"Where are you from?" "We live in Estonia." "Estonia?" Blank stare. "You know, near Finland, Sweden." "Oh, yes, Finland." "It's very cold." Laughs.
I know what you're thinking. How come we didn't say "Estonia, you know, near Latvia," or, even better, "Estonia, near Russia"? First of all, Latvia means nothing for most Asians. Maybe it's an island of the coast of Papua New Guinea. And Russia? Well, a lot of countries are near Russia. It's true that Estonia is near Russia, but so are Japan and the United States. In this sense, the Russian concept of the "near abroad" seems meaningless.
In Malaysia and also in Turkey I was not eager to proclaim my American origins. I have a feeling that most of the Islamic world has a generally bad impression of America, though perhaps they are unsure of why. Maybe they don't feel like that anymore. Maybe Malaysia is brimming with Obama boys and girls. So, if I feel like it, I'll tell them I'm from New York. Every radio station in the world is blaring out Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind." People seem to be fond of the place.
Still, if I am with my family and they call themselves Europeans, then I'm often one too and, in a way, I am not really lying. It's a funny thing about Americans: any guy in Chinatown will have no problem owning up to the fact that he's Asian, but don't dare tell the Irish policeman that he's actually a European. "European" to them means something elitist, as if by merely calling yourself one, you automatically sprout a goatee and start quoting the late Jean-Paul Sartre. But, like it or not, Europe is the motherland for many Americans. We've inherited its baggage.
Before coming to Southeast Asia, I was unaware of its diversity. In a place like Singapore, though, it feels like you can drive from China to India in a few minutes. The Chinese at first seem stoic, disciplined, like they aren't quite interested in you, just in your business. If you spend time with them, though, you see they have their own wacky sense of humor. The Indians just can't help but intervene. One fellow customer at a restaurant the other night instructed me on the proper way to eat my South Indian dinner. "First mix the sauce with the rice, then stir in the chickpeas." Another recommended the right ointment to treat mosquito bites. And I love how they eat with their hands, like children. I tried to emulate them, but it's harder than it looks.
Of the two, it is the Chinese who are the greater regional political force. From Thailand to Malaysia to Singapore, Chinese-origin political forces, typically representing a certain crossection of the business class, are on the ascent. I am unsure of their relationship with Beijing, but it reminds me of how Moscow is trying to use its diaspora and money to bring nearby countries into its orbit. Russia really does have a lot in common with China, which is why I always raise an eyebrow when someone calls it a "European" power.
And what of Estonia? From the perspective of Singapore or Malaysia, tiny Estonia's domestic squabbles seem remote, even outlandish. I think of all the sacred Estonian political cows and wonder why no politician yet has had the creativity or bravery to one-up the conservative-liberal consensus and do something different in Estonia. I think of the Centre Party and their political campaigns and laugh to myself remembering Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar and his cheap gimmickry of electronic holiday cards, free firewood, and potatoes. Was he joking? U2's Bono sings to me, "How long, how long must we sing this song? How long? How l-o-o-o-ong?" And then there's Ansip. Ansip! Estonian politics. It's enough to make you not want to go back.
I used to be afraid of visiting Muslim countries. Nothing like a good old webcast beheading to cool any feelings towards a sojourn in Pakistan. But after traveling to Turkey and Malaysia, I now understand that Islam is just a religion like any other, and reading any inherent malevolence into it is misleading. Turks and Malays both look to the Koran for spiritual guidance, but even though the minarets sound at the same times, they are distant. Turkey seemed more orthodox, more black and white. I kept my eyes out for the harem girls they send each year to represent their country in Eurovision, but not one came into view. Malaysia, on the other hand, was boisterous and vibrant. Women with big, broad smiles and colorful headscarves zoomed down the streets on the back of scooters. They almost made Islam look cool. These are just stereotypes accumulated from limited travel, but stereotypes are sometimes needed to help ease your way into new surroundings.
After weeks of travel we finally returned, floating through the night over Malaysia and India and Pakistan and Iran and Turkey to Istanbul, where we changed planes and headed north, north until all the ground below us was covered in frosty forests and frozen lakes. But I can't say I wasn't happy to be back at Helsinki Vantaa. The air was crisp, the sun shone in the sky, and Finland was pleasant and cleanly; its service people smiling, actually seeming to enjoy their mundane jobs. For some reason, though, going to Estonia made me apprehensive. What was it that made me feel this way? Maybe the economy. I thought of all the people who felt squeezed, people who would like to work but just couldn't find a job or those who had jobs but were terrified of losing them. But Tallinn was struck by a similar thaw in spirit. The people seemed less gloomy. The economy even grew last quarter. There was still snow on the ground, but everyone knows it won't last. Soon it will all melt, and our reality will again reverse, making the winter seem so very faraway, nothing but a fleeting dream.
(Itching for Eestimaa, http://palun.blogspot.com/2010... )
Estonia from afar