"Should." How many times did I hear that word said to me in Estonia?
My God, I had forgotten about the social expectations of this little Nordic country - that is, until I came for a 2-week visit in May and, suddenly, it came flooding back to my why I didn't feel home there in the first place.
Should. Should. Should.
I feel anger over this word because, ever since I was little, it's been used routinely about my behaviour, implying that I was too this or that - too loud, too rambunctious, too unaccepting of authority, whatever - and it's clear I have an ongoing process of dealing with these implications, which I accept.
But I had forgotten how prevalent such a word was in Estonia - until I came for a visit and thought, "My God, I had forgotten about that."
Every day someone (sometimes even people I didn't know personally) said to me, "You should..."
The language of my kids especially. Man, I had not expected (of prepared for!) that.
I was standing outside the apartment block my mother lives in, and a man who lives in the next block over recognised me. "Masha!" he exclaimed. "Mashenka!" (Masha - it's a Russian diminutive of Maria.)
That man had not seen me in about 10 years, and even prior to that was never a friend to speak of - just a person our family knew who was living in the next block over. "Mashenka, it's so good to see you! I haven't seen you in such a long time! How are you!" (without waiting for me to answer) "Oh, and you have a daughter! How wonderful! Tell me, tell me! How are you! Mashenka!"
I started to answer in Russian but quickly The Girlie started to say something I needed to react to in English, and the man recoiled in horror. "What!? You're speaking to her in English!? Why!?!" (without waiting for me to answer) "But you should speak to her in Russian! Why would you speak to her in a language your family doesn't speak!? Mashenka, you need to teach your children Russian!"
And on it went.
And I understand, that was the most theatrical example of the lot, but... I got the "bilingual reaction" a lot in Estonia, from people I didn't expect, in forms I hadn't prepared myself for. I got told that speaking two languages is really good for children's brains, and why don't I know that it's an important thing I can do for their development. I got sincere surprises, borderline offended reactions, worry. And I understand - for the people (who had those reactions) the fact that I speak to my children in English only was a surprise, and they reacted out of those surprises.
But still - how many times did I hear that I should talk to my children in both languages? Rather than simply an inquisitive question as to why we're doing it? (Which, by the way, I quickly recognised I wasn't prepared to answer truthfully anyway because it involves a story I am not interested in sharing with people I don't trust. Towards the end I simply learned to reply with, "We decided that way. Several reasons.")
I got told that I should dress my children differently. That I should come to Estonia more often. That I should wear make-up a little. That I should moisturise.
And maybe the amount of "should"-s wasn't even that impressive to another person's perception - but to me, coming from an environment where I now feel an awful lot of freedom is allowed to my life, being faced with such an amount of "should"-s in places I didn't expect left me defensive and somewhat bruised.
Because the thing is... I remembered that. I remembered growing up in the environment where I quietly and constantly was reminded in the form of little "helpful" "instructions" that I didn't quite fit in and how I have always strived towards finding other, more suitable places instead.
I found them in the form of youth parliament movements, in friends who were more outspoken themselves, partners who saw me for the beauty of my character rather than its flaws, the rugged communities in Alaska and Svalbard and New Zealand, people who weren't necessarily politically correct, but who had a certain kind of integrity to them. I strived for an environment of acceptance, adamant that there was a place in the world I would feel home (there had to be!), so I ended up in New Zealand where I rarely hear the word "should" said to me in the form of "life instructions", with The Man, with a daughter who just like I pushed the buttons of people around me when I was growing up, is pushing my own buttons, and every day I am working on creating a feeling of acceptance around her, and a feeling of acceptance of her in me.
Which is hard work. Most things that are really important are hard.
I had forgotten about that. I had forgotten about a lot of things in Estonia.
I said to my brother that, looking at the cars parked around the apartment blocks in a town where I grew up - a relatively poor region - it fascinated me that the cars were really... nice. I mean, there were no trashed-in Fiats to speak of. I was looking around and I was sure there were more old, banged-up cars on the street where I lived in Invercargill, than in this poor region of Estonia. My brother then reminded me that, there, a car was a status symbol. A cultural Soviet relic so to speak.
I had forgotten how difficult it was to use the toilet in public in Estonia. I am so used to plentiful public toilets in New Zealand, most of them free of charge, that I was left dumb-founded in a large shopping centre in Estonia where I headed for the toilet sign and realised, you have to pay to enter. I mean... I honestly cannot remember the last time I used a toilet I had to pay for. Standing there in Estonia, with no cash and not even a credit card on me, I was looking at the sign and thinking, "Bloody hell, they still have those." Walking in the Old Town the other evening, same thing - public toilets, but pay-to-enter gates out front. Jesus.
It astounded me how difficult good children's playgrounds were to find. Young and childless, I had never paid attention to such stuff before, but now travelling and with two kids, I was suddenly thinking, "Is that it? There has to be more, surely. Where do people take their kids?"
There were good things, too. Public transport. Food. (Food!)
And please understand that I understand the cultural history of Estonia (which is very different from New Zealand!) and the importance of social cohesion in a country which shares land-borders with nations who are hungry, hungry! for more, more power. I understand that, but it nevertheless struck me how much cultural expectations there is around norms - norms I'm not used to. Norms different from what I'm used to - because New Zealand has cultural norms, too.
And I understand my grandmother, too, who would grab her chest and exclaim, "Child, you're going to drive me to my grave!" I understand my grandfather who had to repair the glasshouse after I had broken the glass pane. I understand - old shed roofs are not really meant to hold the weight of a climbing 9-year-old. I even understand the teacher who called my mother to complain about the fact that I spoke up against her authority in class.
I understand, I do.
But I don't agree with them.
The feeling of relief I experienced when the plane approached New Zealand, the weight I felt lifted off me when I saw the first towns of Northland appear in the night below us and I burst out crying on the plane, thankful to be home...
It was good to be away, but it's good to be back, too.