The Weekend Longread: An In-Depth Look at “Birth Tourism” in L.A.

With China booming, why are so many of its citizens coming to the L.A. area to have their babies?

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