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Birthing Abroad

By: Junlah Madalinski Posted: August-25-2011 in
Sculptural piece on display at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Museum.
Junlah Madalinski

I am a type A control freak. Everything has its place, and usually those places are labeled. Even in the three-week whirlwind of deciding to move to Cambodia, I organized, itemized, and put that label maker to good use. Two years of living in Cambodia later, I found myself in the corner pharmacy, trying to hand gesture the phrase "I need a pregnancy test." One “label” I was not expecting was the one that came in the form of a faint pink plus sign.

My first trimester was consumed with uncontrollable bouts of morning sickness, which was amplified because, lets face it, nausea and "developing country smell" do not go hand in hand. I don't think there was a corner of Phnom Penh that wasn't christened by my vomit.

Taking a break from my dry heaving, I went to visit my OBGYN. She asked whether or not I was interested in knowing the sex of the baby, the control freak within responded with a "Hell yes!" I may not be able to control this thing growing within me, but at least I can slap a label on it.

I was sent to a local Khmer ultrasound clinic. The waiting room was like any typical waiting room; television, rows of cushioned chairs in faded yellow vinyl upholstery, and an oversized painting of Buddha framed with flashing Christmas lights. There was a gasp of surprise and delight when my barang, or foreigner, husband asked for the doctor, in Khmerglish. He was given a piece of wood with a number "2" on it; apparently in an empty waiting room, we were second in line. Finally, a giggly receptionist flirtatiously escorted my husband, and subsequently me, to the ultrasound room.

There, sitting in the corner of the low ceilinged, dimly lit room, next to the questionable hospital bed, was the ultrasound machine. It reminded me of the computer I had when I was growing up that was only good for one thing: playing Snake. The ultra-sound technician came in.

He was obviously very proud of the fact that he was the gender gatekeeper for pregnant women in Cambodia. He took his sweet precious time, pushing and rotating the probe against my stomach, building up the suspense by pointing to the shadows on the screen; head size here, two feet there, handprint there.

"Well, do you want to know boy or girl?" he said, in Khmerglish.

Again the control freak within responded with a "Hell yes."

"Srey," and as he said it, I turned to my husband and said, "I knew it." My inner control freak thanked the ultrasound technician, and made a mental list of the things I needed to prepare before the Srey was to arrive.

Upon re-entering the waiting room, we encountered a buzzing sea of pregnant Khmer women, in knitted winter caps, in the middle of the hot season. The buzzing died down to silence, and in a synchronized fashion, each of them turned their heads to stare at the barang couple emerging from the ultrasound room. The knit-capped pregnant women ingesting our image with their eyeballs were not being rude. They were just hoping to fulfill an old Khmer wives tale; what you stare at, while you are pregnant, is what your child will look like when they are born. I didn't mind the staring because the control freak in me finally found pregnancy became more visible.
The old Cambodian grandmas that congregated in the coolest parts of the street took notice of my bulging belly and asked, “Boy?"
"Boy?! No, no, the doctor said Srey."

First, they would tsk-tsk the unknowingness of the ultrasound technician and argue that the size and shape of my belly meant that I was having a boy. In fact, it was the consensus of most Southeast Asian grandmas, Cambodian, Thai, and Lao alike, that I was having a boy.

Doubt just bitch-slapped the control freak within, but she was not going to go down that easy. Knowing the sex of the baby became an obsession. My frantic Google search of old wives tales related to gender led me down a desperate road filled with pendulum swinging rings over my belly as well as asking random strangers about my face shape. I went as far as to consult with my cousin, who had a premonition about my pregnancy, asking her if she knew whether it was a girl or a boy. All to no avail, the result was 50/50.

In Bangkok and with only weeks to go before my due date, the control freak pestered the Thai doctor for another ultrasound to confirm the sex of the baby. The ultrasound technician in Bangkok, mumbled through the reading, and the sex of the baby was inconclusive because "everything was all squished up." The doctor gently suggested that if I was going to naturally give birth to this baby, I should be more concerned about the size of the baby than the sex. It didn't matter that I attended a three month birthing class, or that I was having the baby in one of the top birthing facilities in Bangkok, my control freak didn't know how to organize "inconclusive," and it had me in tears.

Ten days past the due date and an Achilles heel massage later my water broke. The finality of it all got caught up in the primal nature of labor. My body became a vessel of reckless abandonment; blood gushing, animistic moaning, the life within me painfully pulsating, pushing, and finally penetrating. The cries of my sweet baby girl filled that delivery room, and I never heard from that control freak or her label maker again.


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