Some readers will know that the topic of my current work in progress (aka WIP) is commercial surrogacy between Australia and Thailand. Today’s fieldwork excursion took me to a hospital in downtown Bangkok, where I know local women acting as surrogates for Australian couples have given birth; and an IVF clinic in a tower that’s part of an upmarket shopping plaza (‘Show, don’t tell’, as my superviser would say), which prior to the change in Thai legislation, was providing surrogacy services.
I tried to tee up a ‘tour’ of hospital fertility and nursery services before leaving Australia. But when my emails went unanswered, I decided to just chance it by dressing in nice clothes, looking like I knew where I was going, and just turning up.
I was intrigued to visit, or at least glimpse a Thai hospital nursery. Thai protocols require newborn babies to be kept in a nursery for the first 3-4 days after birth, where they are cared for by nurses — in this case, women wearing colourful animal print blouses over white slacks. The whole nursery is eye-hurtingly white. The babies sleep in clear plastic tubs, wrapped in either pink or blue blankets, with colour coordinated clipboards at the foot of each tub. New mothers visit the babies daily for lessons from the nurses on baby care. The one I saw emerge from the nursery was actually wearing a face mask.
(I read about one hospital that offers mothers the option of watching their baby on a screen in their room, video beamed in from the nursery).
To view a baby as a visitor, you press an intercom button, say the mother’s name and the baby’s name, and wait for the baby to be wheeled into over to the glass. I was fortunate enough to be on site when a couple of babies were visible and other people were around. But once I took my notebook out to write from the waiting area in front of the reception desk, a nurse actually pulled the blinds down on the nursery. I didn’t take it personally.
The nursery ward and the hospital in general had the feel of a classy hotel. The lobby had incredibly comfortable armchairs and a pianola playing a muzak version of ‘Für Elise’. The lobby ceiling was two storeys high with three chandeliers. The security guards wore white uniforms like sea captains. On a wall signposted as ‘The Heritage of Good Health’, five framed photographs turned out to be screens whose images change like the moving pictures at Hogwarts.
Where white dominates the lobby and nursery, beige is the dominant colour scheme on the maternity ward. The nurses wear white uniforms and jaunty white caps with navy stripes, while the orderlies wear beige pyjamas, their chatter accompanied by the clatter of trays and a pinging sound that might be lifts, might be call buttons summoning the nurses.
In an exercise I’ve called taking your character for a walk, I tried to imagine how the surrounding area of Bangkok might be transformed under the gaze of someone overjoyed at having just become a mother for the first time, what she might notice. I came up with:
- The green: despite the concrete and bitumen, she might marvel at the tall, long established trees that form a shady canopy even in the some of the city’s busiest areas
- The birdsong: sparrows plentiful enough to be audible above the traffic
- The lamp-posts: beautiful, old wrought iron things, as unexpected in this part of town as the one in the middle of the pine forest in Narnia
- The butterflies: gorgeous red and yellow creatures, flitting among the trees
- The flowers, sculpted by vendors as temple offerings
- The offerings of milk drinks to the land spirits
- The food carts, clustered beneath the trees, dishing out delicious-smelling food from seemingly tiny portable kitchens
- Local businesses with names like ‘Charming Beauty’ and ‘Fruit in Love’
The IVF clinic took some finding, the shopping centre tower like a maze. I lingered long enough to take a couple of surreptitious photos, but left when asked if I had an appointment. The place was packed with clientele who looked like they’d been lifted from the UN General Assembly.
Finished off the day with a viewing of a Taiwanese film, Baby Steps, about surrogacy, screening at Bangkok’s only art house cinema. It made me cry.