Elegant Simplicity: Identities in the Context of Danish Culture

I see Danish design everywhere I go in Copenhagen: women wear minimalist, flowy dresses paired with comfortable sneakers; the metro involves a simple tap in and tap out system with stands placed strategically all along the platforms to avoid traffic at entrances and exits; my engineering team uses an organized online task management board to streamline operations.

Oftentimes, we think of design as it applies to products, but here it is present on the macro-scale, involving systems and communities. US companies often boast innovation and community, but they have nothing against the Danish companies; they live and breathe design and cooperation.

Miki with her Brass Rat in Denmark
View from the spiral tower on the Church of Our Savior.

As a Mechanical Engineering student at MIT, a place where promoting diversity and maintaining gender balance are high priorities, I often forget that in the real world, female mechanical engineers are hard to come by.  I don’t feel like I am in a man’s world. Sure, there are fewer of us, but the treatment seems more equal than ever.

Unexpectedly, I feel other parts of my identity peeking out more than usual: especially my American cultural identity.

While unpacking at my new home, a University of Copenhagen dorm room, I smelled scents of basil and olive oil seeping through my door. I poked my head outside my room to find a cohort of students eating dinner in the common kitchen across the hall. I soon learned that they were from all around Europe: Italy, Spain, Norway, Finland, Ireland… it was like I was sitting at the table of the United Nations and I was the American representative.

Miki posing in Denmark at Ørstedsparken
Me at Ørstedsparken

They were spending the semester in Copenhagen studying or interning in their final push of the end of their undergrad careers. It was cool to see how these people, from all different backgrounds, created such a tight-knit community. We talked a lot about differences between our home countries while also connecting about shared experiences as foreigners in Denmark, and as students in general.

While I expected Copenhagen to be very ethnically homogeneous, to my surprise, there is quite a bit of diversity. Although not as many as in the US, there are people of color and of different religions and cultures. I sit next to women in hijabs in the metro, see black and brown people at the grocery stores, and hear Italian and German conversations swirl around me when walking down the streets in central Copenhagen. I haven’t seen many people like me around though – half-Asian or even multiracial. In fact, at my dorm’s dinner table, there are no East Asian representatives. I sometimes see some Chinese students microwaving something for dinner, talking amongst themselves in Mandarin. Otherwise, I haven’t had contact with Asian people in this dorm, though there are quite a few of them. I wonder why they keep to themselves more than their European counterparts. Is there some cultural divide? Does their immersion into a foreign, European culture make them feel the need to clutch onto whatever remaining familiarities they have and make some semblance of home out of them? A part of me feels that way: I want to meet other biracial students or some Japanese people with whom I can cook Japanese food or speak Japanese. As a person who has always identified strongly with my Japanese side, I feel it slowly fading into the backdrop as I try to fit into this heavily European picture.

When people ask if I am Danish – since my last name “Hansen” is so Danish, I tell them that I’m “Dane-ish:” my dad’s ancestors were Danish, but I do not know much about the language or culture. I often forget to mention the other side of my ethnicity. In the past, I have had people relentlessly asking about my race because they can’t put their finger on whether I am only Caucasian or some mix. But people don’t pry here. When it does come up, there is an element of coolness associated with being biracial, but otherwise, I don’t feel a sense of fetishization I’ve felt before. I had a whole conversation with a coworker simply about the similarities in Japanese and Danish design cultures: the balanced simplicity and cozy practicality that permeates both, manifesting zen and hygge, respectively.

Just walking around Copenhagen, seeing not only the objects of Danish design but also the people living in such a well-designed system gives me new perspectives on my identity. My race, gender, age, don’t matter that much; they don’t change how I should be treated or where I should be in life. What I bring to the table isn’t diversity due to my genetics, but rather, diversity from my experiences and personality. This is Danish design’s elegant simplicity at work.

Mike Hansen

Miki Hansen is a member of the class of 2021 studying Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in Product Development. This summer, she is working on product design at 3Shape in Copenhagen, Denmark.