Outsiders, Together

The first two months at my dorm, I was living in a double by myself. I remember, at first, I was bummed that I wouldn’t have someone to talk to after coming back from work or someone to cook dinner with. With time, that initial disappointment faded away, and I became quite happy with my own pseudo-studio apartment.

Two weeks ago, as I was walking down the hallway to my door after a day at work, I noticed that my door was open. I immediately started to panic and speed-walked to my doorway. I first see a large suitcase on the floor and then look up to see a girl hanging up clothes in the closet. Without any warning, I now had a roommate!

I learned that she is a student from China, studying Quantum Physics. She told me she had never been outside of China before and so hadn’t had much experience with speaking English. Frankly, her unfamiliarity with English was noticeable. When she came to a word she didn’t know, she would start saying the word in Chinese, get a little frazzled, and then resort to using a translator. When we went to the supermarket together and the cashier asked if she wanted the receipt, she stared blankly at the man and then at me until I told the man “no, thank you.”

It was hard to talk at first as we quickly ran into language barriers, but once I started talking about what I knew about Chinese culture and the intersections with Japanese culture, the conversation started flowing. We talked about hotpot and anime – surprisingly, she had once aspired to become a manga artist. I asked her about how she felt about living in Copenhagen. She said it has been difficult: when she joined the dinners in the common kitchen, she would just “sit and smile,” not knowing what the conversation was about at all; she would buy the wrong ingredients for dinner because she can’t understand the labeling. She reminded me of my own mother, who often feels out of place in American society; she smiles along when she misses out on the humor and feels reluctant to ask for help at stores because when people hear her accent, they start treating her like an outsider.

Me, another MIT intern (Maheera), and my supervisor at the Danish Industry Welcome Reception.

Talking to my roommate about her experience made me reflect on mine. My focus throughout this MISTI experience has been an immersion into Danish culture. Working here and having conversations with colleagues has helped me learn about Danish culture and its emphasis on work-life balance. I’ve learned about the social welfare benefits and their love for kickbacks and beer. Yet, I still feel quite a bit isolated from the real Danish experience. There is a difference between being accepted as an outsider and being accepted as an insider. In fact, I feel the language barrier, not one that impedes understanding, but rather an intimacy. I’m not in on the jokes my colleagues crack in Danish; all the Danish around me just dissolves into background noise and I just “sit and smile.” Also, it is hard to integrate into this culture where the communities are already so tight-knit. Most Danes stay within a 20km radius their whole lives, and with that comes strong social ties, but also less motivation to meet new people outside of their circle.  

Me and two other MIT-Denmark students (Maheera and Eveline) at Roskilde Festival, a Danish music festival.

Luckily, I have found a community with the other MISTI students. With the common experience of MIT and living in Denmark, we all got close quickly. Since MIT is a melting pot of different backgrounds, there is always something interesting to talk about and identities to celebrate.

I may be half-Danish, but at the end of the day, my identity is dominated by my upbringing as American and Japanese and by my life as an American college student. Living here has made me think about how we form communities and their inextricable links to cultural and language identities.

At dinner, I asked her to teach me some Chinese words. I learned how to say good morning, goodbye, and goodnight in Mandarin.

As I was leaving the dorm to meet up with some friends, I said, “Zaijian [goodbye].” She smiled. “Zaijian!”

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.