By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
She was profoundly relieved at the end of the journey.
"After I passed the customs I felt, 'I'm free. I'm safe now. Nobody knows me. I can have a new life, and so can my baby.'...I was just very happy," she says.
She settled in with friends in Houston, where she could make all the necessary preparations for the birth. She had saved up enough money to live for several months without working.
Her first impression of Houston was its sprawling size. She had never seen so many highways and cars before. Surprisingly, she was struck by the cleanness of the air.
"The first time I got out of the airport [I thought], 'The sky is so blue here!' " Lijun became well acquainted with the Chinese neighborhood clustered around Bellaire Boulevard, with its restaurants, banks, beauty salons and other businesses announced by prominent signs in Chinese. But she also came to relish Houston's diversity.
"I think it's good. For my baby I also think it's good ... she'll know there are so many races in the world. Not like China," she says.
Another striking difference she noticed was how people reacted toward pregnant women. In her homeland, she says, people tend to be uncomfortable and standoffish around women in the late stages of pregnancy. Here, they make a fuss.
Lijun spent most of her time in those days preparing for the birth. She applied for Medicaid, found a satisfactory health clinic and spent many hours reading books on being a mother. As her delivery date neared, she moved into a small apartment on her own. She grew increasingly nervous.
"Every time I thought I was going to have birth, I was scared. I think every new mom has that kind of fear. Of course, it was also very exciting ... and a lot of responsibilities, like how to raise her, can I qualify to be a good mother, can I just raise her to become a very good person -- things like that.
"Sometimes I cried, because I felt sorry for my baby. She cannot be born in a perfect family, with a father around her."
She was already ten days overdue when, at her obstetrician's urging, she arrived early one morning at a local hospital. She settled into a comfortable maternity room, and soon an affable nurse gave her pills to induce labor. But a day passed and the baby would not budge. By the next evening, even the self-assured doctor began to worry. He opted for a C-section.
Groggy from painkillers, Lijun practically slept through the procedure. But she was alert enough to hear the doctor, in short order, pronounce that she had a healthy baby girl. As he placed the wailing infant beside her, there was joy and relief in Lijun's eyes, the same unforgettable look the doctor had seen after countless deliveries.
What he could not have guessed at was her immense solitude.
"It was very complicated," Lijun recalls. "At that moment I felt very happy, very proud and scared and sorrowful and lonely, because none of my family or my relatives knew about this....I had to do everything on my own. I felt sad for the baby. There was no father on the side watching her birth."
Traditionally, after giving birth a Chinese woman will stay in bed for a month while others tend to the baby and chores. Lijun could not enjoy such a luxury. After a couple of days at the hospital, she brought the little girl back to their new home and began life as a mother. Raising the child became her life's central focus, but she faced other serious challenges as well. Lijun was unsure whether she would be allowed to remain in the United States, a gnawing uncertainty she lives with every day.
Lijun is one of more than 70,000 Chinese immigrants who have settled in Houston seeking a better life and a reprieve from the intrusive grasp of China's government. Nationwide, some 50,000 Chinese a year have flowed into the United States over the last decade. Those who say they fled because of the restrictive birth policies represent only a trickle of the total, but they make up the majority of asylum cases.
In the last six months a Houston physician has examined one man who bore the scars of a sloppily executed vasectomy that the man said he was forced to undergo, and two women who had complications from "corkscrew"-like IUDs that they said were inserted against their wills.
One of the women was in particularly bad shape when she arrived at his office, says Dr. Pat McColloster, an assistant professor in family medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and the medical director at Casa Juan Diego clinic.
"This woman arguably could have died if she had stayed in her country and not had the IUD removed. There's no doubt in my mind that that could have happened," he says. "The IUD needed to come out.... It was causing her significant disability and certainly would have led to a more severe infection."
Lijun came to the United States on a work visa and later obtained student and visitor visas to prolong her stay. Now she plans to apply for permanent asylum.