An Asian Immigrant’s Approach to Design Research

In celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Widya Ramadhani, our newest researcher, describes her PhD dissertation on how design impacts a ritual all humans practice: the daily meal.

It was August, 2008. I remember coming down the escalator at the Salt Lake City airport, scanning the sea of people in the arrival area. I found my name written on white poster board, decorated with glitter and stickers. A girl with brown hair and green eyes held a poster that said, “Welcome home, Widya!” By her side, I saw her sister and mother standing with smiles decorating their radiant faces. I had seen these faces in a photo inside a host family document I had received just two weeks prior in Jakarta, Indonesia.

They were my host family, the Kergayes. They had opened their house and their hearts to welcome me, a 16-year-old exchange student from Palembang, Indonesia, to spend a whole year living in the United States. From that day on, I would share numerous moments of discovery as I immersed myself into an American household, studied in an American school, and learned about American culture in my everyday life.

An Asian Immigrant’s Approach to Design Research: Widya Ramadhani with her American host family in 2009

Widya Ramadhani, top, left, poses with her American host family, the Kergayes, in 2009.

Fourteen years later, one of my most vivid memories was the family meal I shared with my host family. We would sit together every evening and enjoy the meal my host mom had prepared. Dinnertime was the most special time of day, when everyone was asked to share about their day. Sharing and listening to every family member’s story was their way of showing love to each other.

This routine was new to me. Back home in Indonesia, my family eat dinner at our own convenient time. When my family ate together, it was most likely for breakfast, as everyone was starting their day in the morning. Our family conversation mainly consisted of commands: Eat your breakfast. Finish your milk. Don’t forget your books for school. Love, instead, comes in the form of gesture, like when my mother cooks my favorite food or my father takes me to my favorite restaurant. “How was your day?” was a question I didn’t know how to answer. No one had ever asked me about my day before I came to the United States.

How do we Indonesians show that we care and love each other if we don’t engage in meaningful conversations in our everyday life? It is quite similar, happening around food, but with a different method of communication. Culturally, we Indonesians are not expressive in a verbal sense. We have a high-context communication style, meaning that gestures within social and environmental contexts give meaning to our everyday interactions.

There is no right or wrong way to express care and love to one another. It’s just different. Such differences should be celebrated in every aspect of our lives, including the design of our environment. In the spirit of Asian American and Pacific Islander month, I am sharing my research, which places a cultural lens on the experience of older Indonesian women who are aging in place.

I just completed my PhD in architecture from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. My dissertation research brought cultural differences acutely into perspective regarding a ritual every one of us practices: daily meals. I studied two groups of older Indonesian women—those who still live in Indonesia and those who’ve migrated to the US. I investigated how cultural contexts shape family meals and other activities such as preparing ingredients, cooking, and cleaning. My study compared the practices, challenges, and strategies of maintaining independence among those who are strongly embedded in Indonesian society and those who have immersed themselves as immigrants in American society. Indonesian women tend to have kitchens that are more secluded from the dining room and other living areas of the home; all the cooking is completed before guests come over, and it’s served already prepared. In the US, kitchens and living areas are connected and open; the cooking process is a part of women’s interaction with their guests. The open-plan design of American houses naturally lends itself to displaying and sharing domestics tasks such as meal preparation among all household members, whereas in Indonesia, the closed-off nature of home kitchens provides privacy for women, who are mainly responsible for preparing, cooking, and cleaning. It serves them well because a majority are Muslim and use hijab (a head covering), so these secluded spaces allow them freedom from worrying that they might be seen from the more public area of the house.

An Asian Immigrant’s Approach to Design Research

Years after her exchange program with the Kargayes, Widya (right) reunited with her host sister, Mariam Kergaye.

These differences show a distinct cultural expectation towards domestic work and women’s space, reflected in the layout of residential environments. The varying kitchen designs respond to this larger context: In Indonesia, backyards are treated more as common space than fenced-off, private properties; women guests usually visit through the backdoor with direct access to the kitchen, while maintaining a distance from spaces where mixed company gathers. It’s also far more common (and affordable) for households to employ help for cooking and cleaning, so women are not totally removed from their families and friends before meals are served. In America, on the other hand, I found that Indonesian women had acclimated well to new habits, methods, and layouts around cooking and dining. They liked the changes, in fact, because of the ability to share household tasks in a more open and supportive environment—especially where domestic help is much more expensive and less accessible.

My dissertation was inspired by my personal journey as someone from a culturally rich background in Indonesia who later moved to the US, which has its own set of cultural values and practices. As an Indonesian, a woman, and an immigrant, I could relate to many of the daily experiences and challenges of the women in my study. I was aware of the worldview and cultural context that influenced how they made decisions, built routines, and adapted to change. Like food, design is a product of love from people to people, and it is a spirit I share with Perkins Eastman. As I’ve embarked on my journey as a researcher in practice at Perkins Eastman since I started with the Washington, DC, studio in February 2023, I have witnessed how we care so much about the people we are designing for, and also the people on our design teams.

An Asian Immigrant’s Approach to Design Research 1

Widya (second from left) enjoys a meal at a gathering with her husband’s family in Bukittinggi, Indonesia.

One of my first projects here is the post-occupancy evaluation of the firm’s Pittsburgh Studio, which was designed to accommodate our shifting work culture into a free-address model and work-from-anywhere policy. That was where I saw firsthand how the team translated our Human by Design ethos into a designed space. The space wasn’t just pretty, but it also offered a variety of choices to accommodate our colleagues’ diverse needs across different times of the day. And as we’ve been finalizing these research findings, I’ve found one familiar theme. Similar to my dissertation study, we discovered that the communal kitchen and dining area serve as the anchor to the studio community. It’s the most welcoming space in the studio, where casual conversations are easily formed, especially around lunch time.

Design can be different depending on the client, culture, and location, but the process and product should always be oriented toward serving the best possible outcomes for the people who ultimately inhabit that space. Whether it’s for housing, office, or other spaces, I’m keen to design and research with those people in mind, which means being mindful of their cultural values and practices. And in my new home at Perkins Eastman, once again, I feel welcomed.