How Adoption Made me an Ally

Twenty-three years ago when we first contemplated the adoption of a child, I imagined how it would change a child’s life. Our family was able to offer two loving parents, three siblings and an upper middle class lifestyle. At the same time, I had misgivings about taking a child out of their culture and replacing it with another and the hole that might create in their future life. When we made the decision to adopt a second time three years later, I had those same thoughts. Now that these two children are young adults, I realize that adoption changed both their life and mine in ways that I hadn’t imagined and have made me an ally for the complex emotions and stories that define transracial adoptions.

I recognized that our family would look different to outsiders – three biological sons and 2 Asian daughters, five kids when the norm was two. What I didn’t realize is that the interactions my daughters had with the outside world beyond our family, the circumstances that led to the disruption of their original family and the more recent charged conversations around immigration would forever change how I view the world.

International American adoption has benefitted when societies undergo social disruption and are unable to care for families and orphans. It started with the orphans created by the Vietnam War, continued with the social disruption after the Korean War, the One Child Policy of China, extreme poverty in Central and South America due to militia governments and most recently the physical disruption of Haiti after the earthquake. Over the years I have learned that the majority of these adopted children are not true orphans but placed for adoption or abandoned by their families due to a lack of social supports, malnutrition, unaffordable medical bills and desire for a male heir. I have had to struggle with the knowledge that my participation in this system works to perpetuate these structures by infusing money into a country that does not see a need to change their internal policies.

When others remarked how “good, blessed, lucky, fortunate” our daughters were to be raised in an American family, I instantly thought of the opposite connotations that raised regarding their biologic families. The Chinese and Korean families that had been affected by our daughters adoptions made choices that I don’t know if I could have made if faced with similar circumstances. Would I be willing to walk away from one of my biologic children if I thought they had a chance for an improved life outside of our family?

Over the past 4 years as immigration has led to heated discussions and my daughters have moved beyond our protected household and out into the greater world, I have had to reconcile the immigration story of our family with the stories of families south of the US border who have fought to keep their children by making a harrowing journey to a better life. Why is our family put on a pedestal by other Americans while those families waiting in refuge camps are seen as opportunistic and dangerous? Does our American culture value your black/brown body more if you are raised in a white household?

Adoption is complicated… and so is being a parent. I would not change anything about our journey and am immensely grateful that my life and view of this world has been affected by each one of my children. My ongoing task is to be an ally – one who listens to the experiences of others outside of mainstream white America and helps to amplify their voices.

Why Gratitude can be difficult for Immigrants and International Adoptees

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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.

Traveling the world without leaving MN

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I love to travel. I am curious about other cultures, love to try new foods, meet new people and trek to historical sites. But with a full-time job and 2 high school daughters still at home, my adventures can be more limited than I wish. Going to work each day provides me with the ability to act as an armchair traveler. In the course of a week, I can see patients from Laos, Russia, China, India, Mexico and Africa.  Some of these patients are new immigrants to this country; others have been here for a longer time but are still considered first generation. Although they may have become more integrated into American culture in their everyday life, pregnancy and childbirth often reveal more traditional beliefs.

In talking with patients and their families I often learn more than I could in a book,  as most of what they believe is oral tradition and not published in the literature. Women from the Hmong culture often wear a red thread bracelet that is thought to ward off bad spirits and  keep their spirit intact. They eat only warm foods after childbirth. Indian women often rely on their mothers or mother-in-law to provide help with childcare and cooking for the first few months after delivery. Some cultures have a fear of contraception as causing future inability to have children. Immigrant families often come from countries where family is both physically and emotionally close. Health decisions for an individual are made after consultation with other family members.

While I find all of these traditions interesting and worth further research, it can also make my day much more difficult. New immigrants often do not speak or understand English well enough and need the services of an interpreter. The fees for the interpreter service are paid by the clinic. Speaking thru an interpreter can lengthen the visit to twice the normal time and still not provide the same amount of information. Some cultures are distrustful of western medicine and patients may not believe test results or diagnosis. Needing to explain the medical problem numerous times to different family members when there is a sense of urgency  ( labor and delivery) can make me feel like tearing my hair out!

And then life has a way of helping me to reset my expectations. Last week my interfaith women’s group (Tapestry) hosted 2 immigrant high school students from Green Card Voices. These young women eloquently shared their stories of coming to this country as young teenagers, without speaking the language and after leaving behind close family members in their native countries. They moved in with family in MN that they had not seen in over 10 years and were quickly enrolled in school. These family members were working long hours and didn’t have the opportunity to help the students with their integration into a new school or culture. The students expressed appreciation for those Minnesotans who smiled at them on the bus, helped them in school as tutors and teachers and were willing to reach out to their families with assistance. Might I have been one of those who could provide that extra smile or help with understanding of a medical diagnosis?

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Immigration has been a looming topic in the upcoming election. Many Americans fear immigrants and their different dress, religions, language and behaviors. My patients and the students from Green Card Voices are no different from the majority of Americans – they want to be loved, respected and to work hard for a better future for themselves. They are especially appreciative of the freedoms that this country affords – freedoms that were worth risking their futures for.

Seeing one of my immigrant patients at the end of the office day can often make me late leaving the office. This happened a few weeks ago as I was trying to make my daughters evening soccer game. As I was rushing to get into my car, I passed the patient sitting on a bench outside the office building. She was patiently waiting for her ride as she did not drive. I reflected on the stories of the students – their long bus rides on public transportation to a school across the metro area that specialized in integrating newly immigrated high school students. As an American female, I can drive, work and provide the fees for my children to participate in activities outside of school. These are opportunities that women in the developing world would never be able to dream of. Taking the extra time each day to provide health care to an immigrant patient is part of my “give-back” for the gift of being part of this country.

If you see someone today who may be “different”, whether from another country, different skin color, disabled or speaking a foreign language – please take the time to smile and offer assistance if needed. Consider this gesture your way of “traveling” to a foreign land without leaving American soil.