Along with Claire Simon’s Our Body and Tracy Droz Tragos’s Plan C, Leslie Tai’s debut film How to Have an American Baby joins a host of docs this year that expose the medically and politically fraught nature of pregnancy. Chronicling the experience of six-to-eight-month-pregnant Chinese women who travel to “maternity hotels” in Southern California’s largely Asian-American San Gabriel Valley, the film feels initially like a trippy reality show set in cloudless exurbia. Shaded by sidewalk palm trees or lounging on the beach just a frisbee throw from shirtless skateboarders, the women boast bellies as big as their sunglasses. Their common cause is to deliver an American citizen, and, if they play their cards right, achieve that status themselves.
One of Tai’s main challenges is to honor the tedium of late-stage pregnancy without making a boring film. “The boss lady is a good person,” one mother-to-be explains in Mandarin. “Every week she organizes a day trip.” Whether it’s through the endless aisles of a Babies ‘R’ Us or another strip mall spectacle, the women are led like schoolgirls by a hired assistant, rounded up and called “children” as they debate the merits of discount teethers. American viewers might feel ambivalent: on the one hand, these mothers-to-be enjoy daily prepared meals and poolside solidarity; on the other, they lack freedom of movement in a place that is, at best, sunnily antiseptic, and, at worst, inhospitable to their very existence.
Make no mistake, How to Have an American Baby is no breezy watch. While the baby industrial complex has been bustling for decades, maternity centers targeting international patients seem to be the next stop in commodifying every last pocket of procreation — often with potentially life-altering, and threatening, stakes. From a brusque episiotomy during labor to a newborn with a brain hemorrhage, none of the deliveries are defined by a sense of agency or joy. Those giving birth often seemed subjected to substandard care, made all the worse by a language barrier.
Some come with their husbands, some come alone, but the women’s ambitions are a far cry from assimilation, even when gossiping in Mandarin about the best parts of the Valley to settle down in if they do opt to stay. “After I gave birth, I could not wait to get home,” shares one woman who has come to work for her maternity hotel a decade after delivering her first daughter in California. “I did not want to stay in America another minute.”
Meanwhile, ethnically diverse neighborhood councils tepidly attempt to conceal their xenophobia in response to the influx of maternity hotels in their area. “We’re the watchdogs,” an elderly Asian American woman says when she gets the mic, clearly wary about the rise in pregnant Chinese mothers in her area. “If you hear a baby cry and wail and think it’s a birth, that’s a complaint to the government.” Couching their panic in paternalistic concern for “mothers and babies,” these alarmists share a fear of the Other that transcends racial and generational differences.
Taking a dispassionate, fly-on-the-wall approach, Tai never appears onscreen herself, and is overheard only when translating during an urgent hospital scene. The hotel residents she profiles are not overtly named. Presumably, they’ve requested anonymity (although the film does not make this explicit). At the same time, the individual women come across as interchangeable to a Chinese business that cares only for the bottom line, and a private US hospital system more than happy to serve patients paying cash.
Ultimately, the film serves as a disquieting expose on how a rapidly changing Chinese economy can exploit not only the desire for a child, but also the desire to bestow that child with privileges that are not themselves Chinese, privileges that American citizens both take for granted and carefully guard. “What does it mean to be an ‘American’ baby?” many might ask by the end of the film. And who are we to judge when our own system of making and rearing children is itself so ruthlessly commodified?
“Coming to have a baby in America was my idea,” explains Lele, one of the few women whose backstory, and painful present, we get to know in depth. “Every mother is thinking about what’s best for her children’s future.”
How to Have an American Baby screens at the Village East by Angelika (181–189 2nd Avenue, East Village, Manhattan) as part of the DOC NYC film festival on November 14. The screening is followed by a Q&A with Leslie Tai and producer Jillian Schultz. It will be available to stream online through the festival from November 15–26.