TCKs and language

The TCKs of Asia group held an online forum on "Language and Power." Afterwards, I had so many thoughts swirling about in my head about language and belonging, what "mother tongue" means, and the reason why the Japanese label of kikoku shijo ("returnee") never felt right to me.

The online forum on "Language and Power," organized by the TCKs of Asia group, was a wonderful opportunity for third culture kids (TCKs) of Asia to reflect on one's "native" language and English and the complex relationship that language ability has with our self-identities and experiences.

After the session ended at 11pm, I couldn't immediately sleep because I was buzzed from the excitement of being (virtually) with a group of people who "get" what it's like to have grown up between worlds, the emotional drain of reliving and empathizing with tough experiences, and the swarm of thoughts crowding my brain.

Here's an attempt at articulating some of those thoughts.

Language and belonging

I believe language is a gift and power. Being bilingual has opened up worlds for me, which is why I want to pass multilingualism to my children.

But although language can bring empowerment--it's the power to communicate and to collect information--it's not always experienced as an advantage. That's true for me.

▶ English = up in the hierarchy (but "different")

In Japan, people would put me on a pedestal when they realized I could speak English. "Wowwwww that's soooo amazing!" they'd gush. I'd feel embarrassed (especially since it had little to do with my own efforts) and Other-ly. I would hide my ability, not wanting to elicit that exaggerated response.

▶ Imperfect native tongue = low in the hierarchy ("not good enough")

Meanwhile, my Japanese is not up to par. I feel limited in how I can express things and it takes me three times as long to compose Japanese compared to writing English, which is a bore. And it makes me feel I'm not a "true" Japanese (the absurdity being that I don't even identify as a "true" Japanese anyway!).

The human need to belong is so strong that being partially "in" isn't enough.

You'd think we should be appreciating even an imperfect command of a language as a positive, rather than a negative...and yet, we don't.

Mother tongue

I never quite clicked with the term "mother tongue" (or even "native tongue")--I mean, what does it mean? But the discussion showed me that a language could literally be the connection we have with our mother (and father...sorry dads, I know in some languages, one says "father tongue". The point is the parent-child connection).

That made so much sense! I've always preferred Japanese when I'm tired, when I'm about to go to sleep or when I've just woken up. It's the language I use when my defenses are down. Perhaps that's what makes Japanese my mother tongue.

Interesting to think that that's the connection my children will have with me too. Thinking of it that way makes me value my Japanese (such as it is) more.

"Kikoku shijo" or "Returnee child(ren)"

The Japanese use the term kikoku shijo 帰国子女 (translating into something like "boys and girls returned to the country") to refer to Japanese children who've moved out of Japan, usually to accompany their parents, for a certain length of time and then returned to Japan.

It was my label when I moved back to Japan as an elementary school student. But it's never sat right with me.

Perhaps because I was only 4 when I left Japan the first time and had few memories of it, I never felt like I was "returning" to Japan; it was simply a move to a new country.

I left Japan again in my teens and have never "returned" again in the sense of repatriating; nor do I foresee doing so for...well, ever.

Besides, I was already an adult, no longer the child that's implied in kikoku shijo.

So does Japanese have no words to describe people like me? I have no idea to what extent people are becoming familiar with the term "third culture kids" in Japanese, but in any case, I am incredibly grateful for a label that I can identify with (adult TCK/ATCK now).

(When I finally read Third Culture Kids: Growing up among Worlds (David C. Pollock and Ruth van Reken) around 2015 or 2016, I was so moved that I wrote a review for BAMBI News magazine to spread the word :) )

That's it for now. It feels nice to dump it all into words. Many thanks to the organizers of TCKs of Asia for a wonderful experience!

Image by tookapic from Pixabay


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