Two or three degrees of separation

Estonia is a tiny nation on the Baltic Sea with a long and colorful history of pig and potato farming. During World War II, many Estonians fled from the violence, and many of them, including my grandmother, went through many trials and risked their lives to make it to America. But I’ve never cared enough. Many of my relatives died in Siberian concentration camps, but I don’t feel any sort of righteous anger.

Perhaps this is just the passage of time. I’m a third-generation immigrant, and my knowledge of Estonia consists entirely of my grandmother’s stories. But when I refuse the blood sausage at Christmas dinner, am I actually pushing away my heritage or just being a typical American?

America deserves to be called a melting pot, but second- and third- generation immigrants adopt the dominant culture, feeling fewer and fewer ties to the culture of a country they may have never even seen. Estonia itself has changed since the war. The culture my grandmother has passed down and modern Estonian culture simply aren’t the same. One has changed to accommodate an American lifestyle, and the other evolved under Soviet Russia. An ocean lies between here and Estonia, and sheer distance ensures that the two cultures will take different paths.

Many Americans have recent immigrants in their family tree but don’t know how to manage that heritage. They may face discrimination if they choose to openly display that culture or they may need to constantly explain their culture to those around them. I’m always surprised when people know anything about Estonia, let alone acknowledge its existence.

Language provides another issue for the second and third generations. English is significantly more convenient than most immigrant languages, and children born here receive the most exposure to it through school and the media. The first generation can be bilingual, but the second is often better at English and the third may only know English.

Apathy is the most significant barrier between second- and third- generation immigrants and the culture they came from. Learning a language is a huge commitment for a culture that’s already dying. Many immigrant cultures are still and will continue to be relevant, but the later generations usually slip away. On an individual level, second- and third- generation immigrants stop relating to their immigrant culture. Estonian Christmas usually involves nothing but pork and potato dishes and I miss out because I don’t eat pork. On a more complicated level, later generations may move away from some central aspect of that culture, such as religion.

Doesn’t America pride itself on being a nation of immigrants? If that’s the case, then it would seem logical for immigrants to happily pass down their cultures and for future generations to keep practicing those cultures. Instead, people often just shrug off their identity and call themselves American, although it’s worth noting that white people tend to do this more than any other group. We distance ourselves from our past in order to assimilate.

This distance is neither good nor bad. Everyone has a different experience with his or her heritage, and choosing to embrace or ignore it must be an individual decision. Quite a few Americans either have no record of their ancestry or belong to so many different groups that trying to trace their heritage is impossible. For those of us who are related to recent immigrants, watching our culture disappear can leave us feeling guilty. However, trying to pass along our culture if we’re not really invested in it is pointless. My children will learn my grandmother’s story, but I’ll never serve them blood sausage.