The City That Gives

I came here from Hong Kong as an exchange student for one semester (enough to fall in love with Tartu; not enough to have enough of Tartu) to study English and Philosophy. In Tartu I have met so many lovely people; these people and Tartu have become an important part of my life.

Now I’ve just come back to Hong Kong to join my family for the Chinese New Year celebration. After the celebration, I will (unfortunately) have to start my semester and study(!) at my home university. And I will, of course, have to live the life in Hong Kong (busier; less space; less drinking – !).

Below is the story of a Hong Konger coming to Tartu, written for the UT Student Journalist Contest in autumn 2011 – hope you’ll enjoy!

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Tartu view
Having never been outside Asia, I had a lot of thoughts about Tartu based on some guidebooks before I came. My imagined picture of Tartu was full of beautiful but cold people speaking in an immensely difficult language. I was proven wrong on my first day in Tartu by a curious encounter.

After more than twenty hours of flight, I arrived in Tallinn – alone, sleep-deprived, and anxious – because of the totally new environment, incomprehensible language, and unfamiliar faces. On the way from the airport to the bus station, the Estonians I saw ostensibly confirmed my stereotypes about Estonian people: beautiful and cold. The idea that I would stay for half a year with cold people bothered me. It kept me awake on the bus, and even though I was exhausted, I took my Estonian dictionary out and started, for the first time, learning Estonian – from the alphabet (õäöü), to the phonology (the trilling “r”), to the grammar (fourteen cases), and then on to some essential expressions. Difficult, very difficult. I thought, “Oh, I was right”.

“Tere” was my first attempt in Estonian. It sounded too wrong. It drew some soft laughs from passengers who heard my mumbled pronunciation. One of them sat next to me – an old lady. I looked at her, and she smiled at me. She took a breath, muttered some unintelligible sounds, thought for a while and then said: “Where from – from where?” “Hong Kong”, I answered. This started our conversation, in a mix of fragmented English, facial expressions and body language. I told her, mostly by pointing at the dictionary with a tormented facial expression, that the Estonian language was difficult. She took out a pen and paper, and started writing. She handed me the paper with a thumbs-up. It read “AITÄH – Thank you”. I practiced pronouncing it with her correcting me. I finally sounded right and she was happy. She took the paper and wrote more. “MA – I, ARMASTAN – love, SIND – you”. She thought for a short while and then wrote more: “TULE – come, SIIA – here TÜTARLAPS – girl”. She gave me the paper, a big warm smile and a thumbs-up, and said “you need, enough”. My first Estonian class ended thus.

We talked until I was finally comfortable enough to fall asleep. When I woke up, it was dark and we were close to Tartu. I then took out my university invitation letter, looked at the address and was unsure of how to get to Raatuse 22. “Where?” I asked her. She took the letter and said, “I know”.

When we arrived, she limped with two big, plastic bags full of groceries to ask the driver where Raatuse 22 was. She talked so much faster in Estonian. Moments later, I helped her with the bags as she led me slowly and laboriously on the way to Raatuse 22. We stopped at a bridge; she had to go back to catch her next bus.

We exchanged names. I said “Thank you – Aitäh, aitäh”, and she said “you are a lovely son”, hugged me, and gave me a kiss. She warmed my heart. We said “goodbye”. And – we will never meet again (I wholeheartedly hope we will.)

Botanical garden in Tartu
Her life touched mine, and changed it – my stereotypes of Estonian people broke down. I then started to embrace Tartu as it really is without any presumption and felt that Tartu people are always helpful, supportive and appreciative. International and local people alike have fun and friendship here; Tartu is full of pleasant surprises and much more welcoming than I thought. Without the encounter with her, I would have needed a lot more time to dissolve my unfriendly presumptions about the people and the city. This one meeting with her made a difference on me.

She now, in my mind, embodies my good thoughts of Tartu: welcoming, cheerfully vibrant, full of surprises and much more. Among all the good thoughts, this is the most important – in the same way the old, motherly lady offered me her best welcome and warmth, and in the same way Tartu Ülikool gives international students its best – Tartu welcomes everyone and offers them its best, even knowing that they are just visitors who will very likely never come back.

Just one meeting, no more, with Tartu, is enough indeed to make my life and that of many others different in a lovely way.

Tartu is a city that gives more, much more, than it takes – fun, knowledge, and love. Tartu is a city for everyone.

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