In early 2010, when my husband and I announced the news of our pregnancy to friends and family over Skype, our baby’s impending citizenship was the first thing almost everyone asked us about. My overly ambitious, Chinese-American mother had barely let the word “congratulations” escape her lips before she was Googling information about former Senator John McCain and President Obama’s claims to American citizenship.
It’s a question that I didn’t anticipate before my husband and I, who at that point had been living in Kuala Lumpur for four months, decided to start our family overseas. We thought we had covered all the major areas of concern when we researched and weighed the relative merits of giving birth in Malaysia. After speaking with an American doctor posted in Kuala Lumpur, we confirmed that private hospital facilities in the city were first-rate – the hospital closest to our house drew doctors educated from all over the world and felt as fancy as a five-star hotel. We found a Malaysian OB-GYN we liked who was trained in the United Kingdom. It gave us comfort to know that he was up-to-date on Western medical practices and also had familiarity with local Malaysian customs. Furthermore, we had decided that the timing was good for us. Courtesy of Malaysia’s restrictive work visa laws, I would have no choice but to take time off from my career as a lawyer and enjoy the luxury of being home during my pregnancy and after giving birth. What I couldn’t prepare for, however, was what being pregnant in Malaysia meant.
The citizenship issue highlighted what was to become a host of interesting cultural aspects about pregnancy that I had never confronted before. As an eager expectant mom, I read as many American parenting websites as possible to try to get a sense of what to expect. It seemed like so many of the articles and discussions I followed focused on pregnancy as a challenge, a hurdle to overcome on the way to new parenthood. But every time I left my home in Malaysia I experienced pregnancy as something to be revered. Locals would approach me, without asking, to touch and rub my belly with glee. At first I was unaccustomed to this affront to my personal space, but I soon learned that it was completely acceptable for strangers to share in the joy of others’ pregnancies.
Then there was the woman who sold me fruit. At the local outdoor market where I shopped for groceries, my fruit lady stopped selling me coconuts due to a local superstition that eating them would send me into early labor. (I know a pregnant woman ordering coffee in America might invite a little judgment-filled sideways glance here and there, but I couldn’t imagine that a barista would flatly refuse to sell a cup to her!) And once I reached term, the same well-intentioned fruit lady encouraged me to eat lots of pineapple to make the baby come. All I could do was laugh, especially knowing that my friends back home were doing the same thing by eating spicy foods.
Though the cultural idiosyncrasies were entertaining, they didn’t replace the connection I craved from my friends and family back home. So, by the summer of 2010, I was ready to head back to the U.S. for a visit. My OB-GYN signed off on the trip but advised me to wear anti-embolism stockings to prevent blood clots during the 24 hours’ worth of flights it would take for us to reach the West Coast. My husband and I searched high and low for these stockings but couldn’t find them anywhere in Malaysia, so my mom airmailed them to me from her local drugstore. Similarly, we ended up bringing suitcases of baby gear back from our visit to the U.S. and having other essentials shipped to us. Ironically that was cheaper than buying them in Malaysia, and from what we could tell, there’s no safety regulation on locally made products.
The search for gear seemed to be the only inconvenience of being pregnant abroad until my 32nd week, when I was admitted to the hospital with early contractions. My husband and I hadn’t considered the contractions to be anything serious when we were at home earlier in the evening, so we were taken completely by surprise when my OB-GYN admitted me for observation. Although we’d just come home from seeing our friends and family, now we really needed them. Owing to the 12-hour time difference, we couldn’t even call them to tell them what was happening until long after we’d been admitted. As I lay in the hospital bed hooked up to machines and so far from home, my mind raced with anxiety and tears rolled down my face. Luckily, after two days in the hospital, the doctor managed to get my contractions under control. I was sent home on modified bed rest, and my sister came for a visit.
After I left the hospital, our local Kuala Lumpurian friends ratcheted up their efforts to help us prepare for the baby, and I found myself getting business cards of local pui yuet, live-in confinement nurses who assist mothers recovering from childbirth and prepare herbal soups to help their bodies heal. Chinese women all over Asia practice a confinement period ranging from a month to 60 days after the baby’s birth. Because my parents are first-generation Chinese-Americans, my mother pleaded with me to observe confinement. Overwhelmed and confused by wanting to comply with a tradition that meant a lot to my parents but seemed a bit medically questionable, I sought out our Malaysian-born, UK-educated OB-GYN who came to the rescue. He was very familiar with confinement and said that many new moms these days also felt conflicted. He encouraged me to do what felt right. From a medical perspective, he said that the herbs found in the confinement soups were harmless but also might not do exactly what they promised to do. And while he saw nothing wrong with confinement, he encouraged me not to stick too rigidly to the rules of staying in the house in the event I had any struggles with post-partum depression.
The weather never changes in Kuala Lumpur, and so when September rolled around, the only way to know time had passed was by looking at my belly – it was so huge it completely obscured my feet. On September 16th, just 10 days before my due date, I started having contractions again. Our hospital was only a 2-minute drive away, and with our families about to go to sleep on the other side of the world, we took our time getting to the hospital. Malaysia was celebrating a national holiday for the first time, called Satu Malaysia (One Malaysia) Day, so the streets were empty.
Once we checked into the hospital, we logged onto our computers (we brought two in case one failed) to let everyone know we were getting ready to meet our baby boy. Had we been living in the U.S., we probably wouldn’t have been as technologically inclined to shout our little guy’s birth from the internet rooftops, but we knew our families so wanted to be there that we needed to make sure we could share it with them. By the time they woke up 8 hours later, our little guy, Bennett, was born. Of course we were overjoyed, but we were also sad knowing our families and friends back home couldn’t be with us on this incredibly special day. I missed my mom especially, not only for her sage advice but because suddenly I felt more bonded to her than ever before and I finally understood where all her nudging came from.
In the end, I chose to honor my family’s tradition of observing confinement. My dad, who is semi-retired, came from the U.S. ahead of my mother to be my surrogate pui yuet and make me soups. In some ways, confinement was freeing – I didn’t have to stress about returning to work right away or worry about venturing out of the house that first month; I could enjoy the moment. Since confinement is the norm in Malaysia, I didn’t even have to explain it to our friends there. And although my American friends had many questions about what confinement was and how it benefited mom and baby, they also supported my decision and seemed to have a “when in Rome” attitude toward it.
We moved back to America this past summer and now it’s Bennett who’s adjusting to living in a foreign place. The longer we’re home the more our time in Malaysia seems like a dream. Being pregnant in a foreign country exposed me to a whole different side of the culture that I never would have encountered otherwise. Sure, there were moments when we craved the ability to walk into a Babies ‘R’ Us to pick up a small but essential baby necessity, but overall, we wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. During that year, we learned how to be parents to our son while adjusting to a new way of life and traveling to places like Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan together.
Though Bennett doesn’t qualify under Malaysian law for citizenship because he was born to foreigners, his American passport will always list Kuala Lumpur as his place of birth. I’m excited to tell him one day when he’s older about the adventure we had overseas, and how he was born in an exotic place. I just hope that if he runs for public office one day, no one will ask me to translate his long-form birth certificate because it’s written entirely in Bahasa.