Navigating a Bilingual, Bicultural Family {When You’re the Odd One Out}


For the past 12 weeks, we’ve been living with my mother-in-law. She is helping us with childcare and pitching in with the cooking and cleaning while we adjust to new jobs after having moved cross-country. Before my husband and I were married, I told him I would be happy to have his mother live with us long-term. But, although her help is greatly appreciated, I grossly underestimated back then how hard it would be.

My Korean mother-in-law does not speak much English. This has resulted in many miscommunications between us. Understanding one another is so difficult, even for my husband as the go-between translator, that I frequently choose to remain silent at dinner while she speaks to my husband and daughter in Korean. As a result, I feel uncomfortable and lonely with her around.

I also grossly underestimated the struggle I would have as a mother.


I struggle with the anxiety that a divide could develop between my daughter and me, which I cannot hope to understand or cross, and from which I would be isolated within my own family. I want my daughter to simply be my daughter, and for my family to be a firm foundation of wholeness for her. I don’t want her to feel pulled into separate categories, but rather to feel complete and secure in herself.

I want my family to grow and define our own family culture in which each family member can be wholly accepted. Families do have their own micro-culture if you will, each one developing its own set of values and traditions from the lessons of the past and from their broader cultural backgrounds. As I navigate this life in which my daughter shares a cultural background that I do not, family culture has become an important concept to me.

But the beauty of it all is, I also grossly underestimated the strength of the mother-child bond. My daughter and I share a bond that transcends language or cultural differences, as she babbles to me in her own toddler language and insists on touching my arms or face while she falls asleep. She smiles and reaches for me when I come home from work. She loves spending time with me, being close to me, and playing with me. The bond between us is visible and palpable to everyone who encounters us. That bond will be there to support her as she grows and decides who she is for herself.