TCKs of Asia


an Open Forum

6 OCTOBER 2020

A Foreigner in My Own Family

The Hidden Loss of Language & Intimacy

‘My parents wanted me to learn English and fit in. But they expect me to be fully Asian too. They don’t understand that I sometimes feel I’m not Western enough and I’m not Asian enough.’

Many Third Culture Kids (TCKs) grow up speaking a different language from one or both of their parents. Some experience a disconnect, a lack of language to communicate with those who are closest to them: their families. To one degree or another, they may feel a sense of loss of home language and culture, as well as the frustration of not being understood by their own family.

From the earliest age, children get their cultural cues from their parents, who are important anchors and mirrors for a child’s identity. But when a child’s strongest language is different from that of one or both of their parents — and because language and culture are so closely intertwined — it can create a sense of cultural disconnection that can affect the parent-child relationship, even into adulthood.

In this open forum, we heard from a few Third Culture Kids about how becoming fluent in English or losing their home language complicated their relationship with their parents, their home culture and their sense of identity. We then opened the floor to discussion with all attendees.

Thank you to everyone who joined us and contributed to a reflective, thoughtful discussion!


Ardi Kuhn is a graduate student at the Asien-Afrika-Institut, University of Hamburg. His current research interest is in postcolonial queer Southeast Asian studies. Ardi grew up in the South Pacific and Asia in a diplomatic, mixed-race American family. Having grown up not speaking Indonesian or Javanese—his mother's languages—Ardi moved to Indonesia as an adult on a roots journey, while working in international education. As a cultural curator he is interested in community building through arts and critical discussion related to and involving Indonesian and Southeast Asian diasporas.

Aiko Minematsu is a university lecturer in Tokyo, teaching English for academic purposes, and is Co-Chair of the FIGT Japan Affiliate. Aiko attended seven elementary schools in Japan and the USA. While in the US, Aiko's parents required her to only speak Japanese at homean experience that has led to her deep interest in language acquisition and bilingualism. Aiko now holds an MA in TESOL and a license for teaching secondary school English in Japan. Aiko has taught English to returnee students and other TCKs in Japan for over ten years and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Education at University at Buffalo, State University New York.

Karen Tan is an Intercultural trainer, leadership coach & Founder of Think Impact. Born in Vietnam, Karen moved with her family around Asia every few years before moving to the US. As a Chinese diaspora, Karen grew up speaking Cantonese at home and picked up the local languages wherever she lived but she never learnt Vietnameseher parents' other language. After her nomadic genes brought Karen back to Asia in 2007, she lived in China, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Cambodia training Chinese cross-cultural workers in cross-cultural leadership & communication and international team-building. Karen is now also pursuing a doctoral degree in member care.

Danau Tanu is an anthropologist and author of Growing Up in Transit: The Politics of Belonging at an International School, which is based on her PhD research on Third Culture Kids. Danau was born in Canada to a Chinese Indonesian father and Japanese mother, and attended both local public schools and international schools in Indonesia, Japan and Singapore. Having grown up speaking four languages at home, Danau has developed a keen interest in the impact of language fluency on relationships within families. She is also a Co-Chair of the FIGT Research Network.


Isabelle Min is a former radio host and television broadcaster for KBS, as well as a diplomat kid and one of the first generation of Koreans who grew up overseas in the 1970s and 80s. When she repatriated in high school, Isabelle was fully aware of the privilege that came with her international experience and fluency in five languages, especially English. Yet, with it came an even stronger awareness of the way cultural hierarchies interfered with her relationship with others. Isabelle has spent the last decade as founder and CEO of the TCK Institute to help break down these hierarchies.


Edited by Karen Tan
JPEG version for social media. Design by Asako Noda
TCKs of Asia_A Foreigner in My Own Family.pdf
PDF version with embedded link. Design by Asako Noda

Listen to our past forum on our new podcast - Third Culture Stories
Episode 2: Language & Power
Episode 1: Third Culture Kids & Family Ties
Watch a TED Talk on bilingual education and identity by our team member Saeko Mizuta of TCK Workshop