For Alexis and Andy, who own a successful e-commerce business in China, it was never about whether they’d have a second child. They are in their early thirties, the parents of a four-year-old boy. Since both are single children, they could have two kids under the country’s long-standing one-child policy (Alexis became pregnant before China broadened the exception, requiring that just one parent need be a single child in order to qualify). Still, they didn’t think twice about coming to the United States to give birth to their second child. They have the means and the time. “We want our kid to be born here,” Alexis says. “We want to give her more options. I don’t know if we want her to stay here yet. We have to first find out how things are here. If anything, we are treating these three months as a vacation.”
Alexis and I had been chatting for months via QQ, the popular instant messaging app in mainland China, before the couple’s plane touched down at LAX. Two days later we meet at Atlantic Times Square, a newish apartment complex/mall in Monterey Park, a part of the San Gabriel Valley where as many people speak Cantonese or Mandarin as they do English. Handsome and urbane—she’s sleek in a gray wool sweater and tight black pants, her belly barely there though she’s five months pregnant, while he’s in a pair of drop-crotch pants and a well-cut polka-dot jacket—they are an advertisement for the young Chinese jet set. Which can make their talk about “more options” seem puzzling on the surface.
But as Alexis and Andy (not their real names) talk about Bo Xilai, a onetime political darling in China who was convicted of corruption and for covering up the death of a British businessman, another reason for their decision emerges: anxiety. One day you can be on top of the food chain in China; the next day you could lose everything.
That anxiety, which afflicts many in that country’s middle and upper classes, has helped fuel massive investment among Chinese nationals in the L.A.-area housing market. It has also driven a thriving underground economy here centered on maternity tourism, where a pregnant woman travels to this country to give birth, thereby establishing U.S. citizenship for her child. In both cases people are hedging their bets. Southern California’s postcard weather, its large Chinese community, and its status as the closest major U.S. metropolitan area to China are all selling points. Not only that, the region has cachet.
Most of what Andy and Alexis needed to know about having their baby here they found on message boards that serve as a kind of Craigslist or Yelp for maternity tourists and those who want to profit from them. Moms and dads trade cautionary tales, success stories, gripes, and recommendations. Need a rental car for three months? A woman to help cook and clean during the month of postpartum rest and relaxation known in Chinese culture as zuo yue zi? How about a reliable ob-gyn or hospital in L.A. that accepts cash? Perhaps a place to live, too? It can all be arranged, no middleman necessary. Ads peddling different services flood these sites. In many cases people wind up at so-called maternity hotels—apartment complexes or single-family homes where services can be consolidated and tenants, typically women who come to L.A. solo, pay for safety in numbers and peace of mind.
Although most of the tenants are usually here somewhat legally—they simply claim on their visas to be on vacation—lawmakers have begun to clamp down. Last year Republicans in both the House and Senate introduced separate bills that would deny automatic citizenship to children born to noncitizens in the United States, a move driven partly by the explosion of Asian birth tourism in L.A. Both versions have been stuck in committee.
Locally Los Angeles County supervisor Don Knabe has put together a multiagency task force to regulate the boarding homes that have cropped up in his district, especially in Rowland Heights and Hacienda Heights. Altogether it has received close to 100 complaints of suspect homes.
Having several pregnant women stay on your property isn’t necessarily illegal, however. The L.A. County task force defines a “maternity home” as any single-family residence that rents to five or more pregnant individuals. Landlords need only reduce the number of their boarders to four to pass muster, according to Alejandro Garcia, a supervisor in the Department of Regional Planning, one of the participating agencies in the task force. So far, of the 28 residences the task force has deemed maternity homes, 18 have been shuttered. “We’ve seen a three-bedroom house that has been converted to as many as 15 bedrooms,” says Garcia. But that was the exception. “They are nice homes in nice areas. You wouldn’t know from the outside that they are boarding homes unless you went inside.”
That’s only one aspect of the task force’s challenge. Trying to regulate an underground economy in such a vast area can be an exercise in frustration. “They are a very mobile group,” Knabe says of maternity tourists. “If we close it down here, they move somewhere else. At the end of the day, it’s not a racial issue. It’s not a Chinese issue—they have Korean maternity hotels, they have Russian hotels. It’s a quality-of-life issue for neighbors, and it’s about the safety of the mothers and children,” he tells me.
This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine
Alexis, who’s read about cities in the San Gabriel Valley that want to crack down, says she and her husband never even considered a maternity hotel. “It seems too risky,” she says. Instead she answered an ad from another expectant mom looking for two couples to go in on a Monterey Park apartment sublet. For $2,000 a month each couple would get their own bedroom and bathroom, plus Internet, cable TV, and shared use of the kitchen and living room. Clean and serviceable, albeit several notches below what the couple is used to in China, it’s a luxury apartment in the newest, choicest part of town.
Being downsized to a single bedroom doesn’t bother Alexis and Andy. What does is the neighborhood: With a population that’s 67 percent Asian, it is, for them, too Chinese. “I am afraid we won’t successfully blend into”—translation: be exposed to—“mainstream USA culture,” Andy tells me. “We want to learn more about white, middle-class life. We want to know more about the American people.”
The United States wasn’t always the place to go for Chinese birth tourists. That distinction once belonged to Hong Kong. In 2003, the former British colony and Asian financial hub began gradually opening its border to tourists from the mainland, and enterprising soon-to-be moms saw an in. Just seven years later, babies born to Chinese maternity tourists accounted for 40 percent of all births in Hong Kong. A better education—less Communist dictated, more global in scope—was the motivation; proximity made it cheap and easy. The influx overtaxed hospitals and social services, leading fed-up locals to take out a full-page newspaper ad likening maternity tourists to “locusts.”
Hong Kong responded last January by cutting off certain medical services to pregnant mainland women, and would-be parents shifted focus to other places, chief among them the San Gabriel Valley. There’s a familiar ring to the grievances that have followed them: that the women are giving birth on the American taxpayer’s dime; that once the children are old enough, they’ll be shipped back to the States for a free public education (“parachute kids” in common parlance); that when they turn 21, they’ll sponsor their parents and siblings to come to this country (thus the moniker “anchor babies”).
In reality the Chinese maternity tourism economy in Los Angeles trades only in cash, limiting it to mostly those in China’s middle class and higher. “We pay for everything ourselves here,” Andy tells me. “The apartment, the rental car, the hospital fees. We won’t use a single penny from the U.S. government.”
The couple met up with a woman from Alexis’s hometown, who also did the whole birth tourism thing DIY. Her newborn was kept in neonatal intensive care for a week, racking up more than $10,000 in medical bills. Along with the sticker shock came the suspicion that she might have been had. It’s a common-enough concern in China—think toxic toothpaste and fake baby formula—that gets amplified by being a stranger in a strange land. But bad actors do exist: scammers who pocket the money and go AWOL, maternity homes that don’t look as nice as their online photos suggest. One mom from Beijing tells me that the manager of the maternity hotel where she was staying became so freaked out about getting in trouble with the law that she refused to help another tenant who went into labor two weeks before her due date.
By comparison, Alexis and Andy feel blessed. They have no difficulties before their six-pound baby girl is born in July at Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park. In late August I meet the couple for a late-night coffee in Silver Lake before they return to China. Alexis is wearing her longer hair in a utilitarian ponytail, and Andy has dark crescents under his eyes. The couple did manage to take a drive along the coast to see San Francisco and Big Sur, but they never went to the Beyoncé concert or ball game they’d hoped to attend. Their lives for the last three months have been almost entirely about the pregnancy, which has kept them largely cooped up in the San Gabriel Valley. “In the beginning we thought things were going to be really different in the U.S. But actually it’s all kind of the same everywhere,” Alexis says, then bursts out with a laugh. “Except in Monterey Park, I guess. There are pregnant Chinese ladies everywhere.”
Relaxed and giddy, Alexis keeps marveling at the crowded oyster bar across the street from our café, mesmerized by the noise, the hubbub, the fun. It seems to confirm to her an image she had of what Los Angeles should be. When I press the couple about their long-term strategy, they’re still unsure. China doesn’t recognize dual citizenship, but since Andy and Alexis are Chinese nationals, their daughter—despite technically being a U.S. citizen—would by default enjoy almost all the perks afforded Chinese citizens, including state-funded health care and education back home. “We are successful there,” Andy says. “We can give our children the best things possible: our network, our company, our knowledge about how the system works in that country. If we were to move here, we won’t have any of that.”
Soon after returning to China, however, the couple is already considering having a third child. How they’ll do that, given China’s policy, is something they don’t elaborate on. But when the time comes, Alexis says, they plan to stay in the San Gabriel Valley again, and maybe then they could even work in a few side trips to see the United States.
This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine