Volume 26, No. 4 - Winter 1980
Editor of this issue: Jonas Zdanys
ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 1980 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.



There have been relatively few studies examining the adjustment of Estonian immigrants in Western countries, and even fewer that focus specifically on second generation Estonians, i.e. the children of Estonian immigrants born outside of Estonia. That there exists such a paucity of information is unfortunate. If one of the aims of Estonians in the West is to try and maintain their ethnicity, then it seems that a better understanding of the adjustment process is necessary if they are to work as effectively as is possible towards this goal. It was partly in response to this need that the study reported here was carried out. This study, however, is by no means definitive, but merely attempts to explore some of the problems encountered by second generation Estonians living in Australia.

The subject group examined was young Estonians living in Sydney. All were ethnic activists in the sense that they all participated in the Estonian folk dancing group. This is, of course, a restricted subject sample and it needs to be borne in mind that any generalizations made on the basis of this study cannot be extended beyond second generation Estonians who in some way actively participate in Estonian community life.

Two information gathering approaches were possible, either sampling a broad range of subjects using brief questionnaire items or more detailed analysis of individuals' experiences by interviews and other techniques, but with a much smaller number of subjects. To some extent, the decision as to which method might be used is arbitrary, since each has certain strengths and weaknesses. However, the latter approach, i.e., in-depth examination of a small number of subjects, was chosen in the current study. Nine subjects were selected from the Estonian folk-dancing group — 4 females and 5 males, aged between 17 and 21 years. Both video-taped role-play and semi-structured interview techniques were used. Despite the small number of subjects, a great deal of material was collected, only a small portion of which can be recounted here due to limitations of space. However, in order to Illustrate at least some of the ways these subjects have adjusted to living in a bi-cultural environment, selective observations dealing with four of the subjects are presented below. These are followed by some general observations based on the material gained from all nine subjects.

Selected observations

Female, 20 years: When asked whether her friends resented her considering herself as being Estonian, she answered that her present friends did not, adding that, "I wouldn't be friends with anyone who knocked my culture and the things I hold sacred". She has, and always has had, more Estonian than Australian friends. Even with her new-found friends, she has never included her Australian friends in the Estonian activities "because I don't know them well enough yet". She wants to know their attitude beforehand to find out whether they will try to destroy what she believes in and does.

Marriage and children are the next source of conflict. Regarding marriage, she stated that the person's nationality does not matter, it is love that counts, yet her mate must be able to accept her Estonian identity. This free attitude is in conflict with her desire to keep Estonian culture alive. She saw marrying non-Estonians as speeding up the process of complete assimilation. Because of this, she said she would like to marry an Estonian; in this way it would be easier to have her identity accepted and her desire to teach her children Estonian fulfilled. The lack of numbers in Australia has dampened her hopes of marrying an Estonian. If she married an Australian, she made it clear that he had to accept the way she was brought up. A "miraculous" Australian husband would want to learn the Estonian language.

Her method of friend selection has made it difficult to meet an Australian male, which in turn will make it difficult for her to find an Australian mate. This is supported by the fact that she has never been out with an Australian male. One source of relief for her in this situation is that she turns to other Northern Europeans, e.g., Latvians. She claimed that where the opposite sex was concerned she found that she related better to them. She stated that it was a lot easier for them to accept and understand her, because they were themselves in the same position.

When asked generally about problems that arise from her Estonian identity, she said that there were a lot of little things. These all seemed to point to the wish for acceptance. She felt distressed when an Estonian woman, before the last election, made a political commercial. She saw this as creating adverse publicity. Revealing her identity was a constant source of anxiety. She wanted people to react favourably, but she found Australians to be a "pretty xenophobic lot". She told me she hated revealing her name to strangers and especially at job interviews. This is because she did not know how they would react and she was afraid of being condemned. She said she found that she could not relate to the majority of people around her.

Finally, I asked her what sort of feelings she had when she associated with Estonians. She said that she was drawn towards them. Even when she was interstate among a hall full of Estonian people she did not know, she felt a strong sense of belonging. This bond she attributed to the fact that they were all in the same situation, and had the same background.

Male, 19 years: When this subject was asked whether he felt Estonian or Australian, he replied that that was one question that he found difficult to answer. He said that sometimes he said he was an Estonian, and sometimes that he was Australian. It largely depended on the situation: when he was with his Australian "mates" he felt Australian, but when politics were concerned and when he was with Estonians, he felt Estonian.

This indecision or inner conflict has been one way of keeping external conflict to a minimum. He changes his identity depending on the situation he is in. He sometimes uses his Estonian identity when he is with Australians so as "to be a tiny bit different". Some people were interested and gave him special treatment when they knew of his Estonian background. With those who were not like this, he was an Australian.

He said that if Estonia was granted independence "then all the young people who had the identity problem would have the choice of going there or staying here, but at the moment we have no choice". The sense of hopelessness (that Estonia would always remain under Russian domination) heightened this problem because he saw himself as never being able to resolve his identity. "At the moment we haven't got a choice, so we have to accept both sides."

He was more easy-going about taking his friends to Estonian functions. He said that he wanted to show them the social and cultural side of Estonians. Europeans, he said, had a richer social life, and he wanted to share this with them. But he only takes people who are good friends and who show interest.

Male, 21 years: He strongly wishes his Australian acquaintances to know about his identity, but is more frightened of them not understanding and disapproving. He finds this frustrating when he wants to form intimate relationships. He wants them to instantly understand his position to the same degree he does. He is frightened of anything taking the form of rejection or even apathy. He is afraid of saying the wrong thing and having them think that "we're fascists, etc.". Previously when he found himself in a position where he thought he was intimate enough with an Australian to bring it up, he saw it go through "one ear and out the other". Eventually he gave up because of this "negative and defeatist attitude". He saw the danger from being exclusively involved in the Estonian society, because "if you fall out of Estonian society, you're alone".

This subject does not voluntarily involve his non-Estonian friends in his Estonian activities, because he felt they would restrict his will to speak Estonian and his enjoyment of the culture, e.g. theatre. They would also restrict his interactions with his Estonian friends. He said that when he associated with Estonians, he felt a sense of belonging. "Everyone is close, even though they don't know each other." He said this type of closeness was automatic.

Female, 19 years: She said that her Australian friends didn't really know about the Estonian side of her life. At the same time, her Estonian friends did not know about the Australian side of her life. She did not mind this situation. She said she was very happy about being an Estonian. This way, she had two social lives.

She did not worry about her identity consciously; she just tried to "live her life". The only thing that she found unsatisfying was the fact that there were so few Estonian males and that she had "unfortunately" only been out with Australian males.

The only time she had spoken of more intimate things about her Estonian identity to Australians was when Mr. Whitlam recognised the incorporation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. When she expressed how she felt, she said she got the usual arguments of "You're an Australian because you were born here, etc." Now, as before, she does not discuss the "heavier" aspects of her identity with them. To avoid any external conflict, she generally remains aloof in both Estonian and Australian society, but much more so with Australians.

General observations

Being born in Australia and having Estonian parents presented these subjects with varying degrees of conflict, though most have been able to cope reasonably well. All the subjects expressed at least some identification with Estonians, which was an important factor in determining the outcome of conflicts related to their ethnic background.

Various forms of conflict were expressed. Amongst them were the following:

(a) Who am I? How can I justify my Estonian identity while being born and living in Australia? There appears to have been a lack of consistency in dealing with these questions. Some expressed the view that being Estonian depended on how one felt. Others thought that Estonian parentage was important while yet . others saw command of the Estonian language and a minimal knowledge about Estonia as being essential elements.

(b) The problem of gaining understanding and acceptance of their identity from Australians.
Some of the ways in which this was coped with were:
   (i) Concealing their Estonian background from Australians
   (ii) Selecting as friends only those who were willing to accept the subject's Estonian identity
   (iii) Minimizing social contact with Australians
   (iv) Fighting for acceptance of their identity amongst Australians.

(c) Pressures of the political situation and the maintenance of Estonian ethnicity.

All subjects wanted to see the survival of Estonian culture. Estonia is being Russified, so many of the subjects feel a responsibility to keep Estonian culture alive. If political circumstances were different, i.e. if Estonia were not occupied by the Soviet Union, these subjects would feel free to choose other alternatives, though at present they see themselves as having little choice. However, the desire to maintain their Estonian ethnicity itself produces problems and conflicts. Amongst these are the following:
   (i) A feeling of hopelessness because of the low likelihood of political change in Estonia.
   (ii) The desire to create an awareness about the Estonian political situation is frustrated by Australians' political apathy and lack of interest.
   (iii) The desire to maintain Estonian culture at a personal level and to pass it on to their children is tempered by the realisation that the chances of each person finding a suitable Estonian marriage partner are very limited because of the small number of young Estonians. Many of the subjects anticipated difficulties in attempting to raise children as Estonians in a family where only one parent is Estonian.