An #importedAsians POV: Makayla Gessford
The Universal Asian got to know Makayla Gessford, an engineer as well as an admin of the Asian Adoptee Community on Clubhouse.
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Makayla Gessford. I’m currently living in Boston, Massachusetts, and by day I work as a process engineer in a biotech company. I work on products that serve patients with sickle cell disease. And then, my side projects—I do a lot of volunteering. Currently, I’m volunteering with Asian Hustle Network as a team member and moderator, and I also volunteer for an organization called Ascend, which is a pan-Asian professional life cycle development organization. A big piece of my identity, which I haven’t mentioned yet, is that I am an adoptee. I was born in China, and then adopted at the age of 2 to a single white mother who lives in Oregon. The other part of the volunteering I do is spending a lot of time in the adoptee community; holding space for people to talk and share and navigate what they may be going through with regards to their own experience.
What was the inspiration behind the Asian Adoptee Community Clubhouse?
So I got on Clubhouse back in early January, and I got on from [sic] Patrick Armstrong, who is a fellow adoptee who I met through Asian Hustle Network (AHN). I was actually interviewing him for something for AHN. So, we were both on Clubhouse and we both shared a feeling that there were a lot of AAPI-focused spaces and rooms, but we didn’t necessarily feel included in them. A lot of that is our personal feelings of acceptance in Asian spaces, but we also wanted to curate a space that was specifically for adoptees. We held a room back in January and invited all the people that we knew on Clubhouse who were adoptees to just come together and get to know each other and just talk. Then it turned into a little community there, and we decided to make a club so that people could have a consolidated location to come back (to) and have other people and other support when and if they needed it. I didn’t have any adult adoptee friends until quite recently, so there were all these things that I wanted to talk about that I just never had a place to, or people to talk to because I didn’t know they existed for a really long time. Through Clubhouse, I’ve found more of that community.
In addition to the model minority myth, what are some stereotypes that harm Asian adoptees?
Definitely the predominant adoption narrative. That’s something that I have been doing a lot of work to understand and learn more about myself, and just acknowledge that adoption really is an industry that is for profit. When you look at who created that industry, who has power within it, where our understanding of adoption comes from, and who’s telling the story, you start to realize that maybe there are all these facets that are missing. For example, one of the things that I grew up always telling myself because the people around me would say it, is “Oh, you’re so lucky to have been adopted,” “You were chosen,” and all this bullshit, honestly. People mean no harm by that, but it is coming from a very ignorant place because it feeds into this narrative that says adoptees are happy; they were saved. There’s a saviorism [sic] complex feeding into it that really diminishes the trauma, and doesn’t allow any space for grieving the loss that adoptees feel. That can create a lot of harm later. And it also, again, is just feeding an industry because you can’t have successful adoptions that make a profit for a company unless there’s this image of how successful and how happy and how wonderful adoptees are. No one talks about how adoptees are at higher risk of committing suicide and things like that because it’s not good for the industry. It also goes against adoptive parents, and their singular, narrow view that they’re doing a good thing by adopting. That’s not to say that they’re doing a bad thing, but I think that there needs to be more depth to the conversation. When you even say things like “the predominant adoption narrative,” people get confused. Well, what do you hear about adoption? You hear a single story of a poorer child in need of a home swept up and saved by some well-off white family—not always white—and suddenly they’re plopped in this home, and they’re then expected to forget who they were before, forget their culture, and then they’re expected to be well-adjusted. Like, look you have a loving family now, so everything is great, right? That’s so harmful, again, because it just doesn’t allow for any safe space for conversations that fall outside that box, and that’s what we need to be having.
How do you deal with people who, knowingly or not, invalidate your pain as an adoptee?
I really try to remember that ignorance is not something people should be blamed for, but instead it’s an opportunity to teach and inform. Of course, not everyone can nor should force themselves to do that all the time. But I think in moments when I feel I’m safe enough and I have the emotional and mental capacity to educate about why a statement or a comment is hurtful or harmful, I will take that opportunity to just share a little about what I know within the historical context of adoption practice, and also just share a little bit about my feelings and lived experiences growing up. I try to never make it an attack against the other person. It’s not their fault if they don’t know, but it becomes their fault if they’re given an opportunity to learn and blindly choose to reject it.
What are some things you want potential adoptive parents and allies to know before adopting?
I just wish they knew it’s a very complex issue, and that it’s rooted in a lot of trauma. I think there’s a lot of information and that the roots of adoption that are seated in very dark origins. For example, just with international adoption from China, we have the one child policy that occurred in the '90s. There were also things like the international adoption laws and domestic adoption laws, and very long-running cultural preferences that contributed to an environment of child abandonment and human trafficking. I think a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge that adoption is considered by many a form of modern-day child trafficking, and it just depends on the circumstances and who you talk to. I would just want people to know that it’s a very traumatic experience, and it’s not up to you to tell an adoptee how they should or could or will feel about being adopted. But it’s for you as the potential adoptive parent and friends and allies of the adoptee to just create a safe space for the adoptee to express what they may need to, regardless of if it goes against whatever your personal view of adoption is.
Adoptees straddle the line between two worlds, which can be difficult. Sometimes, we lose touch with an entire culture. How can we reconcile the distance between our heritage and where we grew up? What advice do you have for adoptees who may be struggling with identity?
First and foremost, it’s up to each adoptee how much they want to re-engage or how much they want to get involved in their birth culture. Because, definitely for myself, I wasn’t interested in it too much when I was younger, and I think if it had been forced upon me in some kind of way I would have rejected it. I do think if you’re curious and want to get involved and start learning, there are resources—starting by talking to other adoptees is a safer route. For example, I’ve experienced a lot of imposter syndrome in trying to engage directly with AAPI-specific community groups or spaces. A lot of that comes from a lack of confidence in my own self, so kind of a me-thing. I also think that, externally, being subjected to the model minority myth and not having any racial mirrors or anything growing up—not even knowing how to be Asian and then suddenly trying to later as an adult but not feeling genuine about it can be really tough. I get concerned it can discourage adoptees from leaning in more, because it discouraged me a little bit. I think just acknowledging that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to anything, and that it’s really hard, but you have to tell yourself that you’re no less Asian or no less American because of your identity.
Theses are pretty tumultuous times to be alive. How do you take care of your mental health? How do you practice self-care?
I actually go to therapy. Therapy is a huge part of my self-care, and working with a therapist one-on-one virtually. It’s not quite the same as in the office, but I think if COVID has taught me anything, it’s that I can build just as deep and genuine relationships with people over virtual calls as I can in person. Sometimes it’s almost easier, in a way. It just depends on the person. So therapy’s a big one; also journaling. I’m pretty heavily a verbal processor, so for me, getting to spend time one-on-one or with a very small group of people that I really trust and just talking about our lives and what we’re going through is very healing for me. Also, spending time with my partner and being outside as much as possible. The weather is getting a lot nicer now, and any time we can do something outdoors, that really helps my mental health.