By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Nobody but her boyfriend knew she was pregnant, and Lijun intended to keep it that way.
She eyed the glass of water resting within arm's reach on the nightstand.
"You cannot keep the baby," she remembers telling herself. "You have to take the pills. It will not be painful. You will still be a very happy young girl and have a new life after this. Later on, you can find someone and you can marry. And at that time you can have a baby and everything will be made up for."
The simple gesture -- popping the pill and washing it down -- would be absurdly easy compared to her days of torturous brooding over what to do. The fleeting act would quell the battle in her mind. But she knew she would have to live with the cold finality of her decision.
Lijun's parents had already gone to sleep for the night. Her bedroom was quiet save for the faint sounds of nighttime traffic in her sprawling, ancient city on China's east coast. It was in this room, her haven from the teeming world since she was a girl, that Lijun had learned she was pregnant through a self-administered test.
The discovery was devastating. The birth would create a nasty scandal. For starters, Lijun's boyfriend was married and already had a child. Adultery is a crime in China; out-of-wedlock babies are even more taboo. Under the country's draconian population control policies, a single woman cannot get permission to give birth. If she has a baby anyway, she faces reprisals from the government and scorn from her peers.
Lijun's boyfriend had been unequivocal and brutally frank in his assessment of the crisis: Lijun needed an abortion, period. She understood his position. The local apparatus of the Communist government could do much to disrupt their lives for breaching official policy. Party officials might hound Lijun to terminate the pregnancy. The illicit couple could be fined, and stripped of housing, work and services such as health care. Because she worked for an American company, Lijun felt she probably was safe on the job front. But other threats, including the immense shame her parents would feel, made her shudder.
The child would likely face dim prospects in life. He or she could be excluded from school, work and other basic privileges.
Despite the strong arguments, Lijun hardly saw the issue in black and white. Unwittingly, she had formed powerful maternal feelings for the life developing in her womb.
"[My boyfriend] thought it was very easy to solve -- just take some medicine, there's no pain. That's true," she says. "Probably for men, they will think that it's just some kind of unborn creature, so you cannot call that life, you cannot call that a human being. But for a woman, especially a mother, of course she will think, 'That's my child.' So that's different."
Lijun wrestled with the dilemma for over an hour, shifting restlessly in her bed. Then, in an instant of clarity, she asked herself a question that framed the problem in starkly simple terms: If swallowing the pill is really the answer, why am I having to work so hard to convince myself?
"I knew that [having an abortion] was not something from the bottom of my heart. So why did I need to persuade myself? If I did believe those things, I didn't need to persuade myself," she says. "I knew that from the very beginning but just tried to let myself face the reality."
She cast the pill into the nightstand drawer, overcome by a momentary flood of relief.
"That time is the most stressful time -- not knowing which way to choose, going back and forth," she says. "Once you make the decision, even if you choose the hard way your heart feels more relaxed. The burden on your mind is not so heavy. After that, you just concentrate to find a way to work it out."
Lijun laughs when she's trying to shore herself up in the face of a painful truth or when she thinks she has astounded her interviewer with some strange tale from the Far East. Her circumstances have changed dramatically since that night of torment across the globe, but her fears are largely the same. Lijun, which is not her real name, cites those fears in asking that her true identity not be published. She also declines to disclose other particulars of her story, which begins far from Houston, in the large Chinese city of her birth.
Her parents were teachers and members of the Communist Party. Lijun's earliest years were lived in the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong's brutal campaign to shake up the party apparatus that inflamed generational strife, divided families and tossed the country in chaos. She recalls times being lean, but says her family was better off than many. They lived in a sparsely furnished apartment in a state housing complex and subsisted on government quotas of rice, meat, sugar and other staples.
The girl was a top student throughout her school career, the kind math teachers called upon to demonstrate tricky problems at the blackboard. She adopted her father's love of ancient Chinese history and was an eager participant in essay-writing competitions, eliciting both praise and consternation from her teachers.
She recalls one contest, when she was just seven or eight, in which the topic was ideals. Students wrote about what career would enable them to manifest virtue to the highest degree. At first Lijun said she wanted to be a writer, but she shifted gears mid-essay and wrote about becoming an astronomer. Her teacher apparently was alarmed by her vivid descriptions of the heavens and offered a warning to her mother:
"This kid can write very good articles, but the problem is she's got so much imagination. That will be the weakness for her future if she treats the imagination as the real world." Lijun still recalls the words with laughter.
Her independent streak continued through high school. She ran afoul of her teachers by playing soccer and volleyball with boys and sporting a bold, close-cropped hairstyle made popular at the time by a star of the Chinese cinema.
She says she always felt like an outsider and dreamed of a day when she might leave her country.
"Sometimes I just thought probably I was born in the wrong place. I was just like an alien. Some teachers said to me, 'Why do you always act so different from other people?' I used to wonder that too." Lijun vividly remembers her thoughts upon seeing an airplane fly by while she was walking one night. "Its light was flashing, and I said at that time, 'I'm going to go out of this country.' I didn't think it would come true."
Avowedly apolitical, Lijun was still in high school when pro-democracy student rallies erupted in Tienanmen Square in June 1989. The government responded with deadly force, massacring hundreds. In the blood-stained aftermath, Lijun began college.
"Almost all the first year we studied nothing other than, in [the teachers'] words, 'Wash your mind.' So we 'washed our minds' every day. In every class they divided us into teams, and every team had to discuss the June 4 'matter.' "
Some of the most telling lessons at the university came from her refusal to join the Communist Youth League, which claimed the vast majority of students as members. One of her professors seemed disturbed by her reluctance to join, she says, and frequently counseled her on the issue.
"The teacher said, 'How come as a good student you didn't apply for this league?' I said, 'I'm just not interested in politics.' He said, 'Probably you have been influenced too much by capitalism. You probably have got some problems with your thoughts.' "
Lijun persevered despite the pestering. In a country where males receive two out of three college diplomas, she graduated with an economics degree. Afterward she landed a job with an American electronics company.
She was in her mid-twenties and still living with her parents when she fell in love with the man who would become the father of her child. Lijun speaks about this episode reluctantly, and fights to keep her poise as she describes it. Every word brings her closer to tears.
She says she met him at a get-together at a friend's apartment, and they hit it off right away. He lived in a different city but had frequent business in Lijun's hometown. The man began to make a habit of calling the gracious, spirited girl whenever he was in town. Soon he began to confide in her about his unhappy marriage to a much older woman. He considered the relationship with his wife to be a "partnership," not one of smoldering passion. He told Lijun he was in love with her.
She felt the same way, she says, but had serious doubts about their future.
"I was conflicted," she says. "On the one hand, I knew it wasn't right because he had a wife and a child. On the other hand, it's not right to stay in a relationship that's dead."
Her paramour raised the stakes when he told her he planned to divorce so that he and Lijun could eventually marry. But all the sweet talk abruptly changed when Lijun became pregnant. She remembers calling her boyfriend immediately after learning the results of her home pregnancy test.
"Dammit!" he growled. "It's impossible for you to keep that baby. You must face reality. It cannot work out." Lijun hung up on him.
However, the more she thought about it, the clearer she saw that abortion probably was the only way out of their bind. In order for them to have the baby without reprisals, the man would have to divorce quickly and marry Lijun at once. Then they would need consent from family planning authorities to have a child. Taking care of these complicated matters in the short time they had would have been next to impossible, Lijun says.
But the idea of an abortion struck her as both terrifying and tragic. A friend of hers had once been in similar straits, she says, and the results were not pretty.
"Everybody, even friends, all persuaded her to have an abortion. She didn't want to," Lijun says. "[The abortion] was very, very painful, very scary. I think that experience changed almost all of her emotions and even some attitudes towards people. At the time, she just wanted to keep the baby, but there was no way."
Before deciding anything, Lijun and her boyfriend wanted a doctor to confirm that she was pregnant. They took supreme care to hide their identities, visiting a hospital in a nearby city where nobody would know them. She gave a false name to the doctor and did not tell her she was single. But she thinks the doctor saw through her ruse. Upon determining that Lijun was with child, the doctor recommended an abortion. She scribbled out a prescription for the abortion drug, mifepristone.
The drive back to her city was extremely tense, Lijun recalls. Her boyfriend hammered home the point that she would have to terminate the pregnancy. He was a broken record, she says, sounding the same shrill note over and over.
"He was very angry and very unhappy," she recalls.
But Lijun had a far bigger fear than her boyfriend's panicked demands: She might have to contend with the heavy hand of the Communist Party as well.
"The official rationale is that in order for China to develop economically as fast as possible, they had to reduce the population growth rate as fast as possible," says Susan Greenhalgh. She is an anthropology professor at the University of California-Irvine and a leading expert on China's population control program. "Even though they reached their basic fertility control targets in 1993, it continues to be enforced in a legally fairly effective way."
According to a 1999 U.S. State Department report, officials employ a variety of tactics to ensure compliance with the family planning policy, ranging from education and economic incentives to sterilization and forced abortions.
While the central government in Beijing formulates policy, enforcement falls to Communist officials at the local level. Lijun believed they would learn about her situation and try to finish the job she refused to do herself. According to the State Department report, she had reason to fear she would be forced to have an abortion.
"Unmarried women cannot get permission to have a child," the report says. "During an unauthorized pregnancy, a woman often is paid multiple visits by family planning workers and pressured to terminate the pregnancy."
Rice University political scientist Steve Lewis, an authority on China, says the pressure to abort typically happens through the "intimidation and persuasion" of family members.
"By persuasion I mean, 'Hey, you've got to come down to our committee meeting and listen to us all day while we lecture you about all this.' And it's clear that if you want anything from the government in the future you'd better listen up and follow the plan," he says. "The whole goal of family planning in a lot of cases is to bring the family to bear and the neighborhood to bear on forcing that person."
The strong-arming would not end even if she eluded officials and gave birth. Lewis points out that the implementation of policies varies greatly from region to region, but confirms that typical punishments for an out-of-wedlock baby are stiff fines and loss of health care, education and other services.
"The government policy makes it clear that [a birth has] got to be part of a family unit," Lewis says. "You're still not allowed to marry freely, so of course you're not allowed to have a baby freely. And in this case in particular, if it's a single mother and, on top of that, the father is married to somebody else, there are a lot of potential problems to overcome."
Virtually every community in China has a local committee composed of Communist Party officials who wield inordinate influence over jobs, housing, security, education, health care, family planning and most other functions. Particularly strong in cities, the committees maintain neighborhood offices and keep a close watch on the lives of the residents. The party also operates in the workplace, in units called danwei, which keep close tabs on employees.
"If your neighborhood committee is opposed to you then everybody treats you as an outsider, and the police literally have the power to say, 'You need to leave,' " Lewis says.
Lijun imagined a refugeelike existence for her and her baby in China. She says she would have had to move to some remote place where nobody knew her, and where she would not have qualified for prenatal care or medical attention for the delivery.
Other problems would emerge after the birth of an illegal baby. The most troubling, perhaps, was the child's possible ineligibility for a crucial document needed for a normal life. The "household registration," a booklet that contains a person's birth information, is required for most employment, housing, school and health care. Without it, Lijun says, her child would essentially become an illegal alien in their own country.
"In America, they've got policies. The government policies protect these women or these babies. They are still legal. But in China there is no protection," she says. "If the person's name is not on the household registration, he's not a person. He has none of the human rights."
Lijun, who had never been outside of China before, reached her conclusion. For her own well-being and that of her future child, she had to get out -- fast.
She asked, Would the company be sending selected employees to the United States as usual, to orient them in operations at headquarters? If so, she would like to participate.
Her boss promptly replied. The program was still active. But there weren't details yet on who would go -- or when. Lijun persisted with letters until her supervisor finally confirmed that a group would soon leave for the States. She would be among them, he said.
Coming one long, horrific month after Lijun first discovered she was pregnant, the timely development struck her as the work of divine intervention.
"Of course, I was very happy," she says. "Everything just worked.I believe that there is God to take care of me. Sometimes you've got to think that."
Lijun's string of good luck continued. In the days that followed, she secured a work visa and a passport -- tough orders for a young single woman in China.
Her boyfriend was greatly relieved when he learned that she would not put him through the travesty of a birth in China. Nevertheless, he continued to argue for an abortion. It got so their time together became unbearable, an angry cycle of argument and recrimination. She quit seeing him.
Lijun says she just had too many pressing worries to allow herself to crash and burn with a relationship spiraling out of control. She faced uncertainties ahead in a country that she knew only through colleagues' yarns and slick pop culture images. Worse, she would be leaving behind her elderly parents, siblings and lifelong friends. And hovering over her final weeks was the fear that at any moment she could be "exposed" and punished.
During those emotionally perilous days, her unknowing parents helped her more than they ever realized. They were supportive of her trip. The old-timers imagined their daughter would encounter tremendous opportunities in America. They offered strong opinions about what sorts of things one should and shouldn't pack for such a journey.
"They thought I should bring more clothes. They thought if I've gotten to a new country I don't need to spend a lot of money on clothes," she says, laughing. "I wanted to bring a lot of books."
The debate led to bags getting unpacked and repacked over and over. Through the antics, Lijun felt deeply bothered that she couldn't be straight with her parents about the real motive for the trip. Deep down she felt it was best for them to remain ignorant.
She says those days sometimes overwhelmed her. She sought solace at a Buddhist temple on a nearby hilltop. Her only choice was to endure the tough times stoically and stay focused on the future -- lessons straight from the plucky American heroine Scarlett O'Hara.
"I like the character in Gone with the Wind. I love that lady very much. Probably she's not so perfect, not like every person prefers a lady should be -- graceful, nice. But she can always find a way to survive," Lijun says.
It was raining on the day Lijun left China. The previous night she had dropped off a letter of resignation at her office. She felt awful about letting down a company that had been so good to her, but she needed to break from her past and prepare for the birth.
She and her parents spoke few words at the airport, each weathering the sorrow and excitement of her departure in their own manner. With a final hug and a couple of quick glances back, Lijun boarded the plane that would take her to a new life. Hours later she enjoyed the excitement of the plane descending over America.
"I saw the fields and the houses are just like the chessboard. That's very funny, very beautiful, not like China -- very different. But it looks like this place has been very well organized -- everything's under control."
In the airport, she marveled at the colorful shops and many places to eat. Waiting for her connecting flight, Lijun happened upon an elderly American couple munching from their bags of popcorn, and asked where she could buy some. But the vendor was on the other side of the airport, so there wasn't time. However, the man insisted that Lijun take his popcorn, despite her protests.
"The gentleman said, 'You can have mine. I can share with my wife,' " she recalls with a smile. "That's a very nice experience when I first got here."
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.
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.
Legislation passed by Congress in 1996 gives special consideration to victims of China's coercive population control program. The law allows for 1,000 Chinese per year to receive asylum on grounds that they were forced to abort a pregnancy or undergo involuntary sterilization, or feared punishment for resisting the program.
Nationwide in the last federal fiscal year, 4,153 Chinese immigrants applied for asylum, more than half citing persecution under China's birth policies, says INS spokesman Bill Strassberger. The INS granted asylum to 943 and denied 379. Denials automatically get referred to immigration courts, as do all cases in which there is no definitive ruling.
In 1999 U.S. immigration courts heard the asylum cases of 6,663 Chinese immigrants. Of those, 29 percent received asylum and 37 percent were denied. The other cases were withdrawn or abandoned by the applicants. Houston's immigration court has handled some 75 asylum cases from Chinese since 1997. It approved 24 percent of the cases and denied 23 percent, with other cases pending.
Asylum cases are tricky because, unlike criminal proceedings, the burden of proof is squarely on the applicants. They must prove that they were persecuted by their government or that they face imminent persecution if they return to their homeland.
Russ Bergeron, another INS spokesman, says many Chinese asylum-seekers, particularly those who are apprehended while being illegally smuggled into the United States, make specious claims. He says they know that alleging persecution under birth policies is often an effective way to obtain legal status here.
"We've learned that most of the Chinese who are smuggled into the United States are briefed and prepped prior to their arrival. They receive instructions on precisely how to claim asylum for that purpose. Sometimes it's a bit ludicrous." He says some unmarried males claim they will be persecuted in the event that someday they try to have a family of more than one child.
"It becomes somewhat of a challenge to differentiate the bona fide claims from those individuals who simply use it as an attempt to dupe the system...," Bergeron says.
Lijun's case is hardly typical. The '96 asylum law generally applies to people persecuted for having more than one child. An unmarried woman with only one child might have a stronger claim if she argues that she belongs to a harassed social group -- single mothers, Bergeron says.
She no longer has a "well-founded fear" that she'll be forced to abort the child, he says. "The question now becomes, 'Does an unwed mother in China suffer persecution?' That really would have to be the basis of her claim."
Applications based on well-founded fear of persecution are harder to prove than those from people who already suffered persecution, says Brian Bates, Lijun's Houston attorney. In cases involving China's population control program, immigration officers are aware of the inconsistent manner in which China's policies get enforced from region to region, so they have leeway to assess the seriousness of the menace to a particular individual, he says.
The Chinese government flatly denies that it punishes unmarried mothers. Xu Ying, the spokesperson for the Chinese consulate in Houston, says the only penalty is intense public scorn. The threat of being ostracized is sufficient to ensure that few women have babies out of wedlock.
"The mother, if her case is [known by] the public, will be morally condemned by the fellow citizens; deemed to be selfish and irresponsible," he says. "There's no legal dimension.... Nine times out of ten the lady would marry the man or marry another man."
Rice professor Lewis says China's statutes may not address single mothers. However, those women are effectively put on the wrong side of the law because the government requires parents to obtain permission before having a child, and it grants that authorization only to married couples.
Xu maintains that out-of-wedlock children are full Chinese citizens who can "in time" get the household registration entitling them to services. "China is a special society which is, shall I say, a very benevolent society, a mild and peaceful society," he says. "As soon as a child was born into this world, he or she will be accepted by the community."
If Lijun had to return to China, her child, as a U.S. citizen, would not qualify for most basic services, such as free schooling and health care. Xu says if a parent attempted to get Chinese citizenship for their foreign-born child, the government "would consider it."
Lijun hopes she will never face such challenges. She is buoyed by her lawyer's confidence. But some attorneys warn against too much optimism, saying that asylum rulings are crapshoots that hinge as much on the mood of the immigration officer as on questions of law.
"Asylum is luck," says Niey-Bor Hsyung, a Taiwanese-born attorney in Houston. "If [the immigration officer] is happy, you're lucky. You'll pass for whatever reason. If they're unhappy, you're out of luck. Even if you have a good case, you'll fail. Believe me."
If asylum is rejected, Lijun still could win a withholding-of-deportation ruling that would enable her to remain in the United States on a year-to-year basis and work. It may take years for a final outcome. Asylum cases can drag on indefinitely through appeals and red tape. Lijun is convinced that she faces a grim reality if she is forced to go back to China.
"They can use every kind of excuse to punish me. It's possible they could put me in jail, charge me a fine and separate my baby from me.... It's up to them," she says. "I mean, if I return to my country, my future will be in their hands, so I cannot say what it could be."
But even amid the acceptance she feels here, Lijun admits it is hard not being able to share the joy of her baby with her family. While she exchanges monthly letters and the occasional e-mail with her kin, she provides them with sketchy details about her present life. She makes no mention of a baby.
"One thing I feel sad [about] is that I cannot tell my parents the truth," she says. "They have a baby -- they are her grandparents. The common situation, and the healthy situation, [is] they should know each other and they should love each other. And right now they don't have a chance."
Honesty would only cause them to worry, she says, and make them feel powerless to help. The ideal situation, Lijun believes, would be for them to visit her in Houston so they could see for themselves that she is well. She did write to the child's father, the man who once professed his love for her, to tell him she had given birth to a healthy baby girl. He did not reply.
Despite the isolation from her family and the uncertainty ahead, Lijun has no doubt she did the right thing having her child in America. Settled in a corner booth inside the taqueria, the proud mother produces pictures of her beaming, chubby-cheeked infant. Regardless of where she ultimately raises her daughter, Lijun says, the most important thing is that the girl is alive.
Lijun boldly altered her life for the sake of her daughter. But she feels the child should not be sheltered from the painful circumstances of her birth when she is old enough to understand.
"Probably the truth will hurt her in the future," Lijun says. "But I think she will be happy with my decision ... to bring her into this world."