Denmark to the point

I’m new to Copenhagen, but half of my company is too, and fortunately, we’ve got plenty of advice on how to get by. A coworker of mine, a fellow expat from a different English-speaking country, bought a bike he later learned was stolen. “Should I turn it in?” he asked.

            “Maybe in winter,” said a Danish coworker. She looked at his skin, clearly white but tanned by the sun. “Call the police now and they’ll just arrest you.”

There are some cute running trails around the city! The weather is lovely, the light lasts until late, which makes for a lot of good runs.

            Another time, an Argentinian coworker had an appointment with the Danish embassy. As she packed up her laptop, people joked, “Don’t get deported!”

            Both lines caught me by surprise. Was I supposed to laugh? These jokes were criticisms of the Danish police and immigration systems, yes; but the bluntness in a workplace threw me off.
            I grew up in a purple state during the rise of Trump. In coming of age, in this political moment, there’s a lot of evaluating and re-evaluating the beliefs you grew up with and the patterns of speech you previously didn’t question. We craft our vocabularies so that the words we use reflect what we believe. Sometimes it seems we correct each other too eagerly and tear people down on social media when they misspeak or err. Generally, this movement of changing or corralling language seems to me to be born of trying to cast off a history of racism very quickly, with varying results.

I went to Copenhell, a metal festival, and discovered that I love metal music! 

            That’s the world I’ve learned to move through. In America, if someone made a deportation joke to me — a Mexican — at work, I’d find it somewhat off-color.

            Being in Copenhagen, I think that in hindsight, I was expected to laugh.  I haven’t figured out if I wanted to.

            Is this bluntness something I want to take home with me, to learn from? Or is it something I want to push back against?

I like criticizing my country — as they say in engineering classes, the first step is to identify the problem.

Amber Velez

Sometimes bluntness suits me. There was, for example, a time I was explaining part of my practice of Judaism to a friend from Europe. He listened, asked questions, and said, “I didn’t know that. There aren’t a lot of Jews in Europe.”

We made eye contact, and I didn’t say “I wonder why,” — but he did. I said, “Yeah, I was thinking that.” We laughed, although in America, maybe we wouldn’t have. It felt nice to just say what I was thinking—knowing he would roll with it.

In this international company, I’m perceived as American before anything else. I’ve been gleefully pulling out stories of my experiences in Arizona, where you can legally purchase a gun years before you can drink, and teenagers drive gas-guzzling trucks to school. People here find it bizarre that I had a license at sixteen. I like criticizing my country — as they say in engineering classes, the first step is to identify the problem. Such jokes at work are uncontroversial; in Copenhagen, as in much of Europe, it’s universally understood that America has a lot to work on.

            When our mutual understandings break down, however, blunt jokes out in the open put me on edge. Once at a bar, the conversation veered into a territory of racist stereotypes against a certain ethnic group. I would like to think that those speaking were simply uneducated about the topic, although that is no excuse. I didn’t laugh. I stopped eating. One person saw my expression and sobered, but the rest didn’t notice. I wish I’d spoken up — I’m not terribly educated about that group, but I know enough to articulate why the stereotypes tossed around were false and harmful. I walked away feeling ashamed, knowing I could have tapped into — American ideals of correcting everyone around you or European ideals of saying precisely what’s on your mind, whichever one could get me to say something.

            I struggle to imagine a similar conversation happening within that demographic in a major city in America. Still, I wonder if that conversation resulted from how Europeans talk about societal issues — or whether these conversations happened all the time in America, just not in the open, or not around people who look like me.

Moving past conversations and looking at the overall policies we vote for, I can’t say that America has figured out how to address systemic issues better than the rest of the world. In many ways, we’re worse. There’s a lot to be done on both sides of the ocean.

My company went on a camping trip, and we explored a lighthouse near the campsite. There was a Fresnell lens used to reflect light over the sea.

I suppose that brings me back to where I’ve always been: figuring out what I believe and how to express that in a way society around me understands. If more ideas are being thrown on the table, more opinions for me to weigh and learn from, well then, let’s get into it.

The other day a male coworker joked about how women were loud in the morning; I smiled and piped up, “Not the ones I’ve been with.”

I’m getting better at deciding when to laugh, and at choosing what to say while I do.

Amber Velez, MechE and History ’24, spent the summer working at Seaborg ApS, a start-up developing a compact molten salt reactor.