363&op=lugu

It’s an incredible story, another one of those cool things about Estonia that we never learned in Estonian school. But now you know.

One wonders how many other peoples of the world are able to point directly to a geological event in the far past and say that this was the year when their land was created?