Being a Latin American in Estonia

One of the first things we were warned about when we first arrived to Estonia, was culture shock: all those things we know and love from our home countries, even those we had taken for granted and hadn’t even noticed before, are now suddenly gone, and that can be quite scary.

For us Latin Americans, our cultural differences with Estonians are particularly noticeable in our behaviours. During the introduction days at university, we were shown the model below and as you can see, we are basically complete opposites from our Estonian hosts.

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The further the countries are from each other, the more different they are. It is no surpise to see our countries charachterized as warm, emotional, loquacious and impulsive 🙂

Having to adapt to a new culture can be challenging, but in my experience, it is a great opportunity to learn so many new things. If you come from Latin America, here are some expeciences you will probably encounter in Estonia:

1. We are considered ‘exotic’

This is the face I usually get whenever someone asks me where I’m from and I tell them that I am from Mexico:

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That is usually followed by a “you are so far away from home!” and “how are you dealing with the weather here?”. I find it hilarious 🙂 . I have met only an Estonian or two who have been somewhere in Latin America, so in general I would say that knowledge about our region is not extensive, but they are usually interested in us and our culture, so it’s a good opportunity to become good unofficial ambassadors of our countries 🙂 .

They also have a valid reason for considering us to be exotic here because while it’s not uncommon to see fellow Latin Americans living in Spain, France or Germany, not many of us consider moving to Estonia. According to official statistics, there were only 71 students from Latin America in Estonia in 2015 (as a reference, there are more than 2300 students from other European countries), but in previous years the number was even lower, so every year there are more and more foreigners moving here. And of course there are more people who are here for other reasons like work or because they have an Estonian partner, so in reality we are many more. The Facebook group Estonia-Latina, as of today, has 366 members.

2. You will feel ashamed of talking loudly on the bus (or anywhere, basically) and you will learn not to invade other people’s personal space. Ever.

We are famous for being warm and loud and they kinda like that about us, but at the same time it’s better not to do it here. When I had just arrived, I wanted to learn more about the social norms here and I asked an Estonian classmate if they ever hugged. Her answer was something like this:

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Ok I am exaggerating, she did not react like that 🙂 . But she did say “NO! Well, maybe if it’s someone’s birthday… but only if it’s a really good friend”. Indeed, on my birthday, another one of my classmates congratulated me but before hugging me, he asked for permission to hug me! It was awkward but nice at the same time.

Estonians are also usually not loud at all. You could hear a pin drop in a full bus! Usually people are minding their own business and whenever they are talking to each other, they do so quietly. The only time when you hear people talking more enthusiastically on the bus is during weekends at night, so any other time you start talking loudly, people won’t say anything to you, but they will be (quietly) annoyed.

3. Be mentally prepared to live without your traditional food

I will say that Estonian cuisine is not their strongest asset and unfortunately it is hard to get traditional ingredients usually used in Latin America. Because there are so few of us here, supermarkets don’t have a lot to offer in that sense. The most “Latin American” things I find in the supermarkets are in the “Tex-Mex” section and as you can imagine, these tortillas made in Sweden are not the best I have tried.

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Of course you can find the most common fruits, vegetables and meat like chicken and pork, but it’s advisable to learn how to cook them in a more “international” way, without depending too much on your local ingredients. But because American food is strongly influenced by European ingredients, you will not find it hard to order something in the cafeteria or in a restaurant that you will probably like, unlike my Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese flatmates who always cook their own food because everything here is totally different from what they’re used to eating.

4. Don’t expect to watch too many football matches here

While football is the most popular sport in most of the Latin American countries (and many European countries as well), the same cannot be said for Estonia. Yes, there is a football stadium and yes, there is an Estonian football league, but it’s definitely not their main sport. However, if you like to play, there are a couple of sports halls where you can form a team and play occasionally. Or even better, take the opportunity to start playing hockey, cross-country skiing or curling like we did a few months ago:

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Have you ever seen that sport in the winter Olympics where people slide a stone on ice and sweep in front of it? well, turns out it’s much more fun than you would think 🙂

5. Estonia is a highly secular country, but you can still practice your religion here

Estonia is said to be one of the least religious countries in the world, with 54% of the population claiming to be non-religious. The most popular religion is Orthodoxy (16% of the population) and Lutheranism (10%). If you are catholic, you can go to Sts. Peter and Paul cathedral in the Old Town, where they have mass in English every saturday. I don’t really know about churches for other religions, but the good thing is that even though people here don’t care too much about religion, they are also usually tolerant with other people’s beliefs.

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Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, located on Vene street in the Old Town.

6. They find it strange that we have two surnames. Sometimes they are also surprised with and/or unable to say our names

This point is totally irrelevant but I still find it funny. When I went to get my residence permit, the lady who wrote down all my data entered my surnames as my name and my name as my surname. When I told her that it should be the other way around, she asked with a look of surprise “you have two surnames?!” I proceeded to explain that we have our father’s and our mother’s surname and she just replied “very curious”. Now imagine the confusion whenever they get someone with two names and compound surnames like “María del Pilar Montes de Oca Sicilia” (that’s the name of a Mexican magazine director) 😀

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Not even a “normal” name like ‘Carlos’ is understood here 🙂

To sum up, I would say that the only thing needed to adapt successfully to another culture is to have an open mind and be willing to try new things. Estonia is quite different from what we’re used to: from its weather to the way people behave; but at the same time this gives us the opportunity to learn from them and try new things that we don’t have in our home countries. And that is exactly what makes life here so enriching. It’s normal to be afraid to leave the comfort of what you know, but it’s so much fun to discover how cool is it to try a new sport and taste food you didn’t know existed.

We are looking forward to welcoming another fellow Latin American here. All 366 of us 🙂

-Fabiola

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Reza says:

    It was a good article. At first it broke my heart that we do not have the name of Iran in the model. But as we have many similarities (Iran and latin America) I found this cool article very usefull. Thank you

    Like

    1. fabgava says:

      Iran is there too! on the right side of the triangle. But you are right, we are more similar than we would think at first glance 🙂

      Like

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