Andres Simonson’s Greeting At The Estonian Independence Day Celebration in Lakewood, NJ
Tere tulemast and welcome. My job today is to greet you and make you feel welcome at our Estonian Independence Day celebration. But as I set the joyous mood for today’s Lakewood Estonian House festivities, many will be wondering, why is our speaker speaking in English – this is Estonian Independence Day after all. Täna on Eesti Vabariigi aastapäev, miks ta räägib Ingliskeeles? Mis on viga poisiga? On ta lolliks läinud?
Well, besides the fact that my vocabulary is more robust in English, and that I rely on it like a crutch, the reason I am speaking in English is this: I am going to open today’s events by sharing my personal Eesti Vabariigi perspective – that of a hyphenated American, in this case an Estonian-American.
Here we are today. Lakewood, New Jersey – approximately 7,000 kilometers from downtown Tallinn. We are celebrating the independence of a tiny nation that finally won its sovereignty in 1918 after centuries of foreign occupiers. Unlike American Independence Day, the Fourth of July, we won’t be lighting Chinese fireworks, downing cheeseburgers, or checking out the baseball game over a cold brew. And despite my protests to the human resources department at work, my employer won’t be giving us a paid holiday. Instead, we are gathering here on our time to engage in things Estonian – which typically involves lots of odd sounding vowels, culinarily curious foods, and maybe a little valge viin.
And when I say “we,” this includes World War II political refugees that arrived here with not much more than the clothes on their backs, tired, and with only family to rest upon. “We” includes more recent emigrants, that gather with us, lend a hand, and even teach our youngsters the Estonian language. “We” includes those insane enough to marry someone of Estonian descent (hi Alice). “We” includes friends of our community. And “we” includes others like me – Estonian-Americans. Estonian-hyphen-Americans.
As some of you know, when time allows, I write for an online Estonian magazine – a webzine named Estonian World. In the words of the talented editor, Silver Tambur, Estonian World is a London-based independent online magazine that writes about cosmopolitan Estonians and their views, ideas, experiences and achievements around the world. On this forum, I have written about the külmlaud, verivorstid, and that Estonian universal curse word, kurat. Well, today I am presenting you my latest work, which appropriately ponders the label of Estonian-American.
On Heritage, Nationality, and Grammatical Conjunctions
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 U.S. Constitution, despite our faults. I don’t remember the exact response, but it had something to do with making sure I honor 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 am 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?
I ponder it some more. And I realize, 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 Kardashians.
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 Peipsi Lake. 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 – my answer would simply be “yes.”
And that’s the sneak preview to my latest Estonian World piece, which should be published soon. With that, I would like to welcome one and all to the Eesti Vabariigi Aastapäev celebration at the Lakewood Estonian House. Please grab a plate of traditional food from our kitchen, a bottle of traditional beer from our bar, enjoy the assuredly adorable production by the Lakewood Estonian School, admire the time-honored folk dances expertly spun by Saare Vikat, and listen intently to our keynote speaker, Marcus Kolga. And then later, after taking in today’s festivities, when you have a moment, reflect upon your own personal meaning of Estonian Independence.
Oh yeah, and maybe enthusiastically applaud your welcoming speaker.
Aitäh and Thank you.