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Fahrenheits and freedom

February 27, 2012

In early 2011, the broadly respected President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, put out a call for Estonians living abroad to submit essays about how we feel about living abroad and coming back.

I felt touched by this call, and wrote the following essay through April and May 2011. I published it in Estonian in Daniel Vaarik’s citizen journalism portal Memokraat.

The following is my own translation to English. I figured it would be fitting to publish this at the aftermath of Estonia’s 94th Independence Day weekend.

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Today, it was sunny and 26C outside. Pretty common for late spring in California in the heart of Silicon Valley. Perhaps a bit on the warm side, even.

Others thought it was 80F, not 26C. My colleagues in a big US software company find it funny that I can do miles, feet and pounds, but still refuse Fahrenheits. The scale is just too weird for me. The approximate formula isn’t actually that complicated. Just remember that 0C is 30F, and each 5C adds 10F. Thus 80F becomes 25C and the other way around.

I first came to America 15 years ago when Open Estonia Foundation sent me to Connecticut for summer school. I had previously been abroad both east and west of Estonia, but America was still a cultural shock. This free country was so strange and different. Something that I would have wanted to discover more deeply. At the time, I didn’t know if this was just a dream, or would become a reality.

About ten years passed. I again found myself under Californian sun for business travel. By the time, I had crisscrossed Europe so I was no longer walking around open-mouthed and lower than grass, as I had been before. Years ago, I had been tight. I came from a closed society and I found “them”, the free people, to be completely different, almost extraterrestrials. Now I felt quite at home and could easily strike a conversation with the locals. I figured I might want to come back here.

In 2007, I took a one-way ride to Pittsburgh to study in Carnegie Mellon University Master’s for 12 months. My class was around 40 people. Half of them were Americans and the rest from elsewhere in the world, mainly from China, India and Korea, but also a German and some Portuguese. We got along well with one another and the instructors. Never before or after have I worked as hard as during those 12 months.

After graduating, I decided to work in New York City. My field in the US is more advanced there than it is in Estonia, and I wanted to live in the greatest city in the world. My first job in NYC didn’t live up to my expectations. I started to think about what I was missing.

I realized why I had come to America.

I had come to seek out new teachers.

By teachers, I don’t only mean teachers in the academic setting. I mean people from who I have things to learn. Through my previous professional and academic careers, I had learned how to create products where the machine works for for the person and not the other way around; how to understand what people really need; how to get from the first napkin sketch to a working product, while remaining true to yourself and friends with others. I had been fortunate to have many good academic and professional mentors, but at one point, they ran out for me in Estonia.

My field and calling—product development—is a mix of art and craft. In middle ages, in these fields, before becoming a master, you’d be an apprentice and work in the studios and under the guidance of other masters. Even these days, to be a scientist or a skilled practitioner, you have to study outside your comfort zone. This is exactly how I think of my professional career.

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Outside of education and career, one of my goals of coming to America was to experience freedom. Regardless of all its weirdnesses, America is regarded to be a hallmark of freedom. More people want to come to live here than to leave.

What does freedom look like in daily street sights or people’s eyes? Daily life was about the same during Soviet times as it was in the free world. You fed your family, you grew your kids, you got your job done… and yet something was missing. The fifty-year Soviet occupation in Estonia not only committed direct crimes, but it ingrained a dark spot in the memory and being of Estonians and many other nations. I could perceive, but not entirely understand it when I lived in Estonia. I hoped that I would see this dark spot more clearly when I’d live in a different environment.

To me, freedom is an individual spiritual state and an understanding that you are the master of your own happiness. The United States Declaration of Independence says:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I looked at the preamble of Estonian constitution in this light. It talks about freedom, justice, and preservation of the nation, but not so much about how any of this has to do with us individually and separately.

These big words have a practical expression. When I walk about the streets in Estonia, or even when I’m not there but I watch and read the news, I feel everyone to be in a combative state and on defense. There seems to be a zero-sum game going on, where for one to win, the other has to lose—be it their money, time, or dignity. Us not being able to respect each other is manifested in the uneven quality of political communication, commentary on the Internet, and general meanness, as pointed out by Rein Taagepera and other observers.

When I first came to America, I was myself anxious, antsy, tense, and just could not my way around. I kind of got my things done but did not enjoy myself and something was always bothering me. My good friends gave me great advice that I can sum up with one word:


During Soviet times, they ironically said that Estonians execute Soviet idiocies with German precision. I guess that was the goal of the system—to eliminate independent thinking, punish initiative, and see anything coming from outside as a threat. In the free world, there surely is a place for those who merely do tasks given by others. But if you are sufficiently educated and reach a certain level, the regulations ease up a bit and there are less pre-packaged answers, Learning and work no longer mean rote memorization and twisting of prepackaged knobs. Instead, you are expected to use your learnings, knowledge and experience that you have to create something new.

I am now a free man and I understand that I myself am the only obstacle preventing me from achieving my own goals and dreams. It’s useless to blame someone else, wage wars or point fingers. It’s not the goal of anybody else to hold me back. Most of limitations, obstacles, rules and disputes are not an objective state of the world—they only exist in our heads. Who knows where they came from, but we can now see and untangle them, if only we want to.

It would be unfair to say that there’s no free thinking at all in Estonia. “Let’s Do It” and other happy new modern initiatives show that if need be, Estonians can come together and execute reasonable action. “So could they during Soviet times”, you might say. “It’s just that the state and the official society were the enemies.” Perhaps. But a free and caring person realizes that there no longer is an “us vs them” thinking, and that antagonizing, gossiping and undermining each other is no longer justified in any situation.

Free persons understand that love and respect can’t be bought for money or won at threat of violence. Both of these work when people’s choices and information are limited. But in a free, boundless information society, we look up at other people mainly because they have earned our respect.

When looking at Estonian politics with this lens, I believe that many reasonable Estonians consider their return to Estonia based on the image of Estonian state and municipal leaders. Putting party loyalty above competence, being involved with corruption, and questionable affairs with foreign intelligence agencies breed curiosity, concern, perhaps fear and contempt, but not respect. Such actions damage Estonian interests and security regardless of whether they can be legally justified or whether someone is convicted in court. All it takes is just an impression of activity that is criminal or does not have regard for Estonian national interests, for people to give up and support the decision to move or stay abroad.

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Among other things, freedom means respect for others. Estonians have had the fortune and misfortune of having lived together at the same location as a homogenous group for several millennia. This has helped us to prevail as a nation, but has not given us sufficient experience of reasonable interaction with other similar groups. Many other nations have dominated Estonia, but nothing good has come out of them. Thus, historically, it has been reasonable to have an attitude of disbelief and “us vs them”. My mom was very concerned when she heard that I’d be living in New York in a part of the city inhabited mostly by blacks, as she thought they would be a priori more dangerous than other groups.

The popular comedy radio show “Rahva oma kaitse” by Estonian journalists Mart Juur and Andrus Kivirähk is to me an honest reflection of how Estonians really think. They often talk about blacks and other strangers in a derogatory and ironical manner. A comedy radio show may not sound as an accurate reflection of reality, but already during the medieval times, the village fool could voice the things that others couldn’t but nevertheless thought of.

Many of my Estonian friends are proud of “not being caught in the web of political correctness” and always “saying things as they are”. I believe that several things are being confused here.

On one hand, many people in America, similarly as elsewhere, are full of crap. It takes work to find substance in the sea of garbage. Respect is won by those that can express themselves concisely.

On the other hand, it makes sense to choose words, so that you wouldn’t hurt those whom your subject matter concerns. I’m pretty sure that in private conversations, Juur, Kivirähk and many others who hurt other people in words would assure that “actually” they do not mean what they said and if they “actually” had such friends, they would surely speak with them and show their attitude towards them in a completely different manner.

Today’s world is ruthless. We do not have the luxury of explaining our words after they’ve been said. Words are taken at their face value. Meanness and irony function pretty well as a psychological self-defense, but they can be perceived as an attack and victim thinking. We are no longer victims. Let’s move on.

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My identity is to be a son, a brother, a friend, a classmate, a schoolmate, as a Talliner, as an Estonian, as a Balt, as a Nordic person, as an Eastern European, as an European, as a citizen of European Union, as a westerner, as an American, as an alumnus of Tartu University, ex-New Yorker, Californian, a Master student, and a designer. I’m sure there are some more roles and identities.

But first and foremost, I am a human.

Once upon a time, an evil man said “die Fahne its mehr als der Todt.” “The flag is more than death.” I reject that. I am not a diehard Estonian, and I am not a nationalist. Being an Estonian is an interesting curiosity for me, it is not something that I’d like to fight for or to prove myself.

I don’t believe in zero sum games for identity. I apologize that I didn’t get the memo where it said that I have to be one or another. I live in America but that does not make me any less of an Estonian. I read and watch more Estonian news than many of those who geographically live in Estonia.

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Why should I, or others like me, want to come to Estonia?

I, like all others, like interesting narratives. The Estonian story is pretty damn compelling. We lived in the Estonian territory long before many European great nations got started, and way long before America. We’ll prevail after all of them, too. We have many things that feel mundane to us but that are causes for war around the world—sufficient water and living space, no earthquakes, tsunamis or tornados, plenty of farmland to feed ourselves, and being able to plan our destiny.

There’s no reason to be intimidated by Huntington’s “end of civilizations” or the Russian Bear. You can’t predict the future based on cataclysms of the past. The risks will come from where you can least expect them. Until then, Estonia is a good place to live on the world scale. An American must pay thousands of dollars every year to service the public debt and a lot of the world has similar financial troubles. Estonia has none of these and we can set our own future.

I would like to see an Estonia that deals with tomorrow’s, not yesterday’s problems. In some way, we are already there. We like to refer to Skype and other creators of smart jobs. But in order to attract the future Skypes to Estonia, we need to think about how to make Estonia a good place to live and work for the world’s digital elite who deal with matters like green energy, biotechnology and other future business fields. Focusing on the elite may sound strange in a situation where many common people in Estonia have trouble making ends meet, but it is exactly those fields of businesses and entrepreneurs that bring along the jobs of tomorrow, and add the reasons for people in Estonia to stay put, and for Estonians abroad to return.

For myself personally, these big questions don’t matter. What matters is that the few people near and dear to my heart are living in Estonia and the rest of Europe and do not want to move to America. They have been here in America, it is a great and beautiful country, and they love it—but merely as visitors. Their, and my own, heart and soul is in Europe.

I myself feel here as a long-term visitor and not as a native. I will never be friends with Fahrenheit. Every time that I step off an aircraft in Europe I feel that I am visiting home again. Perhaps, at one point, I will be back for a longer time, or permanently.

Thank you you Daniel Vaarik, Sten Tamkivi, and anonymous reviewers who helped with the drafts of this essay,