“Do you want a C-section or a natural birth?” snapped the receptionist. It was June, and I had just dialed up the VIP ward at one of Shanghai’s best maternity hospitals.
“Shunchan,” I said, taken aback. Natural birth.
“When are you due?” I didn’t know. I guessed I was maybe six weeks along. “Okay,” she said. “But if you don’t reserve with us by the end of the first trimester”—by reserve she meant put down cash—“there won’t be a spot for you.”
Pregnant women have heard similar refrains in hospitals across China this Year of the Dragon, which started last January and ends in February. A symbol of power once associated with the emperor, the dragon is the lone mythical creature of the Chinese zodiac and is by many accounts the 12-year cycle’s single most auspicious sign. What expectant parent wouldn’t prefer a heavenly totem to a rat, a snake, or—my own sign, which a Chinese friend once gently described to me as a “work animal”—a sheep?
As we visited maternity wards, though, my partner and I began to think our luck was, in fact, not so good. At our first stop, couples lined the walls of the waiting area. To make my way to the ultrasound room, I had to push through a mob of women with swollen bellies, men gazing intently at smartphones, and hovering grandmothers-to-be. The scan itself took only five minutes. Afterward, a technician handed me a printout with characters that translated to “living fetus,” and ushered me out of the room. Case closed: I was having a dragon baby.