In a country where women routinely consult the Chinese zodiac to determine the most auspicious date for the caesarean delivery of their babies, I was preparing for a natural childbirth in a private English hospital on the top of Hong Kong’s highest mountain in the days just after the British handover of the colony to China.
The handover had taken place in July, but in September, the lights from the handover celebration that drew millions and was watched on television all over the world, still bathed the city in brilliance. It seemed as if it were just yesterday that the Royal Yacht Britannia sailed out of the harbor, with a nostalgic Prince Charles aboard, bringing an end to colonial rule over the tiny island of just under seven million.
Many on the island were apprehensive, tense and unsure of the future. How would they fare under the new government? Would democracy be curtailed and economic growth stifled? Until my pregnancy, these questions had concerned me. But now the mood of gloom could not touch me. I was ecstatic; I was having a baby—my first child. It seemed as if the lights that shone as the night fell were shining for me.
My husband and I had attended birth classes at the hospital where I would deliver our baby, and we had met many foreigners who, like ourselves, had chosen this private hospital because of its openness to every possible approach to giving birth. We discussed breathing and meditation. We talked about the benefits of “tens,” an electronic device used to help with pain. We learned of the large birthing tubs that could be provided if I decided to give birth “underwater.” Midwives were available. In this hospital, it seemed, the birth plan had attained the status of a legal document. No one dared violate it.
But where were the Chinese parents-to-be? Many Hong Kong Chinese, I knew, could not afford a private hospital. But there were others, many others, much more affluent than we were. Where were these affluent parents-to-be?
As the birth of my own child drew near, I spoke often to two pregnant friends, both foreigners, who planned to give birth in Chinese hospitals because they were more affordable than private ones. Both had lived in Hong Kong much longer than I had and both had given birth to other children while living there. They spoke in anxious voices about their deliveries. Would the doctors respect their birth plans? “Why would they not?” I asked. They looked at me as if I had just arrived from another planet—the planet of the naïve foreigner.
Among the Hong Kong Chinese, they explained, natural childbirth was not popular. Instead, delivery by caesarean section was scheduled for an auspicious day chosen by the parents in consultation with an expert in Chinese astrology. The mother even planned her annual holidays (all of the Chinese women I knew worked) to coincide with the days before and after the birth.
My pregnant friends, I soon learned, were worried that a caesarean, so popular in Hong Kong, would become their doctor’s delivery of choice if the birth presented the slightest bit of trouble. Caesareans were the norm in Hong Kong hospitals and resorted to at the drop of a hat.
My due date was September 19th, but I had asked my mother to come to Hong Kong earlier. She arrived on September 11th. The next day, the doctor decided to induce labor. The baby needed to be delivered, he said. I was nervous. Was this my first clue that he was considering a C-section?
The labor began early in the morning. And by the time the lights of the city below began to glow, it had not progressed significantly. The hospital had run out of linings for the birth tub. I would have to use the bath tub instead. An amah came by to give my husband a toothbrush and to ask if he wanted his shirt washed. It looked like we were in for a long haul.
I thought of those Chinese mothers who chose not only the day but also the hour of their child’s birth–a day and a time that, they believed, would enable their baby to join the ranks of the forever lucky. All I could hope for was to be lucky enough to get through this birth without all the pain-killing and labor-quickening drugs I had pooh-poohed only a few weeks before.
As the hours progressed, however, such drugs were looking better and better. So were the caesarean births of my Chinese colleagues. They knew when to take time off work. They knew when to schedule the visits of their mothers. They even knew when to plan a “welcome into the world” party for their little one so that family and friends could come and pay homage. And to think that all it would take to guarantee a blessed and happy life for your child was to make sure he or she was born at the right hour on the right day of the year, according to the Chinese zodiac.
It sounded so easy. No parenting books. No qualms of conscience about whether or not you had handled beastly behavior well. No worries about passing on your own baggage to your child. Just pick the most auspicious day and all would be well.
The next morning came and went. Then the afternoon. The lights of the city began to glow again. The nurse took my husband aside to speak to him. I could not hear what she was saying. But I was so dazed and sleep-deprived, I probably would not have understood even if I had. I fell into a waking dream in which I was sailing away, perhaps with Prince Charles, on a large yacht at sunset, far away from this mountain, this island.
The doctor decided to give me something to speed up the labor. I had always liked this mild-mannered, reserved Australian man. But now I suspected him. Was it time for the caesarean section to begin? Was it time for me to get lucky and get this labor over with? He examined me, then took me into the delivery room. I was about to have the surprise of my life.
Another hour passed. I begged him to do something, anything to end this labor–I would leave it up to him. But he responded to my pleas with a dispassionate stare as he calmly said, “I will follow your birth plan. Just hang on. You can do it.”
At that moment, I knew no caesarean would be in store for me in the land of the lucky. I would have to make my luck and my daughter’s some other way. It was dark and the city below was ablaze with the lights from the recent celebration when, at last, it happened–not suddenly, not quickly, but quite finally, my daughter was born. And in defiance of my own cries for help, my doctor held firmly to my birth plan, even refusing to use forceps in the delivery.
When I held her in my arms, at last, I knew this was and would forever be the luckiest day of my life. I hoped that someday she would view it as the luckiest day of hers, too, the day she came into the world, naturally, in Hong Kong, the land of the lucky.