Being pregnant is never easy, but being pregnant eight thousand miles away from your family and friends is hard. In January 2010, when my husband’s company gave him the opportunity to relocate to Hong Kong for a long-term project we embraced the adventure with open arms. I quit my job in NYC, we packed up our apartment, and moved across the globe to Hong Kong expecting to enjoy an expat life of learning a new city from the inside out, immersing ourselves in new customs, and having a carefree time together.
We were already planning to start a family (and had unsuccessfully tried for over a year), so when I learned I got pregnant within the first month of moving to a foreign country I was very excited but very, very nervous. A rush of thoughts crowded my head. How would the doctors and hospitals be? Would it be hard to be away from familial support when I needed it most? Are pregnant women and babies welcomed? How would I meet other pregnant ladies? What would it mean for my foodie agenda? Would it interfere with all our great travel plans?!?
The Hospital. After a few days of Internet searching, I discovered that one must decide whether to give birth in a public or private hospital right away, meaning like yesterday. The difference between the two is privacy versus cost ($20,000 for private or $60—yes, $60, HELLO USA—for public maternity care!). If you chose the private hospital, then common practice dictates that you select a doctor and hospital within the week of confirming your pregnancy. No joke. I was now already a few days behind! Thank you Hong Kong for making a stressful time in a new mother’s life even more stressful!! At least I learned some of the private hospitals are considered to be among the very best in the world. Stress level reduced, a bit.
We ultimately chose to go the private route (we had US insurance). However, finding a private doctor and a hospital that is not already booked for your due date proved a large task in itself. The first doctor we contacted would only take me as a patient if I committed to a C-section (which I am not against if needed in an emergency…but to make a healthy 29 year old have the surgery because the doctor does not want to deliver a baby outside of his set work schedule is ridiculous!). A few phone calls later, a doctor from the UK was finally found. Now, all we had to do was put down a $3,000 non-refundable bed deposit at our hospital of choice. Our first choice hospital was booked and had a wait list for my due date (I was only around 8 weeks pregnant and my due date was already booked…nuts, right?). Considering that Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, I guess we didn’t do that bad when we had to go with our second-choice hospital.
Local Customs.As a pregnant expat in Hong Kong, I was not treated especially well by the locals. I never was given a seat on a crowded subway, never allowed priority in a bathroom queue, and never had doors held open for me (not that this is expected, but in the US people always extended this courtesy). Although locals didn’t pay me much attention as a pregnant lady—no one touched my belly—they would have eaten up my son if he were born there. They absolutely love touching Western babies! Because the babies have a very commercial baby food / diaper product look, locals often ask to take photos with and try pinching their cute chubbiness.
Local pregnant women unfortunately face a lot of pressure from their Mothers-in-law and husbands to have a boy, so many consult a Chinese birthing chart to try to beat the 50/50 odds. (Well, waddya know? The chart accurately predicted that I’d have a baby boy!) Whether or not pregnant with a son, all local pregnant women are expected to rest, avoid heavy work, and eat well to stay healthy and have a healthy baby. Consistent with this cultural philosophy, locals hire pui yuets, confinement nurses, who take care and cook for Mom and baby during the first month—the “sitting month”—after delivery. New Moms who practice this may not leave their homes, wash their hair, and expose themselves to cold water, temperatures, or food. They are put on special warm diets to help boost immunity and strength (I’m told it has something to do with all the blood lost during pregnancy). Once this moth has passed, and the baby and Mom are thriving, they then have everyone over for a miyue’ baby shower.
Speaking of warm (baby) diets…while it is not illegal to breastfeed in Hong Kong, the Chinese are very shy about doing so in public. Women felt more comfortable breastfeeding at very Western places, such as Starbucks or the three large malls that have private areas in the restrooms. However, if one were keen to nurse anywhere, people would not say anything but maybe just give the mom a look (which happens in the US, as we know).
Making Mommy Friends. After being in Hong Kong for two months, I had not made any new friends and it was getting a bit lonely (going to the gym every day). I was still keeping my pregnancy secret from my family back in The States, so I really wanted to meet and talk to other pregnant women who also were far from home. Although Hong Kong has a very large expat community, it wasn’t exactly easy for a married pregnant lady to meet new people when most are focused on going to bars and drinking. So, I did the next best thing and turned to online blogs, joining a Due Date Club and reading daily messages from other Moms about their struggles being pregnant in Hong Kong.
After a few weeks of being an observer, I decided to participate and joined a few mothers-to-be for lunch. It was like a blind date for pregnant women. We were all instant friends and decided to meet every week for lunch and updates. These women were such a great support group, and just lunch grew to meeting for Yoga and Pilates twice a week (funny story: the yoga teacher told me that she would sing to my belly to help turn the baby for delivery). I was very happy with my non-working, yummy mummy lunching, healthy lifestyle in Hong Kong. I could do without the heat, hills, food markets (oh the smells when you are pregnant!) and black rain, but I wouldn’t trade it for the friends I made.
Travel. My husband and I also got to do some travels throughout Asia visiting Japan, Cambodia, Mainland China and Vietnam for our “Babymoon”! But morning sickness and a growing stomach made air travel and eating new types of food quite difficult. I was not a great travel partner.
Moving Back to the US. When my husband informed me that we were moving back to The States earlier than planned, I was devastated. I was in a groove, had some great new friends, and was 7-months pregnant. Not a good time for change for a hormonal girl! Oh and we never got that $3,000 bed deposit back. At least my family was happy. They hated us being so far away with a baby on the way and naturally wanted us home. So reluctantly I moved back to New York City to give birth. I was grateful for the experience and time we had in Hong Kong and miss all my girls and their babies dearly (thank you for Facebook) but I am excited for my new adventures with my husband and son in NYC!
Read about my Chinese New Year experience in my post Kung Hei Fat Choi- Welcome the Dragon!