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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