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.


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.

The teeth of winter

Whenever there was a gloriously spring-like day in February or March during my childhood, and I sped out to play in short sleeves, my mother grimly followed me, carrying an outer garment and offering her usual warning:

“Suve silmad, talve hambad.” 

Translated, the Estonian words mean: “Eyes of summer, teeth of winter.”

By extension it means that no matter how beautiful and warmly enticing the weather might appear, you can’t trust it. If you run around without a jacket you will catch a chill and eventually get a bad cold or even pneumonia. And then you’ll be sorry.

Oh, how I dreaded hearing those four words. It meant I had to stop whatever I was doing, cease  from enjoying the feel of sunlight and air on my bare arms, and put on a bulky jacket in front of all the kids in the neighborhood. Everyone else was outdoors without jackets or hats, and I felt like an idiot.

As I got older I patiently explained to Mom that the northern climate of Estonia , where she grew up, was nothing like that of New Jersey. It was like talking to a stone.  Pointless.  Sensible people did not run around outdoors without jackets until spring had definitely arrived with a long stretch of reliably warm weather.  In Estonia, the thaws didn’t begin until late April or May.

The day might  smile on you with the lovely eyes of summer, but it could bite  with the ferocious teeth of a winter wolf,  if you didn’t take precautions.

To be fair, Mother was a child in a world without antibiotics or other amenities of modern medicine. Back in those days, catching  a bad cold could be fatal.  She told me she came close to dying from an agonizing middle ear infection when she was very young, maybe 4.  Penicillin was discovered in 1928, when she was eight years old.

Although I don’t remember a time when antibiotic medicines were unavailable, there were other illnesses in my youth that threatened children as well as adults.  In the year I was born,  1952, there were  58,000 new cases of polio reported in the United States. Parents lived in terror of polio, which killed or crippled many victims for life.  In 1955, the introduction of the Salk polio vaccine was the first sign of hope that the virus might be some day be conquered. The Sabin oral polio vaccine, licensed in 1962, offered an even better chance of immunizing children against this dreaded disease.

I barely remember lining up at school to receive doses of oral vaccine on a sugar cube when I was 10 or 11. Three separate  doses were required to provide immunity in 95 percent of those receiving it.  What a tremendous relief that must have been for our parents’ generation.

In those days, kids still ran the risks of catching what were considered the usual childhood diseases, measles, mumps and chickenpox. Smallpox had been virtually eradicated, with the last  outbreak in the U.S. having occurred in Texas in 1949. With measles, you were supposed to stay in a darkened room and not expose the eyes to sunlight. If you had the mumps, you’d be unable to eat pickles until it was over because your throat was so sore.  And chickenpox was miserably itchy.

There was also a milder childhood illness called German measles (Rubella) that reached pandemic levels in the early 1960s in the U.S. and Europe. Because it was known to cause severe birth defects and miscarriages, mothers brought their daughters to visit a child with German measles and drink from the same glass. They hoped the girls would catch the disease and become immune to it, eliminating the risk of catching it years later when they might be pregnant. My mother took me to a neighbor child’s house to catch German measles this way.

Our mothers were thankful when we recovered from measles, mumps, chicken pox and German measles unscathed.  All these diseases carried secondary risks. Measles, chickenpox and German measles could cause serious hearing impairment, and mumps could leave a boy sterile, lead to pancreatitis or meningoencephalitis, or infect a girl’s ovaries.

By the time my kids arrived in the 1980s, there were vaccines for measles, mumps and German measles, usually administered as the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) shot.  However, they didn’t  escape chickenpox, for which a vaccine was not  introduced until the mid-1990s.  They had to take the usual oatmeal baths to relieve  the itching. I remember Hayley  returning to school before her spots faded, in order to be in the second-grade play.  She performed as a leopard in a brown and yellow spotted costume, with real spots on her face and hands.

I have chickenpox on my mind lately, because of the real possibility that the dormant varicella-zoster virus can re-awaken and cause the painful condition called shingles. My husband had a mild case of it last year, and my brother and elderly aunt suffered badly  from it the previous year. In some cases it can be sheer agony. I’m planning to be vaccinated against it in a few weeks when I turn 60.


Turning back to the “Eyes of summer, teeth of winter” proverb, I think I did everything I could to taunt Fate as a teenager, as teenagers are wont to do. We were lucky to live near a lake that froze solid for  three months every winter, and ice skating was a popular wintertime activity. My dad taught me to skate when I was 8 years old. While  not destined to be a great skater due to wobbly ankles, I spent countless hours on the ice.

In junior high school, I raced home to change into skating clothes, grab my skates and walk to the lake almost every winter day. My skating outfit was my mother’s nightmare – a very short skirt, tights, and a heavy knit sweater over a lighter shirt.  It didn’t even faintly resemble  what she considered adequate winter outerwear.

Mother’s idea of proper winter outer garb included a heavy fur or fake-fur coat like you see on Russian women in old pictures. You looked like a cross between a bear and a small mountain in it. You would also wear thick boots, heavy mittens, a fur hat and a wool scarf wound around your neck, partly covering the face.  I wouldn’t have been caught dead dressed like that, winter or no winter.  And definitely not for skating.

We had long, serious winters back in the 1960s, with lots of snow. In my teens  I used to go out on the lake, skating for three hours or longer, taking breaks to warm frozen fingers at the bonfire on the snowy beach. Finally I’d go home around 8 p.m., thaw out my feet and hands, eat a bite of dinner, tackle homework and fall into bed. It was always a sad day when the weather began to warm and the lake ice developed cracks that made skating unsafe.

Just before my senior year of high school we moved to another part of town that lacked a lake, but to our joy featured a nice little swamp tucked back in the woods. Not many people skated there because the place was out of the way and there wasn’t room to play ice hockey.  My brother and I used to tear through the swamp like maniacs on skates, zigzagging in and out through the trees, grabbing hold of a tree trunk and spinning around it until we were dizzy.

I can’t believe how little the cold bothered me as a teenager. When I walked to the bus stop in high school on cold winter mornings with temperatures hovering at 9 degrees or so,  I usually wore a school jacket that barely reached my hips, a skirt as short as I dared, barelegged, or wearing knee socks or thin nylon stockings.  I could not do this today.

Girls did not wear pants to school during my school years. It was strictly forbidden, although in elementary school there was one exception: we could wear them to school and from school if there was, say, three feet of snow on the ground. We had to sit down and take off those pants as soon as we got inside the classroom.  We only put them on again just before dismissal. We didn’t wear them during recess, even though we played outdoors in almost every kind of weather.

I remember going out on a playground covered with  a foot of slush and snow, wading through this glorious mess with my classmates. We slipped down the icy slide and swung on the swings until the teacher’s whistle called us in to  take off our boots and coats. Our shoes and socks were soaked through, but they usually dried before the school day was over.

My daughters never had outdoor recess at their Maryland elementary school if it rained or snowed. Of course if we receive a dusting of snow, the entire Washington, DC region goes into Full Winter Panic Mode, with numerous school closings and late openings or early dismissals for all Federal government employees, of which we have many.

Most school systems started allowing girls to wear pants in 1970, the year after I graduated.  Now kids get away with wearing nearly everything, and the teachers and principal are grateful that the kids aren’t bare naked.

By the time I had children of my own, I too followed them around with sweaters or light jackets on mild winter days.  I’d mumble “Suve silmad, talve hambad” under my breath like a magical incantation. And my non-Estonian speaking, wholly American daughters replied, “Huh?”