By Gabrielle. Cute baby turtle print by Sarah Otts.
The way Caitlin describes the logistical labyrinth and painfully slow progress following her Hong Kong birth leaves me feeling grateful for all the simple drives to the hospital with everyone speaking my language. And no passports or visas! I think you’ll feel the same.
And yet, it wasn’t all a nightmare. Her doctor was named Grace, and her midwife was Joy. Fitting, in the end. And there’s a lovely story of such kindness in the midst of the madness, it’ll make you want to be a better you. So welcome, Caitlin! Take us away to Hong Kong!
My husband and I had been living in China for about a year when we decided it was time to have a kid. Never in a million years had I thought I’d be delivering my first child abroad, but that’s the way it panned out. Luckily we had several expat friends in our area who’d recently given birth and knew the ins and outs and were happy to share their advice with us.
We came here for him to work as an athletic trainer for a professional basketball team in the Chinese Basketball Association. I’ve been working on a novel. Neither of us came here speaking Mandarin — although we’ve both tried to learn! — and almost no one here speaks English. I joke that my husband’s Chinese vocabulary is the strangest thing ever; he knows words like “capillary” and “meniscus” and can order an x-ray with no problem, but still can’t order a pizza!
We live about an hour and half north of the China-Hong Kong border and decided we wanted to deliver in Hong Kong. I was told the medical care in China (particularly anywhere outside Beijing or Shanghai) has a reputation for being pretty sketchy. I’d heard plenty of horror stories of Chinese medical care and simply did not care to experience that. Not to mention neither my husband or I speak Mandarin and no one here, including doctors, speaks English.
I found a doctor in Hong Kong I loved: Grace, along with her midwife, Joy. There seemed to be something so poetic about going through pregnancy and delivery with people named Grace and Joy. I felt like I could use an added helping of grace and joy, as having a doctor in another country is not easy.
Every time I had to go down to Hong Kong for an appointment, I traveled for about three and a half hours on busses and metros and my own two feet. And my appointments were so fast it almost didn’t feel worth it. Once I remember arriving at the office and walking back out 11 minutes later and thinking “That’s seven hours of traveling for an 11-minute appointment?!”
It got harder as my pregnancy progressed. Walking was uncomfortable. The busses aggravated my morning sickness. A lot of people on the metro were so into their phone they didn’t see the eight-month behemoth pregnant lady who desperately wanted a seat. And my husband was hardly ever able to take off work to come with me to my appointments since it took all day to get there and back.
But other than the treks down to Hong Kong my pregnancy was fairly easy. (Although no pregnancy is ever truly easy, is it?!) I was healthy and in good spirits and excited to meet our little son. As the time to deliver got closer though, the logistics game got trickier. For all intents and purposes, Hong Kong right now is a different country than China, which means each place has their own set of rules. China requires an entry visa. In order to get a visa, you have to have a passport. Which meant that before we could bring our son home to China after he was born in Hong Kong, we had to get him both a passport and a visa. Have you ever done that? It’s a process that usually takes a few months at best.
Fortunately our friends had figured it all out ahead of us and it wasn’t as dire as it first seemed. You could obtain an emergency passport that would be valid for a year, in just a single day from the US consulate. And getting a tourist visa for China in Hong Kong could be pushed through as quickly as three days if you had all the right papers.
It should have been pretty straightforward but it was anything but. In order to get a birth certificate, you have to visit the Hong Kong birth registry immigration department. You can’t make an appointment there until after the baby is born. But then the next step is a stop at the US consulate for a passport, for which you need to make an appointment about two weeks in advance. And both me and the baby had to physically appear at the US consulate, which meant we couldn’t go there until I was released from the hospital — which would change depending on when the dang baby was born! Confused yet? Once we had the birth certificate and a passport, we needed a Hong Kong visa that declared that the baby had legally arrived in Hong Kong, and then a visa to get him into China. It was a total nightmare and a stress the entire pregnancy.
My husband Terry was a great partner. He took over all the logistics of getting our baby a passport and visa, from collecting all the right documents, to figuring out where we needed to go when, to booking appointments and printing confirmation pages. I just focused on growing the baby and trying not to have a nervous breakdown.
In order to achieve that lofty goal, I decided I needed to be induced early. The hospital was four hours away from our home and I lived in fear that we wouldn’t make it there in time. (Although, honestly, I was good with just making it over the border by the time I gave birth — I felt like I would rather give birth on the Hong Kong sidewalk than be in China giving birth in an unknown-to-me hospital. Ha!) Hong Kong is a super expensive place to stay though, so I didn’t want to go down any earlier than we had to. And we wanted to get back home as quickly as possible, both for the sake of our wallet and because my husband would already be taking a good chunk of time off of work to stay with me and the baby while we got the passport and visa.
Grace was game for inducing me early, and about two weeks before my due date she gave the go-ahead to be induced about a week out. The hospital didn’t have any openings for a scheduled induction until three days before my due date, so we went with that. We still went down to Hong Kong about four days before that, just in case baby decided to make his appearance. He didn’t.
The whole induction went so smoothly. Before getting pregnant I’d considered giving birth without any medication but once I knew we’d be doing this whole thing in China/Hong Kong, I decided to get an epidural. I had enough to worry about without trying to gear myself up for a natural birth. It was absolutely the right decision for me and I think I’m on Team Epidural for life! Power to all you mamas who choose otherwise! Power to all mamas!
We watched about a million episodes of The Office and I progressed very slowly. They induced me at about 9:00 on a Monday morning and by 9:00 that night I was still only dilated to about a three and a half. I’d been napping on and off all day and had dozed off once more when Grace came and woke me up about half past midnight to check me again. I was still blinking sleep from my eyes when she casually announced “Yep, that’s a ten. Push on the next contraction.”
Our handsome little Sander was born about an hour later. They plopped him on my chest right away and I just stared at him, trying to reconcile the little moving thing in my belly with this tiny human that stared up at me with dark eyes and a giant dimple in his cheek. I was so excited to meet him and so exhausted. I’d been in that labor and delivery room for 27 hours and had been in active labor for over 16 hours. They took Sander and cleaned him up. I snuggled him for a bit more and then sent him to the nursery at about 4:00 am so I could collapse into bed. The hospital didn’t allow overnight visitors in a shared room so Terry still had to leave, hail a cab at 4:30 in the morning, and ride up the winding mountain road to the apartment we were staying at that belonged to a friend of a friend. He came back early the next morning and we snuggled Sander some more and geared up for Operation: Get Baby Home.
Let me just say, Terry was a rockstar for this whole thing. He took care of everything. Every tiny detail was planned in advance. He just assured me he had everything under control and made sure I could focus on Sander and taking care of him. It was not easy going, though. The appointment we’d made with the US consulate (two weeks earlier) was set for 9:00 am on Friday, which would be the day I’d be released from the hospital. We counted on being able to get the birth certificate by then, but there was a problem with the information the hospital originally sent to the birth registry place, so that was delayed a day. We held our breaths as we refreshed the webpage over and over again that would allow us to make an appointment to get the birth certificate as soon as our information had gone through. Wednesday afternoon it finally went through and they had one single appointment left: the last one on Thursday evening. We snagged it right away and breathed a sigh of relief.
Meanwhile, we had to get a passport photo for Sander. Have you ever tried to get a passport photo for an infant? Especially a two-day-old infant? You can’t keep their eyes open! They’re not going to look straight at a camera, you can’t see both their ears at the same time, and there’s no way they can keep their head from flopping around on the white background that you’re somehow supposed to keep free of shadows. It was the most ridiculous thing and had us cracking up for the hundreds of shots we took. Finally we got two photos we thought might work.
With that obstacle overcome, we moved on to the next one: printing the photos. Let’s just say everything is harder in a foreign country and we were unfamiliar with Hong Kong. Something as simple as printing photos becomes a logistical nightmare when dealing with cell phones that are dying because you don’t have an adaptor for your plug, taxi drivers that don’t speak your language, stores that won’t accept the bigger bill that comes out of the ATM, and waiting an hour in line to try to get a cab back to the hospital where your wife and brand new son are staying. But at the end of a very long Thursday, Terry made it back with several copies of both possible passport photos.
For my part, I was desperate to get home. I wanted nothing more than to be in a place where I could figure out this whole baby thing without an audience. The nurses were incredibly helpful and taught me a lot but knowing I’d be staying in Hong Kong for a while longer weighed on me. That weight grew heavier when Terry called in the middle of the day to break some news to me. We’d been staying with a friend of a friend: Marj and her husband. She was incredible. Super friendly and easy to chat with and really welcoming. But we’d rented our own tiny apartment from Airbnb for after the baby was born. I just didn’t want to have to be worried about waking other people up with a crying newborn at all hours of the night. It was right on the beach and was more spacious than most places in Hong Kong, and we were so excited we’d found it for a killer deal. It seemed too good to be true.
Turns out it was too good to be true. Terry took some of our luggage over the day before I was released from the hospital. And found mold. Tons and tons of mold. It was everywhere. Growing on furniture, all over the couch, up the walls. Everywhere. He texted the owner, who was horrified. She’d been out of town for a couple weeks and had arranged for someone to turn on the AC to keep the humidity at bay but it hadn’t happened. She was great to work with and told us she’d refund our money and that we didn’t have to stay and that she was sorry to have caused trouble just as we were having a baby. I was glad she was so great about it but that still left us in a pickle. I didn’t have the energy to look for another place to stay and I was worried we’d run into the same kind of problem again. And a hotel felt cramped if I knew I wasn’t going to be leaving the room for a week straight. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. So far everything had gone really well. We’d made it down to Hong Kong for the baby, it looked like we’d be able to get home fairly quickly, and we were all safe and healthy. A snag with the housing was something I could deal with.
Enter Marj again. She’d offered to continue to let us stay after the baby was born but understood why that might not be ideal for us. But each night when Terry returned to her house while I was in the hospital, Marj offered her house again. We finally took her up on it.
It honestly brings me to tears every time I think of it. Who does that? Who takes in a new mother she barely knows and a tiny little three day old newborn and a new dad? I can think of few instances where I’d be more helpless or less of a burden. And to Marj it was just no big deal. She was happy to do it. She held Sander while I ate (Terry was still running around on missions for Operation: Get Baby Home), made us dinner each night, watched TV with us while I nursed, and generally just made our whole stay in Hong Kong comfortable. She even thanked us for bringing a little baby with the sweet spirit that comes along with that into her home.
I hope someday I can be the kind of miracle in someone’s life that she was in mine.
I was released from the hospital three days after Sander was born. We took a taxi straight from the hospital to the US consulate. I still had my hospital bracelets on and must have looked like some kind of hospital escapee. People kept commenting on how tiny our baby was and asking how old he was. When we answered that he was three days old we got looks ranging from impressed to scandalized. And then they’d all kind of give me a once-over and say something like “You look good for giving birth three days ago.” Yeah. Didn’t feel that way.
I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to sit on the hard chairs. I didn’t want to be desperately watching the clock, calculating how much time I had left before Sander would wake up again wanting to eat, wondering “How am I supposed to feed him in a place like this?!” I wanted to be home. Or at least not out in public, exposing my newborn to all the germs that passed through the consulate each day.
But it worked out. Funny how that happens. Everything just works out and people are generally more understanding and kinder than you hope. Sander slept the whole time, we successfully applied for an emergency passport, were told we could pick it up that same afternoon, and after waiting in line for about half an hour we got a cab back to Marj’s. Terry spent the next few days running around to appointments and turning in papers, and by Tuesday night we had a passport and a China visa for Sander in hand. We even had several friends come visit us while we were stuck in Hong Kong. What awesome people. That’s eight hours of traveling in a day just to come see us for maybe two. And they all brought us chocolate!
Wednesday morning we took Sander in for his ten-day checkup even though he was only eight days old; no way was I trekking back down to Hong Kong in two days. He passed with flying colors and we packed up all our stuff. I couldn’t wait to get our baby home. Four hours, couple hundred dollars, and one nursing session later, and our cross-border car dropped us right at our house. We stopped outside our apartment door for a photo with all our bags, the gift basket my family sent, the baby, and the exhausted mama. And finally, finally, finally we were home. Mama, Daddy, and Sander.
Caitlin, you’ve shown us that slow and steady does win the race! I’m sure each of us has that white-knuckle story of driving home from the hospital with our firstborn. He looks so tiny! Are you sure the carseat is installed properly? Maybe tighten it a little? Do you think his neck is bent too far? Why are the other cars driving so fast? Why are we driving so fast? Are we there yet? Ha! But your tale of getting home after Sander’s birth takes it to another level. Thank you for sharing your experience with us!
Has anyone else had to acquire passports and visas as part of your delivery? It sounds like everything I wouldn’t feel like handling after having a baby, right? As always, feel free to share your experiences with the rest of us! I do love your stories.
One more thing! I’m carrying this thought with me for as long as it’ll stay: “I hope someday I can be the kind of miracle in someone’s life that she was in mine.” So good. Thanks again, Caitlin.