Every year, hundreds of Chinese women come to Los Angeles as "birth tourists" to give birth in hopes of providing their children with a safer, brighter future. While more and more of them DIY the experience by renting their own apartment, many still choose to pay up to $50,000 to stay in an exclusive "maternity hotel" where all their needs are taken care of.
I was one of those women.
While I wasn't here from another country—or pregnant—our little family found ourselves unexpectedly homeless for two weeks before moving to a new home and a room at the maternity hotel was the only one we could find for under $200 per night during the summer high season.
When I entered the million-dollar mansion I’d be calling home for the next two weeks, I immediately felt a sense of relief. I’d spent the last two nights wide awake, imagining a dark, damp house filled with screaming babies, the smell of medicinal broths and musky new moms who chose to follow tradition and not bathe in the month after birth.
Luckily, my fears were allayed when what I found instead was a large, spiraling staircase, a grand piano, and Susan, who sat quietly on the couch rubbing her big, round belly, never once looking up from her Kindle to see who her new roommates were.
As part of the Chinese community in Los Angeles by marriage, I was no stranger to birth tourism or maternity hotels. Several of our acquaintances would rent rooms to Chinese moms wanting to give birth in America, and it wasn’t unusual to see them quietly slipping into the kitchen for a drink of water while we barbecued. Every once in a while we’d be invited to dinner by my husband’s classmates who were in LA giving birth, renting apartments in Chinese neighborhoods where they had easy access to food and Chinese-speaking OB/GYNs.
But truth be told, the whole situation still made me nervous. While there is nothing illegal about coming to America to give birth, these “maternity hotels” operate in a legal gray-zone. A 2015 investigation resulted in widespread raids of these operations, and several proprietors were charged with fraud, tax evasion and building code violations, and numerous new moms and pregnant women were sent back to China.
As I got to know these women, I found out that they’d paid anywhere between $25,000 to $40,000 for a three-month stay in this particular maternity hotel...
My roommates were equally nervous about my presence: it was unusual to find a “foreigner” (a non-Chinese) in this neighborhood, let alone in their house, but once my half-Chinese toddler swooped in to steal a phone (it turns out Fiona, the school teacher, loves Peppa Pig as much as he does) and we established that I’d been in China for the larger part of my life, I was immediately invited to join them.
As I got to know these women, I found out that they’d paid anywhere between $25,000 to $40,000 for a three-month stay in this particular maternity hotel, which covered transportation, room and board, three meals a day, one excursion a week, help with the baby’s papers, and a nurse to help care for their baby once it arrived.
I was shocked, however, to find out that this did not include medical care, which is usually sold as a package by local hospitals that give steep discounts to patients who can pay their medical bills upfront. (Contrary to rumors, these women cannot purchase health insurance or qualify for medical benefits, as they don’t have a social security number) Fiona, who had a natural birth, paid around $6,000 for two months of prenatal care, a natural birth and postnatal care, while Rose, who had an elective C-section, paid closer to $8,000 for all her medical costs, bringing their total cost for three months in American to an average of $30,000.
As the days went on, we found our groove. Our toddler would patiently wait outside of aunty Fiona’s door for their early morning Peppa dates, and my husband, a restaurateur, quickly became a private chef, supplementing the bland but nutritious array of stir-friend veggies, meats and rice the proprietor would deliver to his maternity hotels throughout the day with rich, spicy hot pots and his favorite rice noodle dishes from Yunnan and Guizhou, known for their sour and spicy notes.
We’d go to the grocery store together, talk about baby gear and pregnancy discomforts, and gossip about our husbands. As the days went on, the experience seemed more and more normal. Despite the fact that I wasn’t pregnant, I had been initiated into a sorority of pregnant ladies, and I could already imagine myself returning for the camaraderie once we were ready to have our second child. Compared to my experience of working through the 38th week and giving birth three days after leaving my job, this was heaven!
One day, as we headed out for our customary post-dinner walk I worked up the nerve to ask them why they were willing to spend so much money to give birth in America. To me, this seemed like a private question, but Susan, who had finally warmed up to us and turned out to be a Canadian-educated business powerhouse, burst forth with the obvious reason: “Why wouldn’t we do this?”
Fiona quickly echoed the sentiment. “As a teacher I hate to say this, but our education system is terrible. It runs kids through the ringer for a minuscule chance of getting into a good college. When my son grows up, he can skip the college entrance exams and apply to a Chinese university as a foreigner, which is so much easier.”
The whole experience of living in a maternity hotel really opened my eyes to a lot of things, including how isolated American moms are.
Susan nodded. “It would be like missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give our kids a chance to choose an easier life…” and with a wry smile and her usual dry sense of humor she added, “even if they turn out to be dumb. I know there are lots of women who try to save money by doing it themselves, but this is also a once-in-a-lifetime chance for us: once we go back we’ll be working moms. I couldn’t imagine not taking this time to pamper myself and relax.”
Rose was less certain of her reasons. “To be honest, I never really gave it any thought… but then I got pregnant and all my friends were doing it, so I decided to do it as well. My best friend is living with four other families and her mom is taking care of her, but I have to say, I am way too lazy to deal with the hassle to save a few thousand. I think it’ll be nice for our kids to have options when they grow up, but for now, I’m just enjoying the life here. It’s like a nice, relaxing vacation during the most important period in our lives.”
After our two weeks were up we moved into our new home, but we frequently stopped by for dinners, and before we knew it, meet and greets with three beautiful new babies. I’d expected a house with three infants to be much more chaotic, but Aunty Wang, the nurse, juggled them with complete ease while the moms stayed in their rooms to recuperate, only bringing them up for periodic cuddles and nursing sessions.
Like all new moms, Susan, Rose and Fiona complained about sore breasts, slow milk, postpartum aches and fussy babies, but unlike most Americans, they had a built-in support system available to them 24/7, and I think that for them, this was part of what made the experience so worthwhile.
The whole experience of living in a maternity hotel really opened my eyes to a lot of things, including how isolated American moms are. So many of us face the birth of our children and those trying and isolating first few months alone, assisted only by our husbands who have no way of fully understanding what we’re going through.
By simply staying in a maternity hotel for two weeks (at a very discounted rate of $60 a day), I realized how much all moms have in common, and just how powerful it can be to be surrounded by other women during this period, even if you don’t think you have much in common. While I don’t think I’ll be able to afford paying $8,000 a month to stay in a maternity hotel when my next baby arrives, I’m certainly glad that I had this once-in-a-lifetime experience.