Insight: Learning Gratitude as an Immigrant Child


In the face of all the hardships in the world, remembering the things for which we are grateful can be reassuring. But constantly being grateful can also cause us to blatantly ignore all of our problems.

I spent half of my childhood in India and the other half as an Indian immigrant in the United Arab Emirates. I have been taught to practice gratitude at every turn of my life. While this satisfied me, it also conditioned me to feel guilty about asking for more.

For first generation immigrants, a lot of uncertainty on their social and economic stability at least in the early years. Extracurricular activities become a luxury for the children of these families.

I learned very quickly that I should be grateful for having a good education and a comfortable home. I could take dance or guitar lessons, not both. Not because they were expensive, but because being in a foreign country without a familiar support system makes parents overly cautious about spending time and money.

It didn’t help that the immigrant laws were ruthless. We couldn’t afford to put a toe out of the line.

The details of immigrant laws were constantly evolving. It was our responsibility to keep up with these changes, some of which were culturally insensitive. But I was grateful to be in a safe environment where I had a certain degree of freedom.

My high school had a lot sexist rules and more cultural insensitivity, but I was grateful because there were smaller classrooms and better infrastructure than what I had experienced at home. I was grateful to be in a country with laws against corporal punishment.

My family was grateful to a foreign government for allowing us to exercise a fraction of the rights of citizens, as if our contribution to their society and their economy in service and expenditure were of no value. It was as if we were the only beneficiaries of this relationship.

I quickly grew up to be an adult who used gratitude as a coping mechanism even after leaving the UAE.

I often felt frustrated with all the restrictions in my life. My family constantly advised me to lead a safe life. My college in India had a sexist curfew only for female dormitories. But I calmed myself down thinking that this was all for my protection and I should be grateful to have people who cared about me so much.

I was grateful for a set of measures that restricted my freedom and limited my field of exploration under the pretext of protecting me. I checked out all my outrage at a society that cared more about maintaining peace and order at all costs than empowering me.

It took me years to get rid of this habit.

Once I did, I thought back to my childhood and realized that much of what is “given” to immigrants is in fact their right. We shouldn’t have to feel grateful for taking what is rightfully ours. When privileged people claim to have “authorized” a group of people to do something, they are not inclusive. They enlighten us.

The lessons of gratitude from my childhood made me very difficult recognize gas lighting for a long time.

When I read stories about women’s rights activists where the “male savior” attracted more attention than the women behind the movement, I often failed to see the privilege gap in disguise. This also applied to information on racial violence.

I would always find myself immensely grateful to people who used their privilege to help victims. I did this to suppress the instinctive anger and fear I felt upon hearing this news.

Over the years, I have unlearned a few unnecessary coping mechanisms. The practice of forced gratitude is one of them. And while I am grateful for the many ways that I am lucky, I now actively try not to hide the real issues.

Positive thinking can be harmful if one stubbornly ignores the dark side of life. To give up this habit is to understand that we deserve more than what society has convinced us.

Contact the reporter at [email protected] and follow @AbhilashaMandal on Twitter.

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