Birthing Centers Cater to Expectant 'Dragon Year' Mothers

Birthing Centers Cater to Expectant 'Dragon Year' Mothers

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SAN FRANCISCO – The Year of the Dragon is an auspicious time for Chinese parents, so much so that officials in Beijing predict a spike in the number of babies born this year. Expectant mothers, however, are rushing to Hong Kong to give birth so their children will have access to the island’s more modern schools and healthcare facilities.

But as hospitals in Hong Kong approach capacity, and as disgruntled locals gripe about the influx of mainlanders, many soon-to-be mothers in China are increasingly turning their eyes to this country.

According to a report in the Chinese-language World Journal, local “birthing centers” are sprouting up in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco catering to such women and offering packages that include air travel and accommodation, as well as medical and delivery expenses at the hospital before and after labor.

The cost: anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000.

“The Dragon is fortune,” says Taiwanese-native Marvis Lin, a recent graduate of San Francisco Academy of Art University. Two months pregnant, she had planned to return home but recently applied for an OPT (Occupational Practical Training) visa allowing her to remain in the country.

“My husband and I chose this year as the best year to have a baby,” she says, adding she’s eager for her child to have United States citizenship.

Lin says she looked into local birthing centers, which offer everything from midwife and nanny services to traditional foods thought beneficial for pregnant or new mothers.

"I contacted one place in San Jose. The agency charges between $2,600 and $3,300 per month for a 24-hour nanny… it also offers a 50 percent discount on hotels in San Jose if I prefer to stay in a hotel with a live-in nanny."

Birthing centers first emerged in the United States in the 1970s as an alternative to the increasingly high-tech maternity wards found at most hospitals. Ones in the Chinese community are modeled on similar centers in China, where new mothers spend anywhere form a month recuperating on a strict diet and other rules meant to secure future health.

The Los Angeles Times reported in March of last year on the closure of several such centers in Southern California, described in the report as a “hub” of birthing tourism. Rather than closing up shop, however, operators simply stopped housing clients, instead turning into pseudo-travel agents by offering hotel bookings and earning a commission on the hourly wages paid to nannies hired through them.

The industry has indeed gotten a boost from Chinese eager for so-called “Dragon babies” believed to have lifelong good fortune. One of twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac, the dragon is a symbol of royalty and is widely viewed as the harbinger of wealth, wisdom, courage and power.

China’s state run Xinhua News Agency reported recently that such beliefs have led officials there to predict the number of births this year will climb by 5 percent from 2011, when the rate stood at just over 12 births per 1000 people.

Couples are thought to have until about May 2 to conceive in order for their child to be born before the Year of the Dragon ends next February.

For those who can make the trip, giving birth outside the mainland also allows mothers pregnant with a second or third child to avoid the now 30-year-old One Child Policy restriction. Such factors, according to the Sing Tao Daily, have prompted authorities in Hong Kong to consider drastically drawing down the quota on non-resident births, currently set at 35,000.

The report also cited the growing frustration of local Hong Kong residents, who complain their hospitals are “filling up” with pregnant mothers from the mainland, many having arrived on tourist visas long since expired.

Mrs. Wang is four months pregnant. While she lives in Beijing, she told the World Journal that both her and her husband lack the residential permit known in Chinese as a "hukou," without which her child will not be allowed to enroll in the local public school system.

“Beijing's international schools offer better quality and cheaper tuition than private schools,” Wang was quoted as saying. “However, students enrolled in international school are required to hold a foreign passport.”

That’s why she says she’s spent the past several weeks looking into birthing centers here in the United States, in either New York or California.

"I'm coming to the United States to look for better educational opportunities for my kid,” she said.

With any luck, this year she just may find them.