Rep Ilhan Omar has recently been criticized for her lack of gratitude to America, a country that took in her parents as they were fleeing war-torn Somalia. The reasoning is that she should not criticize America because this country “saved” her family and provided her with the educational tools to become a legislator. Further, Rep Omar should be more humble and refrain from criticizing the injustices that she sees in our country as well as our policies abroad, especially when it concerns Israel.
These criticisms have brought back memories of similar conversations that I have heard in international adoption circles. Some adult adoptees have coined the term “toxic gratitude”. International adoptees are expected to be grateful to their adoptive parents as well as the US for saving them from a life in their birth country. How can you be grateful for losing not only your birth family but also a birth culture, growing up in a country as a minority rather than the majority? Gratitude implies choice. Adoptees don’t have a choice in their circumstances, in the family or countries that become their forever home. They should not be burdened with the additional weight of gratitude.
Similarly, immigrants often don’t have choices. If their home country was stable they wouldn’t be looking for a different country to call home. They wouldn’t be leaving a language, culture, food and family to relocate to a place where all of these items present new and difficult challenges. When they arrive in America, they are expected to embrace all that is America without hesitation or criticism. How dare immigrants be ungrateful for the material wealth and opportunities that America can provide.
A recent patient shared her immigration story from an African country with me when she was discussing her post partum low mood. If she had had her baby back in Africa, she would be surrounded by friends and relatives that dropped by daily to visit, often without calling first. Food would be prepared for her and household duties completed. She moved to this country years ago to provide a better future for her children. Now she is questioning that decision, as the lack of community in this country seems too large a price to pay. Would we call this ungrateful or constructive criticism of our culture?
Many adult women in the Somali culture have undergone female circumcision prior to their arrival in this country. Western terminology used to describe this practice include mutilation, illegal, abhorrent and disfiguring. Should Somali women now be grateful that they have escaped this practice for their daughters, only to be raising their daughters in a culture that accepts breast implants and labiaplasty?
Many medical professionals that immigrate to America do not have financial resources to commit to redoing their education in this country. I have worked with many medical interpreters who were esteemed physicians in their home country. Are they to be grateful that their years of medical training and language skills only allow them to explain medical visits to more recent immigrants?
When there is dysfunction within a family, often it takes an outsider to provide better insight and allow each of us to examine what we value in our relationships. Immigrants have the ability to bring the best ideals from their countries and mix with the best traditions from America. We are and have always been a country of immigrants. We should allow immigrants to be a reflection of what is best in this country and acknowledge that we are not perfect but can strive to do better. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to learn from them and share their stories.