The odyssey of a would-be father in Beijing
It was October 1 (shi yi), one of those ideal days in the Chinese calendar for a baby to be born. "Any day now," the doctors had told us about a week prior to last year's National Day holiday. My Chinese wife's family could barely restrain their excitement. If the baby came on the first of the month, divine beneficence, good health, bragging rights, and who knows what else might be ours. The original prediction, made in February by the doctor at the Lufthansa health clinic, had been October 2. That wouldn't do.
We had gone the super pricey, foreigner's health clinic route for the initial checks because the doctors at Beijing Fuchan hospital, after they found Laura was pregnant, simply told her to go away and come back in three months. No checks necessary till then, they said. Skeptical, panicky, prejudiced foreigner mode swept over me and we marched off to the Lufthansa clinic. I liked the doctor there. We did all the tests and went to see him regularly. Every time we described some aspect of my wife's condition, some scary symptom, he'd say, "No problem." The fact they spoke English there was enough to reassure me. Laura was less convinced. "Menggu daifu," she called the doctor. Apparently that's the idiomatic local equivalent of a quack. Besides, her family all said we were crazy to have all these pricey tests; we should just go to the local hospital. Along with a bill for about USD900 we received the test results quickly. The verdict: No problem.
After that it was back to Beijing Fuchan Yiyuan. Apparently it was the best maternity hospital in Beijing, and it was only a five-minute walk from our flat. But I couldn't help feeling a little uneasy. There was the odd bit of litter here and there, the usual dingy toilets, and no English spoken, of course. I began to worry about the latter in particular. "Straight ahead, turn left, this chuan镇 isn't cooked," that kind of talk I can handle in Chinese. But not stuff that might just turn out to be important come the big night, such as, "Owing to a slight case of placenta previa, you might want to consider a caesarian." It's easy for foreigners to muddle through most of the standard scenarios in Beijing, but critical stuff like health is different.
It became a regular routine for Laura and I to visit the hospital on a Monday morning, and every time it was packed. In a way, it reinforced the reputation of the hospital, because judging by the number of cars jamming the street outside and trying to park, middle class Beijingers were willing to drive from all over town to get to this place. And in China a queue is no big deal. Heavily pregnant women would send their husbands scrumming into the line to get the bits of paper needed to buy the prescribed medicine. Rather like church, there was a sense of relief every time we left the place. But even though I found it a little oppressive and had no idea what was going on most of the time, I could tell Laura felt more at home in this environment. The staff had a way of telling it to you straight. For instance, when we talked to them about the due date falling during the October holiday they said that yes, as Laura had suspected, many of the doctors and staff would be on holiday. "But there'll definitely be one or two available." I was speechless. Was this some kind of joke? Not at all. And Laura thought it was perfectly reasonable.
The next few months had their ups and downs. SARS came along of course, and the paranoia we'd felt before about any little health blips didn't seem so unreasonable anymore. Relatives called from England and implored us to go back home. Idiots, I thought, believing everything they read in the papers, as usual. What was the ratio of infections per capita, one in a thousand, five thousand? It became my role to dampen fears and worries, even when I was worried myself.
As the big day approached, everything seemed under control. Most of our neighbors cleared off a few days before the holiday so it was dead quiet. We started watching 24, an American television drama about government agents trying to head off a terrorist threat. We had season two on DVD, and my wife couldn't get enough of it. We watched six or seven episodes a day. As we sat, engrossed in the terrorist drama, every now and then my wife would give a start. I'd blanch, look over and try to appear calm. Then she'd relax and say, "No, it's nothing." Back to biting the fingernails. We were so focused on those two things, the television and occasional twinges from the infant, that we barely even noticed as October 1 came and passed. Evening the next day, approaching 7pm, with just the glow of the TV lighting the room, there was another twinge. This was different. This was it. We looked at each other and knew we were both thinking exactly the same thing: So close, only two episodes to go - dammit!
I'd spent the last few months expecting the moment to arrive at 3am, forcing me to rush downstairs from our tenth floor apartment to get the lift lady out of bed. Would there be any taxis at that hour? Also, I had worried about how quickly the hospital staff might react in the dead of night. Would the friend I had roped into translating for me make it across town? At 7pm, these were not issues. I panicked anyway. But then we got to the hospital. Laura's two elder sisters were there already, smiling and confident. The ward was quiet, nearly empty, and we had ten nurses more or less to ourselves. My translator made it. Owing to a slight case of placenta previa (how had I guessed?) we did indeed opt for a caesarian. And Emma Lu came into the world, healthy and noisy, bang on schedule on October 2. No problem.