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Makayla Gessford

Oregon, US

Jiangxi Province, China

As an adoptee, we're not objects to be picked and chosen. We’re not apples at a supermarket. If you're choosing to adopt, it needs to be for the right reasons and not just because you want to feel good about what you're doing or because you think that you can “save” a person's life.

I was adopted in 1994 at 22 months old. I honestly don't know a lot about my abandonment. My mom always told me that I was left somewhere with a piece of paper that had my name and birthdate. I’m skeptical on that point though having learned more about the history of the One Child Policy and how orphanages would fabricate a lot of information and just give stories to foreigners who are adopting to make them feel good. I was apparently left at an orphanage and I also lived with a foster family for a bit. I was their first foster child and when I was younger they actually used to send me letters. We would write back and forth to each other. I haven't revisited those in a long time, but I recently asked my mom to send them to me so that I could get them translated and revisit that part of my past.

My mom was part of a group of five families who were traveling to China at the same time in ‘94. China didn't open its doors for international adoption until ‘92, so they were some of the earliest people to go over. She told me that the orphanage told them that the babies would be between six and seven months old. And then when they handed me to her, I was almost two. So she didn't really know what to think. But she said that she looked to her friends who were going to adopt their second or third child and they said, “Oh, she's beautiful.” Like, just take her. The way that she describes the process for the parents at the orphanage was very pick and choose almost. For example, parents were handed a baby and then they rejected that baby for whatever reason. Like they didn't like the way that their ears looked or there was a visible deformity or disability.

I think the process has definitely changed. It also depends on which adoption agency you go through. But I think at that time, it was still very early. The whole industry of adoption was really young. And so my mom had no idea and that whole group of people knew nothing about the babies they would be adopting. My mom told me that there was this other couple there that actually said no to the two babies they were handed. And that pissed me off. As an adoptee, we're not objects to be picked and chosen. We’re not apples at a supermarket. If you're choosing to adopt, it needs to be for the right reasons and not just because you want to feel good about what you're doing or because you think that you can “save” a person's life.

There were a lot of parents who definitely just wanted to have children and couldn't by traditional means. I totally understand that. It's not really the parents fault or any individual's fault because adoption really is a for profit industry. There was a lot of propaganda that was shown to people in the States about transnational Adoption. I'm thinking specifically more Korean transnational adoption and how that started out of the Korean War. There was a lot of propaganda put out from both the Korean government and the US government to save the war babies and plastering these orphans as humanitarian efforts for you to save. I don't know as much about what the Chinese government did at the time of the One Child Policy, but again, it is a for profit industry and orphanages were making money off of adoptions. I'm not saying that all orphanages operated with malicious intent. But I think a lot of adoptive parents back then didn't have the right tools or resources to really understand the geopolitical intricacies of how adoption even started and why babies were really being abandoned in their natal countries. And even today, there's not resources or communities or spaces that are set up well to help people through the process after the adoption itself.

My mom didn't really know how to talk to me about it at all. There’s this term, “Coming out of the fog.” It's basically a term utilized to describe adoptees who are coming into their own individual identity as an adoptee and not under the collective adoptee umbrella that society places on all of us - that singular narrative of abandoned baby saved by white middle class America under this selfless act of humanitarianism. There are a lot of reasons to be angry about the industry and upset about what happened because it does lead to a lot of trauma and identity issues. And I'm going through it now. I'm sure we all do continuously.

My mom and I were having a conversation and she said, “Your chances of getting adopted or being chosen at the adoption orphanage was less than winning the lottery. If you had stayed in China, you would be laying bricks and maybe get six years of education.” The first thing that anybody ever thinks of when you tell them that you're an adoptee or that you're adopted is, “Oh, you're so lucky.” And that gives the implication that were you to have stayed in your birth country, your life would be somehow “worse,” as if there's some sort of hierarchy in what denotes happy living or someone's well being. The issue with that narrative, like my mom implying that me being here in the states is better than I would have been in China, is that maybe I would have had a lovely life. I don’t know. You can't necessarily say that I wouldn’t. I get what she's saying. It's more of “Look, I've given you privilege and opportunity.” While I'm so thankful and grateful for everything that my family has done for me - the selfless and unconditional love and everything they've done to support me like getting through school and finding a job - the problem that I have with this narrative is it's invalidating any other experience or thoughts that we may have other than gratefulness and gratitude. I've found that growing up I’ve been incapable of allowing myself to feel certain emotions at times. It's something I'm working through, but I don't even validate my own feelings of anger at times because I feel so guilty. I was given this opportunity, so I have to take full advantage of it. I'm not allowed to feel XYZ because how disrespectful would that be to the family that adopted me. In reality, the narrative is much more complex than that. And no human really owes another human like that. But because the dialogue that I've always had in my head was I literally owe my family my life, I have to do all these things to prove myself to them to demonstrate my value. My existence has always felt conditional and that's something that I'm breaking out of because it's not right to put that on yourself or on any other person. It’s no one’s place to invalidate your sense of loss. Growing up, I’ve always felt this loss and loneliness of being the only person going through these things and not feeling like I could talk to anybody about it, particularly my adoptive mother because it would make her feel sad. I didn’t want to feel guilty for causing her any distress. We need safe spaces to have these conversations and process our feelings and validate them for each other because it’s normal to have as an adoptee.

When you’re younger, there’s that singular narrative that’s placed on you. I think there are people who are younger who have the emotional maturity and complexity to think about these things, but you're kind of expected to forget about it in some way and just assimilate. People will obviously talk about your physical differences and the fact that you don't look the same and that your parents don't look the same as you. But after the initial conversation of “Yes, I'm adopted,” nobody wants to talk about that anymore because they don't know how to respond to it. I'm working on a couple projects to just help educate not only adoptees but the masses - potential adoptive parents and the public - about adoption and adoptee identity. I’m working on a podcast project and becoming more active in some adoptee communities to really just learn and hear other people's voices and understand more of the history and the context. And not just transnational, but even domestic adoption. You hear a lot of similar themes of feeling like you're the only one, feeling like you can't talk about it. There are a lot of commonalities because the type of trauma is the same. Obviously our experiences as we've grown up since that initial trauma have been different, but they'll manifest in similar ways at times. And so when you talk to other adoptees about what you may be going through, there is a sense of comfort and kinship because you inherently already know that this person has fundamentally been through that and they get it.

I know that my mom did everything with the best of intentions. But I feel like she gave me a very uninformed version of trying to connect me to my culture. I do remember when I was younger, she brought me to a Chinese class where I think they were doing language and a little bit of culture studies, but I don't remember any of it. And I know that it was really taxing on her, both financially and timewise. She had to drive an hour each way to take me to those classes, so they didn't last very long. And outside of that, she tried to maintain some semblance of culture through celebrating Chinese New Year and handing out red envelopes. That's pretty much it. And, like I said, it was done with the best of intentions, but it ended up just feeling like a very whitewashed attempt at culture. There was really no attempt to understand the history of the culture, like why certain traditions are upheld, what they mean, and then how we can integrate them into our lives without just being like “Here's a red envelope because it's Chinese New Year.” And there were just never any mirrors for me growing up, nobody around that looked like me. I always felt super alienated and really awkward when my mom would try to do any of these Asian celebrations. We would put up some decorations in our house and stuff, but it just felt strange because it felt like appropriation.

When you're a kid, parents shouldn’t be relying on their kids to tell them what they want at that age. It's the parent’s job, the caregiver’s job, to do the research to understand, “How can I retain some of the culture? How can I give them mentors? How can I surround them with people who will help them navigate this space that they're working through? How do I give them examples of people who look like themselves in different areas?” Representation is so important. As a parent, how do you educate yourself to be more prepared for some of these types of conversations that come up? I don't think a lot of families think about that. They just think that their baby's gonna grow up to be their child assimilated into their culture. And that's it; they should just be grateful for that.

I still really struggle with understanding how deeply that primal trauma has influenced my life and continues to influence my life. Up until this past year or really just even a month ago, when I started digging into it a little bit more, I never allowed myself to think about that part of my life. It was just a fact. I'm adopted. That's all there is to say. It wasn't until I actually started dating the partner that I'm with now that led me to a lot of questions. When we would argue or have miscommunications, a lot of my reflection always went back to this abandonment trauma.

I had a revelation late last year about how I just have never allowed myself to feel anything other than grateful about being adopted. I never allowed myself to feel sad for the loss or angry at the system or whatever other emotions I wanted to feel about it. So I think for me, that always will be a thing that I'm working through and processing - just how deeply that trauma impacted my life and is showing up now even subconsciously. One thing about implicit memory is that our body holds memories even if our conscious brains don't - like losing that initial bond with your birth parents and not really knowing how well we were cared for at the orphanages or by foster families. Our parents may have been told one thing, but who actually really knows.

I think I was hospitalized a couple times as a baby for being sick a lot. I had a tapeworm and was malnourished. I don't think that I was necessarily abused, but knowing that I wasn’t really cared for like a child should be lead into things like my love language being physical touch. That's how I need to receive love. If I don't get a lot of comfort through hugs and kisses and just touching someone, I feel like, “Oh, you don't love me, and you're gonna leave me.” I’ve also realized that there's probably some healing that I need to do in my body through meditative work or other bodily awareness practices that I haven't gotten into yet. So taking on that realization that this identity exploration through the lens of my own adoption and identity as an adoptee is work that will continue for the rest of my life.

I grew up in a really small rural town where I was the only person of color anywhere. The one other Chinese family were the people that owned the Chinese restaurant in the town. Growing up, I never had any friends in school who were not white. I didn't have friends who were really diverse until college. I always had imposter syndrome. I was always trying to overcompensate for my lack of whiteness in the friend groups that I had or where I went to school or even just with everybody pretty much because I was surrounded by white people. Once I was in college, I started making friends with people who weren't white and who were Asian and from other places. Particularly within the Asian community, I tried to again overcompensate by pretending like I knew what I was talking about when it came to Chinese tradition or Chinese culture.

I think that had a lot to do with my decision making around the men that I dated. I actually ended up dating this Chinese guy for almost seven years. We got married and subsequently divorced. I think that a lot of my feelings around being with him were in some ways trying to compensate for my lack or my desire to feel more connected to Chinese culture and have that authentic tie. My ex husband was born in the US, but his parents were first generation immigrants. I felt like being around them was a way for me to go back to learning more about my roots, but it was just done in a really unhealthy way. For example, his parents hated that I couldn't speak Chinese. They always made me feel bad about it. We would travel to China together and they would tell me not to talk. I never felt included in the conversation. I felt like I was some sort of shameful second choice or something because I look Chinese and I could dress Chinese, but I'm “not.”

Growing up, I didn't tell people right off the bat that I'm adopted. So a lot of my friends who are Asian didn't even know that until something came up like talking about family, childhoods, or stereotypical Asian parents stories. It’s interesting because I can relate, but my mom’s actually white. I grew up with similar experiences and similar family values, but my mom isn’t what people expect. People look at me and assume my parents are Asian. I was constantly having an identity crisis and I just didn’t even acknowledge it until I did get divorced. That’s when I really started looking into myself and trying to understand, “Who am I? Who do I want to be?” Up until that moment, I had worked so hard to show up as a person that everyone expected me to be. As an adoptee, you’re put into his box like “You’re the chosen one.” You need to be grateful. Or you’re a curiosity to everyone because you don’t look the same.

I didn't really know that adoptee communities existed because I literally thought I was the only one for the longest time. I met one other adoptee in college from Korea, but we didn't talk about that. We didn't talk about our adoptive identity other than we can kind of relate to each other because both of our moms are white. So when I got divorced and I realized that I had just spent so much time being who I thought everyone else wanted me to be or who they literally would tell me I needed to be, I was done with that. And then I just kind of embraced the ambiguity of becoming myself. I had no idea who I was because I hadn't lived as myself, truly, until I got divorced in 2017.

From then, I spent a lot of time just exploring so many things. I took Taekwondo lessons. I learned how to ride a motorcycle. I went through this whole phase where I went out and partied all the time and just dated lots of different people and had a lot of different types of friends who were good and bad. It was just a really strange time of exploration. And I think ultimately that has just landed me where I am now. I'm very secure and confident in my sense of self and also in that I'm constantly learning about myself. It's a lifelong journey, but I do feel like now I no longer am working towards being accepted by anybody - the Asian community, the Chinese community. I accept and acknowledge and am proud of my own truths. If other people want to try to put me down because I'm not a real Asian to them, then I'm not going to spend time with them.


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