A water color illustration of the Danish geographic silhouette wrestling the Chinese geographic silhouette.
A water color illustration of the Danish geographic silhouette wrestling the Chinese geographic silhouette.
Hygge is winning in my pandemic battle against Confucian work ethic.

Work ethic and hygge in a time of social distancing

I did not know my grandparents well. To my parents, they were people to visit and have a meal with, but not people to be close to. I didn’t speak their languages and I didn’t understand their ways. But I observed. I watched my Chinese grandparents work, save, eat, repeat, but never really understood what they cared about, what they loved, who they were. I watched my Danish grandparents have slow Sunday mornings, rising for church, and having long ambling afternoons with warm coffee, a newspaper, and a puzzle.

These two different worlds, to me, seemed very specific my grandparents. These were their ways, and to be their grandchild meant occasionally participating in their ways. I wondered if perhaps that’s why we visited them so little. Maybe our ways were too different, and my parents just didn’t want to live that way.

As this pandemic has pushed us indoors, and I’ve begun to learn to work at home, to enjoy my house, I’ve begun to wonder about whether my ways are all that different from my grandparents’. And whether our ways are not just our own, but the ways of a long cultural history of China and Denmark.

My Chinese grandfather left China when he was a young adult. He came to Seattle, to work at his Uncle’s restaurant and find his father in New York. His journey was one of hard work. He joined the military to earn U.S. citizenship, peeled (literally) a million potatoes, and made a life for himself in America during the depression, saving his money, investing in property, and putting work before all else. My father talked of his father as a distant figure, leaving early to make money, coming home late, exhausted. Even up until my grandfather was in his early nineties (he passed at 97), I remember playing in his backyard, while he spent hours trimming his tomato plants, picking Asian pears, and planting seeds, so that we would have fresh fruits and vegetables for dinner. His life was defined by work.

My Chinese grandmother was a nurse in China. When the Japanese invaded Canton, she experienced the horrors of watching her friends and coworkers be slaughtered and beheaded. She hid in a closet as they raided her hospital, and spent months trying to reorient to the destruction of war. As she rebuilt her life, my grandfather had returned to China to look for a wife. She saw an opportunity to escape tragic memories and left, spending three months on a boat with morning sickness to travel to America. She spent the next two decades raising five children, running a laundry shop, and managing apartments. My father was distant from her too; she was busy taking care of infants, running the family businesses, and cooking, and tasking him and his siblings with roaming downtown Portland for pigeons. Her life was defined work, and even is still, even as she approaches 100 years of age.

My Danish grandfather was born in America, to parents who had recently left the poor Danish island of Lolland. They were saddlemakers and farmers, looking for opportunitiy. Rural was in their blood; the photographs of their family and home were sparse, cozy, and remote. They lived in Nebraska for a time, farming, and then moved west, eventually finding their way to Oregon. My grandfather’s childhood was one of farm laboring, freedom, and mischief. He joined the navy in World War I, and soon after met my grandmother. He built a life with 13 children, a post office job, and a small family farm, and filled his time with play, coffee, and a comfortable chair. His life was defined by a kind of rural comfort.

My Danish grandmother was also born in America. Her parents had also left Denmark in search of opportunity, finding their way to rural Oregon. Her mom fell ill and died, and my great grandfather gave my grandmother up to a Danish orphanage, where she was raised. Her childhood was one big cozy family, of dozens of siblings, a lot of play, and a religious simplicity. When she left the orphanage to live with her sister, she met my grandfather when he was docked in the Navy. They got married, she gave birth to more than a dozen children, recreating the communal comfort of her childhood. As they all grew up and left the house, she settled into an even more maternal role as grandmother to dozens of grandchildren. Her life was defined by a religious and familial coziness.

I see traces of their ways of being in my own life now. And I recognize some of their cultural origins. Both of my families had their own culture of work ethic—one Confucian, one Protestant—and these live in me today. While I don’t define myself by my work, I do see an intrinsic importance to work, and feel a deep moral commitment to doing my work thoroughly and well. I see now that these come more from my family than my self. But there is a tension between those cultural work ethics and what I now see as the of my Danish family—the coziness, comfort, and wellness in the way my Danish grandparents lived. My Chinese grandparents seemed to view comfort as waste. My Danish grandparents saw comfort as yin to work’s yang.

This stay at home orders of this pandemic have amplified the tension between work and hygge in my life. I have always lived two ways: one of Confucian and Protestant work ethic at my place of work and one of hygge at home. But now they are both at home, and my work ethic is in direct conflict with my hygge. Work can be anywhere now, so where does the hygge live? This has forced me make more space for hygge, and for me to recognize and reinforce the things I already do to maintain a hygge sense of wellness, comfort, coziness.

Many things have helped. I’ve been more present during grocery shopping, not only to avoid spreading the virus, but to appreciate the fresh fruits and meats, my favorite snacks, and the meals I might prepare. I’ve begun to sit in the sun more and just feel its sensations. I’ve read books more slowly, appreciating the beauty of a sentence. I’ve taken longer showers, well beyond what I need to be clean. When I sit on our couch, I spent more time finding a comfortable position, trying to view sitting as a beautiful privilege. I pet my cat more, I listen to music more carefully, and enjoy that liminal space in the morning between sleep and wakefulness.

As I’ve found more hygge in my home, my work has also become cozy. I’ve spent more time getting my light and seating just right. I’ve given myself a comfortable chair in which to read. I read more. I spend more time on emails, thinking about the hygge I might spread to coworkers through my words. I’ve tried to arrange my video chat backdrop to convey the sense of warmth and comfort that I feel. None of this has interfered with my productivity or eroded my work ethic—I probably still do to much, and ask too much of others in these uncertain times—but it has changed what it feels like to work. Work is more cozy.

But it has also made me feel like I know my grandparents better than I ever did as a child. I can see that their ways were also the ways of their countries and their cultures, that they passed some of those ways to their children, and that my parents passed them on to me. There’s a kind of comfort in knowing that my grandparents live on in how I live. And a kind of comfort in knowing that how anyone lives can survive war, economic depression, and yes, pandemic.

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store