When people see or hear my name, Teele Männik, they automatically assume that a beautiful Estonian voice will come out, but they are always in for a surprise. Instead of that, they get a very strong American accent. The confused looks on peoples’ faces never get old. My story is quite elaborate and it makes for a good conversation starter.
I opened my eyes to the world on December 13th 1994 in Tallinn, Estonia. So yes, I am Estonian however, when I was about five years old, my mom applied for the Green Card Lottery. This lottery is found in countries where tourism to the US are very low. The winner gets a green card which grants permanent residency in the US. My mom’s friend had applied every year and never won. She enticed my mom to give it a try one year and low and behold, my mom won. That is when my life, as a little five-year-old, changed like you wouldn’t believe. I remember staying with my grandmother as my mom travelled to the US to see how it was and make sure we had somewhere to be.
Before we moved, my mom had met a man online and when we moved, we ended up staying with him and today, this amazing man is my stepdad. Before moving to the US, I knew three languages. I spoke Estonian, Russian, and English (which I had learned through computer games, toys, and TV shows). However, when we moved, I told my mom that I refused to speak anything but English. I was a desperate five-year-old wanting to fit in and while I am so angry that I gave up my mother tongue, I imagine any little girl who travelled so far across the world to a whole new life would want so hard to be like everyone else and not be seen as ‘different.’
So fast-forward 15 years and I grew up like the American I so wanted to be. English took over as my mother tongue and for a long time, I never truly associated myself with Estonia. For a while, I was so removed from it that I did not even know where it was. Very embarrassing, I know. With a name like mine, it doesn’t come around often where I grew up, so I always felt like the ‘foreign’ girl. Nobody could ever pronounce my name and many people had no idea where or what Estonia was. So, in a sense, I felt no need to connect to it. However, about three years ago, my life started to get very confusing as university was part of my life and growing up and figuring out what I wanted to do with my life was daunting on me. I was in and out of university, I originally planned on getting my BFA in Dance and pursuing Dance as a career since I had spent almost my whole life studying ballet at a very intense school. However, when I started getting ‘graded’ on my dancing, it was hard to love it the way I did. It made me question if this was something I wanted to do with my life.
One day I was in the car with my mom and, out of nowhere, she suggested going back to Estonia to study. I am pretty sure I remember laughing at her idea. For one, I didn’t have a passport and two, I had completely lost Estonian and Russian. She told me to at least look into it and I did. I found Tartu University, the University my mom also attended, and I emailed them telling them my situation and my background. I wasn’t expecting much of a response, but to my surprise I was told that there was a scholarship for Estonian Americans who have lived outside the country for a long time. The scholarship is aimed at bringing Estonians back to their home country. My jaw dropped and suddenly I realized that this was just what I needed. I needed to connect back with my roots. The scholarship gave me a stipend each semester and paid for 2 trips home each year (Christmas and summer). It was like the world gave me a burst of colour right in my hands. Of course, this was not an easy process as I did not have a passport and my birth certificate was missing.
My birth certificate was still in Estonia and my mom had no idea it was lost. However, through whatever magical powers of the world, a woman contacted me on Facebook, saying her children were my half brother and sister because she had been with my father after my mom had divorced him. She told me for some reason she had found my birth certificate and kept it. Can you believe that? A woman that I had never met, kept a birth certificate of a stranger thinking it might be important one day. The stars were aligning for me. Then came applying for a passport which is not easy at all. It is a long and laborious process and my mom and I had to fly to New York to apply and then had to take a train to Chicago to pick it up when it was done. Keep in mind that this was all a month before school started, it was a truly hectic and stressful time and I had so many doubts, my mom even did. I wrote a powerful essay as well for the application, I really put my heart into it. Then the day came, I received and email saying I received the scholarship and the amount of joy that I was filled with can not be put into words. I was going to travel over 6,000 km across the world to a whole new world to start a new life. A world that use to be home and that I neglected for so long. I was terrified and excited all in one.
Leaving home was painfully hard, but I was ready to tackle my future. I needed a change of scenery. I needed to connect with my past to find myself. Now, this scholarship provided me with a full year of Intensive Estonian language first before I actually started my degree because obviously I needed to learn Estonian again. I spent many nights crying in the beginning because I was so scared and felt so alone. Estonian was such an incredibly difficult language and all I could think about what, why did I let this go? I wouldn’t be dealing with all this now. I kicked myself in the foot many times during lessons and thought I would never get to know it ever again and it was all my fault. However, rather than go through all the events, here I am 2.5 years later.
I am a second-year English Language and Literature student and my Estonian has grown magnificently. I never imagined I would be where I am now. I feel comfortable here, I feel like I know myself, and I will never detach myself from my roots again. I realized how much I love travel and how much I love learning about other cultures and languages. My mind has opened so much and my confidence is getting better each day. Tartu University brought so much colour to my life despite all the stress and work. There were many days I wanted to drop it all and go back home, but I stuck to it and still am. There are days where I still feel confused about who I am and what I’m doing, but when I think about how much my life has grown in the past 2.5 years, I feel proud because not many people can drop everything and move across the world to something so drastically different.
Tartu University has been one of the best decisions of my life and that is an understatement. The professors I’ve had and the friends I have made will forever leave a mark on me. I am so excited for what the future has for me. I know many people feel like some things are impossible, but I am here to tell you that impossible is nothing. Follow your heart. Follow your soul. Follow what excites you. Don’t let fear hold you back from something that may be the best decision you’ve ever made.
This article was written for the UT Blog Competition by Teele Männik.