Director Leslie Tai Previews Her POV Documentary “How to Have an American Baby”
Photo Credit: PBS
Years ago I remember hearing about the looming threat of anchor babies from the media and a few GOP lawmakers. Like any topic that is politicized by lawmakers or sensationalized by the media, the truth is always much more nuanced and complex.
What exactly is birth tourism and why are Chinese women coming to the United States to have their American babies? Why would these families spend thousands of dollars — and sometimes risk their lives and the lives of their babies — to give birth here?
In part one of my exclusive Q&A with director Leslie Tai, we talked about her interest in this topic and how she convinced her subjects to participate in the film.
TV GOODNESS: How and when did you first hear about birth tourism and what made you want to make a film about it?
LESLIE TAI: “The film is nine years in the making. The first time I heard about it… I love telling this story. It was a long-time friend of mine from Beijing. I had spent all of my twenties living in China, hence the connection. So, it was this call from my friend that came out of the blue one day, two weeks before I was gonna get married.
She told me she was in the US and at the time I knew she was dating a wealthy older man, maybe to try to increase her opportunities. It wasn’t until we got on video chat that she showed me her big belly. She was oiling it up and told me, ‘Hey, listen, I’m in this crazy place in Los Angeles that you’ve probably never heard of. I’m on this hilltop development and I’m surrounded by maternity hotels. I’m surrounded by pregnant Chinese women. I’m here and it’s just a crazy situation and I think you should come and make a film about it.’
So I really entered into the story through a friend of mine. It was like a step-by-step reveal. I was like, ‘Oh, you’re pregnant?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, I’m here to have an American baby.’ She’s like, ‘You just go on this website and there’s a whole Chinese Craigslist that services people like me. And there’s just hundreds of women here that are doing the same thing.’ So that’s how I got into it.
[As to why] I had to make this film, it came from all the time I spent in China during China’s rise, the big coming out starting at the Beijing Olympics. There was a group of us expats living in China. It was just so clear returning from China to the United States that Americans have no concept of China as a society. Its people, I mean. It was just really a narrow view coming from the mainstream media about the rising middle class and the rise and economic development and human rights abuses.
There was this total lack of any kind of real life stories of real people that are actually focusing on their lived experiences. In my work, I really like to provoke. I felt like this was a super controversial topic. But what if we could go behind the headlines and really just dive into the humanity of all the people involved in this crazy underworld? Everybody’s connected by this invisible web. So going in, and I really wanted to tell the story of all the unexpected players, you wouldn’t think about who are all involved, whose lives are all intertwined with this industry.”
TV GOODNESS: You had such an extraordinary level of access for this film. How did you find the subjects and what did you go through in convincing them to participate?
LESLIE TAI: “On-the-ground relationship building one at a time. Obviously I met the maternity hotel operator [where] my friend was staying. I met her roommates and learned about their family situations. But more importantly, my producing partner, Jillian [Schultz] and I, we started answering ads in this Chinese Craigslist. At the time, this was such a huge phenomenon, so popular in the Chinese imagination that even my distant relative was asking me about it. So we took that opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I have a cousin in China who is interested in coming here to have a baby.’ Just based on that, we were able to tour all these maternity hotels. Then we found out that most of them were really just one woman shows, one woman shops.
All these women seemed to be single women who had also come here, had a past, had their own stories, came here to have their American baby, and then decided to stay. The way they could stay was to feed back into this industry or do what they knew how to do. They watched their maternity hotel boss ladies do the same thing. So it was really fascinating that it was an all woman world and all these immigrant women. It was a woman’s world.
So this issue of access, I was the right age. I had the right kind of background. I speak Chinese fluently. I had lived in China, but I’m American, so I speak perfect English. I can help them call their energy company because they have some issues with their bills. [Laughs.] They wanted us in their world more than I had ever anticipated.
Photo Credit: PBS
It’s a funny story, but once we met the people they were really excited to become friends because it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I have a Chinese-American friend now.’ They would ask me what I do for a living, and I would say, ‘Oh, just documentary cinematography.’ Inevitably, every single one of the people that we met would come up with the idea for us of making a film. So people understand that they’re living inside of something that’s way larger than themselves. They also know they’re squirting through a historical window. They knew that this wasn’t totally on the up and up, but then they were like, ‘We’ve got to do this while we can.’
Everyone knew that they were part of something and they knew about all these stories surrounding them. They saw the value in trying to record and communicate and transmit some of these stories. So that’s really how I built all these relationships. It was really about a mutual benefit. They wanted me around, obviously, for translating and interpreting and all that kind of stuff. Then over time, they got really invested in the film as well.”
Edited for length and content.
How to Have an American Baby premiered on PBS and is streaming on PBS.org.
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.
Maahra Hill Talks The Irrational
I’m a Jesse L. Martin stan back to the OG Mothership Law & Order (pour one out for Lennie Brisco, y’all), although I admittedly tapped out on The Flash at a certain point. This season, Martin has been back in his old NBC stomping grounds with The Irrational, a different,…
George R. Olson, Tim Rozon, and Sarah Levy Talk the SurrealEstate S2 Finale
[Spoilers for the SurrealEstate Season 2 finale.] How’s everyone doing after the finale? As we close out the second season of SurrealEstate, some of our merry band of misfits are scattering to the winds–Zooey to law school, Phil to the Vatican, and Augie back to his think tank with Rochelle,…
Previewing SurrealEstate Season 2 Finale + Revisiting the Season with George R. Olson
[Warning; General spoilers ahead.] Strap in, SurrealEstate fam, because we’ve arrived at the Season 2 finale, and it’s a doozy. As we saw in the closing moments of last week’s episode, Susan is back. But because we have one more episode left, it’s not as simple as all that, as…
Tyler Hynes Talks Through His Eight-Film Hallmark Holiday Library
Things you realize when you have to re-record your shows on a new DVR – just how many Hallmark movies your people have done. Fan favorite – and one of ours – Tyler Hynes has done eight Christmas movies for Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries since 2018. Alongside…
Spencer Creaghan Talks About Creating SurrealEstate’s Signature Sound
SurrealEstate is winding down its second season, with two episodes left, and just as in Season 1, Spencer Creaghan’s music continues to be a character unto itself. And every week, he shares tidbits with the fans via his s social media channels, something he started to help give them an…
Andrew Walker Talks Christmas Island and the Magical Hallmark Community
[Warning: Spoilers for Christmas Island.] Now that the Screen Actors Guild strike has been resolved, we’re able to resume regularly scheduled programming and interview our favorites and yours. Up first, earlier today, I spoke with Andrew Walker about Christmas Island, which premiered last weekend and encores tonight and through the…
George Olson and Danishka Esterhazy Talk SurrealEstate “I Put a Spell on You”
[Warning: Spoilers for the episode.] Tonight’s fun new SurrealEstate found Luke caught up in an especially bewitching woman, Kay, played by Tara Yelland, Susan trapped in her house, and Zooey learning the ropes. In the next part of my conversation with showrunner George R. Olson and producing director Danishka Esterhazy,…
Danishka Esterhazy Talks SurrealEstate: “The Butler Didn’t”
[Warning: General spoilers for the episode]. Tonight’s new SurrealEstate, “The Butler Didn’t,” follows the team as they investigate the years-earlier mysterious death of a woman whose ghost now reenacts her hanging by dropping over the banister from the second floor to terrify anyone on the landing or at the bottom…
Scott McCord and Elizabeth Saunders Talk the From Season 2 finale
[Warning: Spoilers for the season finale.] How’s everyone doing after that finale? While we wait and wonder and hope for a third season announcement, soon, here’s what Scott McCord and Elizabeth Saunders had to say about their parts of the finale, and where they hope they get to go next….
Scott McCord and Elizabeth Saunders Talk From Season 2 + A Season Finale Preview
[Warning: General spoilers ahead.] It all comes down this, #FROMily. As Sunday’s episode wraps up Season 2, we begin with the aftermath of the terrifying onset of seemingly simultaneous attacks on Julie, Marielle, and Randall, which accelerate the “We gotta get out of this place” of it all. Sara comes…
What They Said: Three Revealing Conversations from Survivor’s Remorse “Closure”
WARNING: Spoilers for Survivor’s Remorse “Closure” The latest episode of Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse featured conversations that showed characters really digging deep into their thoughts, emotions and motivations.
Two Takes: The Catch “The Knock-Off”
Who can you trust? If this episode of The Catch was any indication, the answer is just about nobody. Betrayal was running rampant as Felicity (Shivani Ghai) arose from the dead to seduce-con Margot, Gretchen (Maria Thayer, Gotham, The Mindy Project) played gold-hearted Alice 2.0 before swindling Ethan, Tessa jumped…
What They Said: Top 3 Quotable Moments from Preacher “El Valero”
Both Quincannon and Jesse refuse to give up on what they each think is rightfully theirs. While Jesse is struggling to face the consequences of his actions, Quincannon has laid his past demons to rest and is hellbent on moving forward and putting Annville on the map again. Despite a…
What They Said: Favorite Quotes from Supergirl “Worlds Finest”
Oh, Supergirl. That ending was cold. But I can’t hate on you because the latest episode has quickly become one of my favorites.
What They Said: Top 4 Quotable Moments from Black Sails “XXIII”
The dialogue in “XXIII” is phenomenal. It’s always a fun ride when Black Sails carries its viewers along without giving them the chance to catch their breath. When an episode moves at this unforgiving pace, there is no chance for a breather nor is there a respite from the information…
What Lucifer Said: Favorite quotes from Supernatural “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Supernatural episodes are almost always funny but thanks to the dialogue and a certain man speaking said dialogue, I laughed a lot during “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” You know, when I wasn’t busy fearing for Sam’s life or wondering what in the world was going on with Dean and…
What They Said: The Flash, “Legends Of Today” and Arrow, “Legends Of Yesterday”
Two nights of Arrow +Â The Flash = what more could we ask for?! I don’t know what it is about blending these shows, but I canâ€™t help but feel that every time they come together, they somehow become greater than the sum of their parts. And thatâ€™s saying a lot…
What they Said: Top 4 Quotable Moments from Graceland “Little Bo Bleep”
Shoot outs. Fake outs. And long-awaited revelations. “Little Bo Bleep” was a jam-packed episode that wrapped up some loose ends and totally frayed others. Â It finally gave us one Sarkissian in jail and pulled back the curtain on Briggs’ master plan, but it also set up Jakes for a world…
What They Said: Favorite Quotes from Poldark “Part 4”
â€œWhat have I told you, I don’t require my wife to crochet and sip tea, but I do require her to remember she’s not a beast of burden.â€ No, Iâ€™m not talking about The Rolling Stones! I have to admit though, just for a second, the lyrics popped into my…
3 Moments of Goodness from Brooklyn Nine-Nine “Johnny and Dora”
The most satisfying part of this season’s finale has to the Jake and Amy kiss. Well, they kiss three times but the last one is the best one — and it means something. The Charles and Rosa dynamic was also great. I love how she’s convinced he doesn’t know anything…