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Document Life

Director Leslie Tai Previews Her POV Documentary “How to Have an American Baby” 

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.

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