Forming an opinion about your homeland while you’re abroad is a dangerous thing. Not because your perception might be skewed by the environment you find yourself in, but because in that environment you notice things you wouldn’t otherwise [want or dare to] notice at home. These things can be painful to witness; they can induce angst and cause you to waver in defending the interests and honour of your fatherland when scaling new heights. 

Nevertheless, I opt for a path on which things are unlikely to end well. “King Yi, who ruled from around 897-873 BC, enjoyed sufficient authority to have Duke Ai boiled to death because the Duke had allegedly criticised him.” (A History of China, J.A.G. Roberts, 1999). This remains common practice in Estonia today: placing anyone who criticises the authorities in a scold’s bridle and throwing away the key. But if such a fate should also befall me, I’ll know that everything I’ve said I’ve said with utter conviction – at least at the moment I said it.

What have been Estonia’s greatest achievements over the last 100 years? Estonian as a language is alive and well. Estonia as a country is still on the map. Estonia as a state endures. Estonians have achieved great things abroad. A few people and their families have gotten rich. Are we happy? Nope!

Estonia’s a very ordinary sort of place – average; you might even say boring – where penury, laziness and fecklessness thrive. And more besides: a suffocating disaffection with ourselves and our country defended along the length of its border by an electric fence topped with barbed wire; emotional barriers and barriers put in place by the law that keep migrants, investors and tourists at bay. We’re afraid of the world. We’re afraid of people. We’re afraid of nationalities (especially Russians).

We can’t blame anyone else for all of this, because it’s a culture we’ve created ourselves: in Estonia it’s important to stand out (primarily to yourself), not to create something that stands out and whose worth is recognised even when we don’t cajole others into doing so.

Everyone else is better than Estonia

Estonia is led by a bunch of average Joes whose ambitions fail to extend to shared success, instead being limited to feathering their own nest. Often they fail even to achieve that. Sure, they might boast of having shaken hands with and being papped standing next to some of the most influential players in the world, but how has that then benefitted anyone?

The world’s full of Estonian-sized dots on the map that no one cares about except themselves, if that. Finland’s better than Estonia because the salaries are higher there. Sweden’s better than Estonia because that’s where the real business gets done. Russia’s better than Estonia because of its size and the opportunities it opens up. Latvia’s better than Estonia because at least they have a sensible alcohol policy. The heartland of the European Union’s better than Estonia because you can actually make a career for yourself there.

Whinging gets you nowhere. You have to ask yourself: what do we want to achieve? Where is it that we want to reach? Are we going to reach it together or alone? And is there even any point in reaching it? Possibly not.

There are more and more families who are dying out. Kids aren’t important; people’s lives are cul-de-sacs. The end comes when the last in the line is lost. People bang on about the need to procreate, and it’s galling, and outdated, and inappropriate, and distasteful.

Could it be any other way with Estonia? Hardly. It’s like a village in the south of the country: you can live there, sure, but what kind of life is that? Everyone’s making a beeline for the exit, the circling sharks have bought up all the land and sold it all in neat parcels to foreigners, there’s no infrastructure to speak of and the village store’s long since closed its doors due to the lack of custom, but hey, the mayor cries, we’ve got our e-state! Be dazzled! Whither now?

Is Estonia a country or isn’t it? Not from where they’re sitting in China. Not from where they’re sitting in Russia. Not from where they’re sitting in Brussels. We’re a puffed-up society (for which read ‘elite’, predominantly political elite) that’s bought itself an iPhone X and boasts about using nothing but the very latest in mobile technology.

Me, I like looking at things the other way round: that others are better than us. It’s the sort of thinking that teaches you something, and gives you something to aspire to.

Rolex & Prada will pull us out of poverty

If Estonia were as densely populated as Hong Kong (which is smaller than Vormsi by a full Ruhnu but still home to 1.3 million people, plus beaches and cemeteries), its own population would no longer be 1.3 million but 725 million. Which is to say that if everyone in Estonia lived on Vormsi (minus Ruhnu), we’d manage a lot better and a lot more effectively.

The administrative prowess of the people of Hong Kong is enough to make you go weak at the knees. There the state isn’t just the e-state that the people in charge of the place drop into conversation – success and wanting to be better than others is written into every cobblestone. New York, by number of skyscrapers, is a poor cousin to Hong Kong: it has 237 to Hong Kong’s 303, which is the world record.

In what respect, in terms of our achievements, are we better than Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Sweden, Russia? And even if we’re outstripping them in certain fields, I want to outdo them in every single one. Income tax? Bring it down! VAT? Lower it! Roads? Make them the best in the world! Companies and job creators? Support them in every way possible!

Rolex and Prada have set up shop in Hong Kong, and there’s no end of demand for them. The ‘cult of success’ that is so disparaged in Estonia is what’s driving Asia ahead. Prada shoes show that you’re someone to be taken seriously. There are Porsches and Lexuses on the streets of Vietnam. Where poverty exists, every dollar that goes into circulation helps pull someone out of absolute poverty. 

Condemning and discrediting the European way of spending forces people to dissimulate and impacts on employment, since everyone who buys something gives somebody work. In Estonia we want zero consumption but jobs for all. Hello…!

In the end we’re all one big (happy?) family

Swedish author Jonas Jonasson’s novel The Hundred-year-old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared, which has been published in Estonian, was turned into a film that was also shown in our cinemas. And if we can’t find our place in the world, I too want to climb out the window and disappear. If we can’t find the collective passion to work together to achieve something, I too want to climb out the window and disappear. If we abstain from running our country collectively but demand it of others who lack the will, the skill and the wherewithal to do so, I too want to climb out the window and disappear.

Needless to say I understand that in Chinese terms, with its population of 1.3 billion, Estonia barely even counts as a small town, but as a tiny corner of a small town; a Kopli or a Kalamaja, or (being generous) an Õismäe or a Lasnamäe. But what is Estonia to us? Who do we affix ourselves to? Whose wake do we trail along in?

The way I see it, to a lot of people, for a long time now, Estonia’s been a barren cow in a barren barn, mooing for want of anything better to do. Because when she needed a bull, there was never a bull to be found. Not even anyone to artificially inseminate her.

Donald Trump’s a joke? Russia’s “terminally ill on the inside” (as Jaan Tõnisson put it)? There are about 10 countries in the world who decide what happens. Estonia isn’t one of them. They might not be anywhere near as ‘beautiful’ as the Estonia those roughcasting the country’s future make it out to be, and perhaps they never will be. But to them, Estonia isn’t a country – it’s just some patch of land beyond the sea, particularly after the Jerusalem vote.

Estonia is not the world. Europe is not the world. Both are small and diminishing in importance. Europe isn’t doing everything in its power to grow, but to grow smaller in a sustainable way without shedding any of its capital.

Work has great power to create new capital, at an extraordinary rate. Europe is like a Baltic-German noble ca 1918 who’s either already lost his lands and estates or soon will. The new world is being born thanks to ambition, to the need to achieve, and to building the future in a way marked out by self-denial. Masses of nameless, faceless drones are working towards this goal, all of them happy to toil round the clock to pull themselves out of absolute poverty. In order to go along with these trends you need Asian-style leaders who are ruthless in regard to laziness, indolence, incompetence, self-interest and self-regard.

In summary then, these words from the Tao Te Ching or “The Book of the Way’s Virtue” from the 4th century BC:

Not to value and employ men of superior ability

is the way to keep the people from rivalry among themselves;

not to prize articles which are difficult to procure

is the way to keep them from becoming thieves;

not to show them what is likely to excite their desires

is the way to keep their minds from disorder.

Therefore the sage, in the exercise of his government,

empties their minds, fills their bellies,

weakens their wills, and strengthens their bones.

He constantly tries to keep them

without knowledge and without desire,

and where there are those who have knowledge,

to keep them from presuming to act on it.

When there is this abstinence from action, 

good order is universal.

You need power to find the way. The less our leaders intervene in our lives as we go about living them, the happier we are. There was a time when the China we know today was 170 smaller and 15 larger states. Now there’s only one. Estonia is 170 smaller states which ultimately form one big ‘China’.

But will we be able to preserve our land and our language and our state for the next hundred years as well? Individualism might help a little in the short term, but in the long term the only thing that will help us is the collective. The bigger, the smarter and the more unified we are the better.

December 2017, en route to Taiwan, having left behind China, Russia, Hong Kong and Vietnam