American Surrogate Chinese Mother : Rough Translation Back in 2017, we brought you the story of a Chinese mom who hired an American surrogate to carry her baby. Each needed something from the other that was hard to admit. Their relationship became a crash course in transcontinental communication and the meaning of family. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, we check in with them.


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Hey. You're listening to NPR's ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Gregory Warner. If you've been listening to recent shows, you know we've been out reporting stories about this new world around the world. I can't wait to share them with you. But we also wondered how some of the people we introduced you to in the past - how they're doing now. So we picked up the phone and checked in.


JACQUIE: Be nice to our guests, Muffin. Here you go (laughter).

WARNER: You might remember this story. It's a bit of an audience favorite about two moms - one in China, another in Seattle - Jaquie and Jessie. We started hearing their story anew through the lens of the present. It's a story about two women on opposite sides of the world trying to do something incredibly intimate while also keeping their distance. Given where we left them last, their update is not one I would have expected. You'll hear that update at the end of the show. But first, here's the original episode from 2017.

MARIANNE MCCUNE: Do you want to show me...


MCCUNE: ...The ways you - yeah. Just walk me through it.

WARNER: Our story begins in a little house on a hill in northwestern Oregon on a comfy couch with throw pillows and a little dog named Muffin running around.


JACQUIE: OK. So I'll feel a buzz on my phone.

WARNER: Jaquie, the woman on the couch, pulls out her phone and shows a message on WeChat.

JACQUIE: And it will have her picture.

MCCUNE: It comes first in Chinese characters or...

WARNER: She's showing all this to reporter Marianne McCune.

JACQUIE: Like, this one is a red panda dancing between two eights. I had no idea what that means.

MCCUNE: And she says, eight in Chinese pronunciation is similar to the word bye.

JACQUIE: The two eights signify bye-bye.

MCCUNE: And you say...

JACQUIE: I say, I hope we can talk again soon. Have a good night. And then I sent the little red panda dancing between two eights.

MCCUNE: So that's how you communicate with the woman whose baby you're having?

JACQUIE: Most of the time, yeah.


WARNER: You're listening to ROUGH TRANSLATION from NPR. We're far-off stories that hit close to home. I'm Gregory Warner. The words international surrogate might call to mind an American couple hiring a woman from a poor country to carry their baby. This story is about an American surrogate hired by a woman in China, where surrogacy is illegal. We started this reporting almost at the beginning of the pregnancy, not really knowing if anything interesting would happen. And so much did. There was high drama and real secrets and, underneath that, these two women wanting something from the other that is hard to admit and impossible to put down in a contract. So here's the story as it unfolded from reporter Marianne McCune.


MCCUNE: Jacquie got the idea to become a surrogate in nursing school. She actually wrote a paper about surrogacy, covered all the pros and cons - well, not all, but we'll get to that later. She was happily pregnant at the time with her own son, Elliott. He's now 6, and he's actually crawling under the coffee table and listening in while we talk.

ELLIOTT: Is she being on radio?

JACQUIE: I'm going to be on radio, yeah.

MCCUNE: Hardly needs to be said - it takes a particular kind of person to decide to carry someone else's baby. Jacquie grew up in a conservative, Christian family of Texans. But her dad worked in the oil industry, so she spent a good chunk of her childhood in Russia.

JACQUIE: (Speaking Russian). Very little.

MCCUNE: And Russia is where she started to think that a lot of what her parents had taught her wasn't right. By 13, she ditched Christianity. A little older, she dated men and women. She met her husband, a musician, while serving pancakes at the local IHOP. And after having Elliott, they left Texas for the coast of Oregon. They bought this old house, painted the floorboards, filled it with pets and antique furniture and lots of color. Her husband has purple hair. Elliott has green.

ELLIOTT: I know how to say something in Japanese. Konnichiwa.

MCCUNE: It was after Jacquie had built this new life and family...

JACQUIE: I saw an ad...

MCCUNE: On Facebook.

JACQUIE: ...Looking for women in Oregon who were willing to be surrogates.

MCCUNE: She remembered that paper that she'd written in nursing school. Her husband had doubts.

JACQUIE: He didn't understand why I wanted to do it.

MCCUNE: But she talked him into it. Jacquie's the kind of person who avoids confrontation, but she also seems to find a way to get what she wants.

JACQUIE: So I filled out the paperwork. They got in touch with me, I think, the next day. And they said, you're the perfect candidate.

MCCUNE: A 33-year-old nurse with her own healthy child, a stable household, a good income - so she wasn't just doing it for the $30,000. She decided she would take the first couple the agency sent her.

JACQUIE: I was raised by parents who were honestly racist. They probably wouldn't admit that to themselves. And I probably have biases as well, so I wanted to overcome that.

MCCUNE: So when the agency sent her a couple from China...

JACQUIE: I had, like, maybe a momentary tinge of anxiety. The culture is really, really different. But I had already made the decision that I was going to choose them.

MCCUNE: Soon after Jacquie said yes, she traveled to a fancy fertility clinic in Los Angeles to have the Chinese couple's frozen embryo, the size of a pinpoint, implanted in her uterus.

And why?

JACQUIE: Just helping someone else do something that they're not able to do on their own.

MCCUNE: That's the first reason she could figure out. But it wasn't until the embryo, that pinpoint, grew to the size of a peanut and a walnut, a grapefruit...

JACQUIE: I kind of know which foods he likes already.

MCCUNE: It wasn't until she was exchanging messages with the Chinese mom - those WeChats with the pandas - or talking about the Chinese soap opera Jacquie's watching so the baby can hear his language that something crystallized for Jacquie.

JACQUIE: I started to really like her, and I think she likes me as well. I hope she does (laughter). It was a surprise.

MCCUNE: Three months into the pregnancy, Jacquie thinks this was the adventure she'd been hoping for - this new friendship, this strangely intimate bond with someone so far away.

JACQUIE: I've never been to China, and I'd like to see what their lives are like.

MCCUNE: So when the Chinese mother asked if she could come all the way to Oregon for the 20-week ultrasound, Jacquie was so excited. But the weekend would not go as she expected.

Maybe no better way to learn about somebody else's culture than by having their baby.


JACQUIE: Yeah, I got a crash course for sure.




MCCUNE: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. I'm Marianne McCune. Jacquie and her husband and her son Elliott pile into their car and drive two hours to the Portland airport to meet the Chinese mother. To protect the women's privacy, we agreed to use first names only. And the Chinese mom asked that we use her American name, Jessie.

JACQUIE: I'm asking her where she is right now.

MCCUNE: Jacquie's husband and son stay in the car while she goes in to find the Chinese mother-to-be.

JACQUIE: She just sent me a picture of where she is. It's, like, a big American flag.

MCCUNE: And then Jacquie sees her...

JACQUIE: I think I see her.

MCCUNE: ...In jeans and a purple rain coat.

JESSIE: Hi. Nice to meet you.

JACQUIE: Nice to meet you. I'm so excited (laughter).

MCCUNE: Then Jessie looks at Jacquie's big belly.

JACQUIE: A big belly (laughter).

MCCUNE: And everybody starts crying.

JESSIE: Thank you very much.

JACQUIE: You're welcome.

MCCUNE: These two women hardly know each other. Most of their conversations have been translated by a computer.


JESSIE: My English is so poor.

JACQUIE: Oh, I have...

MCCUNE: They try using Google Translate to talk.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: But...

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: A now see you he has been with us because I imagined it was a long time long.

MCCUNE: So our producer Jess Jiang starts helping out.

JESS JIANG: OK. I think I can step in.

MCCUNE: Her parents are immigrants from China.

JIANG: So she was saying, I was so, so emotional today because I've - sorry, I think I'm going to cry, too. I've thought about this moment for so many years.

JESSIE: Thank you.

JACQUIE: It's my honor. It's - can I have another (laughter)?

MCCUNE: Another hug. And then they go shopping.

JACQUIE: I wanted to show you some of the things that I used when Elliott was a baby that really helped me.

JESSIE: OK, thank you.

MCCUNE: First stop - Boppy pillows and baby carriers.

JACQUIE: Have you seen things like this before, where you can...


JACQUIE: Yeah, you can wear the baby (laughter).

JESSIE: This one.

JACQUIE: Maybe this one.

MCCUNE: I know this carrier, and it is a commitment. It's one long piece of stretchy knit fabric that you have to crisscross around your body to make a pouch. People get lessons on how to do it. Jessie picks up the package, looks curiously and...


JACQUIE: OK (laughter).

MCCUNE: She plops it in her cart.

JESSIE: Can you show me how to use this one?

JACQUIE: Sure. I'd be happy to (laughter).

MCCUNE: Jessie has her own shopping list, like organic formula.

JACQUIE: I'll show you.

MCCUNE: She doesn't trust the formula in China.

JACQUIE: Do you want me to pump milk?

MCCUNE: She'll tell us later, for her, this visit wasn't about becoming friends with Jacquie.

JIANG: She's asking if we can now pay.

MCCUNE: She's here to meet her and thank her and make sure everything is OK. But by the time they get back to Jacquie's hundred-year-old house on a hill, Elliott, her 6-year-old, is holding his Chinese guest's hand, tugging her into the house.

ELLIOTT: You can see my room.

MCCUNE: Jessie meets their two ferrets, their black-and-white cat, their little dog, Muffin.

ELLIOTT: He's being friendly.

JACQUIE: (Laughter) She gave you a kiss. She really likes you.

ELLIOTT: And I really like you.

JESSIE: Thank you.

MCCUNE: Despite coming from so far away, Jessie looks weirdly just right in small-town Oregon. She's got long, dark hair, tinted red at the ends. She wears a plaid flannel, and she ditches her makeup after one night. She and Jacquie are the same age. They're both into art. Jessie loves the half-dozen electric guitars that line the walls of the room she's staying in.

JIANG: She's saying, your house fulfills her imagination of what American homes look like.


JESSIE: (Through interpreter) It has big skies and coastal areas. And this house also has music.

JACQUIE: We're starting to form a bond that I hope will continue for our lifetime.

MCCUNE: There are a lot of Chinese women coming to the U.S. to have babies...

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: ...Enough that immigration officials are on the lookout. And Jessie, she couldn't even get a visa her first time around. When she applied to come to California for IVF - for in-vitro fertilization - she says the guy at the consulate rejected her visa on the spot.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: The way she remembers it, he accused her. You're trying to get an American passport, he told her, trying to have an American baby.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: It's a real thing among wealthy Chinese couples now. There was even a super-popular romantic comedy in China...


WU XIUBO: (As Frank) Why you come to Seattle?

MCCUNE: ...All about a Chinese woman...


TANG WEI: (As JiaJia) "Sleepless in Seattle."

MCCUNE: ...Who comes to spend five months in a secret maternity home...


TANG: (As JiaJia) I love that we...

MCCUNE: ...For pregnant Chinese women, which is also a real thing.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: Jessie's story is different. She's using a surrogate, not giving birth herself. But she says she does know a lot of Chinese couples considering delivering their babies in the U.S. So she knew what she had to do to get a visa. She had to prove that she wasn't trying to have a so-called anchor baby - that she didn't want to immigrate to the U.S. She came back to the consulate as soon as she could, carrying a clear, plastic bag. Inside was the deed to her cosmopolitan apartment and proof that she owns a Mercedes-Benz. She showed them her husband's earnings as a futures trader and proof of her own stable government job. And she got the visa.

Jessie says the people she knows who want American passports for their babies - it's not so much that they want to immigrate to the U.S. or even go to American universities. It's also because it gives them advantages in China.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: Jess Jiang, our producer, asked Jessie a lot of questions about this.

JIANG: I was really curious about this.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

JIANG: And Jessie told me there are these elite universities in China, and students have to take these tough entrance exams to get into them. They're far more important and far harder than the SATs. Kids study for them for years. But the top-tier universities in China, they want more foreign students who could raise the profile of the school. So those schools, they actually lower the standards for those students.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

JIANG: And foreign students in this case means Chinese kids with Chinese parents whose only foreignness is where they were born.

MCCUNE: Jessie's baby will get an American passport, too, because he'll be born to a surrogate on American soil. And she says she'll be glad to have it, but it's not the reason she's spending several hundred thousand dollars on doctors and lawyers and lodging and Jacquie here in the U.S. Paying a surrogate isn't legal in China, but she could've done it in, say, Ukraine for half the price. So why Oregon?

When I asked Jessie, she says the medical technology, of course, but also the clear laws in Oregon and other states that allow surrogacy. There are protections for the mom. Jacquie and Jessie negotiated a long legal contract. It says Jacquie cannot change her mind after the birth and keep the baby. It says if the parents want her to abort because of genetic disease, she will. She agreed to never try to contact the child. And she asked Jessie for things, too. Like, she asked to spend at least two hours with Jessie and the baby after he's born - two hours. What Jacquie most wants is not written in the contract. It's that friendship, that connection she's hoping for.

How are you?


MCCUNE: This is Yin...

HANSON: Hi. Nice to meet you.

MCCUNE: ...Another person we're - this is Elliott.

HANSON: Hi. My name's Yin. Nice to meet you.

MCCUNE: The next day, we all gather in Jacquie's living room with a professional interpreter so that Jessie can tell us why she turned to surrogacy in the first place. She grabs a pillow off the couch and hugs it against her belly and starts.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: She tells about meeting her husband...

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) We are on fire.

MCCUNE: ...His vow to be good to her forever...

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) ...Nice to you all my life.

MCCUNE: ...Her parents' disapproval and their secret love affair...

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) I never told my parents.

MCCUNE: ...His mom's struggle with cancer and how hard they worked to pay off all the health care bills...

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) It is very hard to climb out of that deep hole.

MCCUNE: ...Finally, their decision to have a baby.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: She tries for four years to have a child, every remedy - Chinese herbs, flushing out her fallopian tubes, artificial insemination - until finally...

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: ...She pees on a stick...

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: ...And sees...

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) Yes, it is two lines. You are pregnant.

MCCUNE: She and her husband buy a crib. They take long walks together. But the more pregnant she gets...

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) My face, my hands, the skin - it's so tight, almost like will be explode some day.

MCCUNE: The doctors tell her not to worry. And then one day about seven months into her pregnancy, she is feeling so strange, she asks her mother to take her blood pressure.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) She said, I think this machine may be broken or something.

MCCUNE: By night, Jessie is in the hospital. Her husband is rushing home from a business trip to meet her.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) Then I start vomiting - like, explodes from my mouth - and cannot even stand up.

MCCUNE: Jessie had a condition called pre-eclampsia. Her blood pressure was dangerously high. Her kidneys could fail. If the baby remained in her, both she and the baby could die. And she was delirious. Her husband pushed her to sign papers allowing doctors to do an emergency C-section.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) So I was kind of unconscious after the surgery. But I heard something on my side. I heard a baby cry once but then stop. So I ask doctor - I said, why my baby only cry once? It stopped. Then the doctor says, don't worry. The baby doctor is trying to save your baby's life. Don't worry. Be calm.

MCCUNE: There are choices to make based on not enough information. Should they continue with the mechanical ventilator? Should they see if he can survive with less machinery?

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) After one and a half day, my baby's gone - didn't make it.

(Speaking Chinese).

HANSON: No, no, no. (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: At this point, our interpreter, Yin, is on the couch next to Jessie, rubbing her arm, telling her in Mandarin, no, it's not her fault. She's not to blame.

HANSON: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: Big, pregnant Jacquie is leaning in, too, her hand on Jessie's shoulder. It's Jessie who finally says in English what she felt after losing her boy.

JESSIE: I also feel that I killed my baby.



These people are trusting me. This is a huge responsibility.

MCCUNE: We take a break. Jacquie scarfs a yogurt. Jessie gets some tea. And we come back to the couch. Jessie has one more important piece of information she wants to tell Jacquie while the interpreter is still here. She takes a deep breath and begins again. She tells us only her mom, dad and husband know that she's having a baby through a surrogate. Outside that tight-knit family circle, it is a secret from everyone.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) You are the American. You cannot understand that if somebody knows my baby's not from my own uterus, it will be really difficult for my child to grow up as a normal kid. You cannot understand how difficult it will be in China.

MCCUNE: She's told all her friends a lie.

JESSIE: I only told them I am pregnant, I am going to have a baby.

MCCUNE: And as her pretend pregnancy advances, she's telling people she's gone to the United States to have her baby like so many other Chinese mothers are doing. But really, she's hiding out in China.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) What I am doing is I rented a house far away from my residential area.

MCCUNE: She has quit her job. And she's moved to a neighborhood where she's anonymous.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) I live there so I avoid people knowing that the pregnancy - if it's true or fake one. It's just Chinese society thoughts. I don't want anybody to know that you was the one help carry my baby. I know this is not fair to you, and I know you won't feel good about that, but it's possible I won't tell my kid forever. I'm sorry. I really cannot keep contact with you after my child born. I'm so sorry.

JACQUIE: It's OK. I don't - I mean, it's up to you, you know? You're his mother. I was just hoping that maybe we could keep, like, a friendly relationship without mentioning the surrogacy, if that's possible. But even if that's not possible, I'll understand.

HANSON: (Speaking Chinese).

JESSIE: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you.

JACQUIE: You're welcome.

JESSIE: You are my angel. Thank you.

MCCUNE: Before leaving Oregon, Jessie will try again and again to explain why she can't tell her son her secrets.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) In China, people like to debate your life. They think it's caring.

MCCUNE: She says if someone can't have a baby and uses a surrogate...

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) They might say that person - in the past life, they must've done something really wrong because someone else had to have their child.

MCCUNE: They might tell her son he's a bastard.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) And then he'd come up to me and say, Mom, they say that you didn't even have me. Why do I have to listen to you? You're not even my mother. There might be a kind of hate.

MCCUNE: Hate leading to bad behavior.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) On TV, there are these stories of people who retaliate against society, and it's serious, and it's - it can happen.

JACQUIE: Oh, don't be sorry. It's...

MCCUNE: Jacquie is trying to absorb all this - Jacquie, who explains, in great detail, to her own son every unusual choice that she makes. And Jessie is telling us that if she tells her son the truth, he might end up in jail.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) I want my kid to be kind to people, animals, society, to have a responsible heart.

MCCUNE: She says she knows there's only a tiny chance of all these bad things happening, but she just can't risk it.

JESSIE: Because I'm a mommy.


JIANG: What?

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese). Because I'm a mother.


JACQUIE: That crushed me.

MCCUNE: It's a few weeks after the visit, and Jacquie's on the phone with me. She's six months pregnant now. It's the first time I've had a chance to ask her about Jessie's big secret without Jessie in the room. And she says she doesn't care so much whether Jessie ever tells her son about the surrogacy, but...

JACQUIE: For her to say, after the baby's born, I can't talk to you anymore - it was like I was meeting a sister and then being told I only will get to cherish these few moments in my memory but I'm never going to get to talk to her again.

MCCUNE: After a weekend that she thought would bring Jessie and her closer, it seems to have driven them further apart.

JACQUIE: She and I have actually not been talking to each other as much as we did before. I sense that she feels a lot of guilt.

MCCUNE: Meanwhile, back in China, Jessie is in her secret hideout with her two cats that her husband brought her as a surprise to keep her company.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) One is really fat, and so he's called Meat-Meat. Or maybe Meaty is a better translation.

MCCUNE: She and Jess - our producer Jess - they've been exchanging audio messages.

JIANG: She tells me all about her new home in the countryside and her life there.

MCCUNE: Jess asks her if she's been in touch with Jacquie.

JIANG: And she says no.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) We haven't been talking that much recently because I've been crocheting the baby a sweater.

MCCUNE: It seems hard to believe the crocheting is what's keeping her from talking to Jacquie. So two weeks later, our Jess sends another question by WeChat.

JIANG: (Speaking Chinese).

I asked her, do you feel like keeping a friendship with Jacquie is somehow in conflict with keeping your secret? And she sends me this message back saying she's been thinking.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

JIANG: She tells me, at first, actually, she didn't want a relationship with Jacquie. She was worried a friendship might mean her son would find out her secret. But she and her husband have been talking.

MCCUNE: When Jessie came home and told the only people who know about Jacquie what she was like, how generous, they all started thinking.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: Jessie says she and her husband decided they will tell their son about Jacquie. They want him to grow up to be the kind of person who can understand the complexity of it all. But she says they'll need to wait until he is 20 years old or maybe 30 or 35.

JIANG: And as for her feelings about Jacquie, she uses this phrase that I've never heard before. It's (speaking Chinese). Jessie says it means they're the kind of friends that are so close that they don't have to talk every day. But when they do, it's like no time has passed. But I asked my parents about this phrase, and they translate it totally differently. They say it's the kind of friends that don't talk about anything important - just light stuff, like water. The whole literal translation is two gentlemen who communicate about mundane things like water.

MCCUNE: Jessie does start sending messages to Oregon again here and there, sometimes funny exchanges in English with 6-year-old Elliott.

JESSIE: Let me show you a rabbit.

ELLIOTT: The rabbit is very cute.

JESSIE: Thank you, Elliott.

MCCUNE: Jessie and her husband in China keep wrestling with what role Jacquie should have in their lives. And then something happens that we'll take this whole question out of their hands. It starts around seven and half months into Jacquie's pregnancy. When I call her, she says her legs and feet are swollen, and she had to take off work earlier than she expected.

JACQUIE: I have a pretty high tolerance for pain, and it's getting kind of painful (laughter). I've got a little bit of swelling. But it's been awesome. I just didn't realize, like, how physically uncomfortable it might get.

MCCUNE: She sleeps through a couple of our phone dates. She says it was not like this when she was pregnant with her son Elliott. And then five weeks before the due date, our producer Jess gets a worried WeChat message from China. Jessie, still in her hideout, has just gotten the news from Oregon, and it is not good. When ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.


WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION, and here is where we left things. Eight months into Jacquie's pregnancy, she is diagnosed with the same high blood pressure condition that Jessie, the Chinese mom, almost died from - pre-eclampsia. That's how Jessie lost her first baby.

And the odd thing about this is that when Jacquie was pregnant with her son, she didn't have any signs of pre-eclampsia. She didn't have any family history of this, as far as she knew. If she had been at high risk, she probably wouldn't have passed the screening to become a surrogate. So it was a shock to everyone. But there is some recent research on what might be going on. Here's Marianne McCune.

MCCUNE: Pre-eclampsia is one of the leading causes of maternal death in the United States. Jacquie's doctors tell her they want to induce labor early. But they want to give the baby more time. So they send her home with instructions to take it very easy and remain calm. They also tell her something doctors and nurses are only just starting to understand, the studies are so recent - that a likely factor in Jacquie's pre-eclampsia is the baby. The baby's genes can trigger something in Jacquie that drives her blood pressure up, and up and up.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: When Jessie gets the message in China, she says she feels like ice water was thrown at her heart. The agency told her that her husband's genes may be to blame. His genes might've caused Jacquie's pre-eclampsia.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: She says she feels that, to Jacquie, she will forever be sorry.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: Then another, even more urgent message from Jacquie - she's having breathing problems. She's in the hospital. It's four weeks before the due date, but the doctors tell her they have to get the baby out now.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: That is the start of a mad dash to northwestern Oregon.

JIANG: Jess here, the radio producer. I'm recording this right now at the Portland, Ore., airport.

MCCUNE: At 3 in the morning, Jessie and her mother leave to catch a train to Shanghai to try to get a plane to Los Angeles to San Francisco to Portland.

JIANG: Jessie told me her head is spinning.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: I camp out in the hospital waiting room.

Hey, it's Marianne. Jacquie's water has broken, and it's 9:30 a.m.

And now Jacquie is the one who has to make all kinds of decisions, like should she take pain medication? The relief will help keep her blood pressure down, but it will be a risk to the baby.

Hey - just wanted an update.

I am just pacing.

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE #1: She's doing real good. She's resting.

MCCUNE: Hey, I am pacing in the hallways like an old-fashioned dad. I can't imagine how Jessie feels on a train, and then a plane, and another plane, rental car, trying to get here fast enough.

At 2 in the afternoon...

New nurse on duty - she has told me that Jacquie is 3 centimeters dilated, but she's going to get a epidural really soon.

At just after 4 p.m., I received the message I've been waiting for.

OK, I just got word from Jess who just got word from Jessie, who's in the airport in San Francisco, that the baby has been born.


JACQUIE: Oh, you have a beautiful mommy who can't wait to meet you.

MCCUNE: Jacquie's husband videotapes the baby's first cry. He's curled up on Jacquie's chest, but a nurse is scrambling to shove a stethoscope between his limbs so they can listen to his heart.


ELSA: My name's Elsa. I was the baby nurse that caught him. And he was vigorous at first, and then he just sort of (groaning) and held his breath. And I was like, baby - as I'm stimulating his back - what are you doing? Come on, cry for me. He didn't want to cry. And that's when he started doing the grunting.

MCCUNE: Like he can't fill his lungs without effort.

ELSA: And his color wasn't quite as pink, so we went and immediately put on the oxygen.

MCCUNE: Jessie, changing planes in San Francisco, receives a photo of her baby from Jacquie's husband. But when she asks how he is, there's no response. She says her heart is going up and down.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

MCCUNE: Jacquie stays in her hospital bed, exhausted and with her blood pressure still dangerously high. Jessie and her mom finally arrive in Portland. They haven't slept in 36 hours and gladly accept Jess' offer to drive the two hours on a dark, windy road to the hospital. Jessie's phone keeps buzzing with messages from friends in China congratulating her. Her husband told them she's given birth to a baby boy in the United States.

Jessie still hasn't met her baby, still doesn't even know how he is. And when they park the car at the hospital, she runs through the parking lot, her mom and Jess hurrying to keep up. They all arrive at labor and delivery.


MCCUNE: I show them the way past the front desk...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I guess you know where you're going.

MCCUNE: ...To where Jacquie is.

To room 201.

The nurse comes out.

It's right here. And I gesture to the door on the left.

She's in there.

And the nurse, she gestures to the door on the right.

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE #2: And the baby's in here.

MCCUNE: So Jacquie on the left, baby on the right.


MCCUNE: There are moments following a journey like this one that get imprinted on your memory. And for me, this was one. Jessie has traveled so far and has waited so long to see this baby, the baby who has tubes in his nose to help him breathe, behind the door on the right. And she chooses the door on the left.

JESSIE: Hi, Jacquie.

JACQUIE: Hello. Oh, my God.

JESSIE: Are you OK?

JACQUIE: I'm OK, I'm OK. Hi.

JESSIE: This is my mother.

JACQUIE: I'm Jacquie.

JESSIE: Jacquie, Jacquie, thank you. Thank you.

JACQUIE: You're welcome.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Thank you. Thank you.

JACQUIE: Have you seen the baby?


JACQUIE: Let's go see the baby.


JACQUIE: Oh, I have to call...

MCCUNE: She has to call the nurse to get out of bed.

JACQUIE: He's beautiful. He looks like you (laughter).

JESSIE: Really?

MCCUNE: A nurse comes and helps Jacquie into a wheelchair.

JACQUIE: Yeah, a little swelling, yeah...

MCCUNE: Jessie looks at her IV and her blood pressure monitor.

JESSIE: Your blood...

JACQUIE: Oh, my blood pressure - 139 over 83, so it's good.


MCCUNE: We all crowd into the little room across the hall...

Jessie is pushing the IV.

...Where Jessie meets her baby for the first time. He's lying on his back on a little stand, knees splayed out to either side, wearing a tiny diaper and warming under a heat lamp. He's got a tube blowing air into his nose and monitors taped over his lungs and another on his wrist, and he's sleeping. Jessie - everyone - just stands frozen for a moment.

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE #2: He's doing really good.

JIANG: (Speaking Chinese.)

MCCUNE: A medical interpreter will come in the morning, but for now, so late at night, our Jess helps Jessie understand how different this time is from the last time she had a baby.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

JIANG: (Speaking Chinese).

Are the lungs completely formed?

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE #2: They looked good on X-ray.

MCCUNE: After Jessie gets through her questions, the nurse eases the baby into her arms. And for the first time, he opens his eyes and looks right up at her.

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese) Oh.

UNIDENTIFIED NURSE #2: Hey; that's the most we've seen his eyes.

MCCUNE: Jessie's mother stands behind her chair, hands on her shoulders.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Chinese).

JESSIE: She said thank you.

JIANG: Her mom is saying that this is the result of your mutual work and mutual success.

JACQUIE: Oh, thank you. How do I say thank you?

JIANG: (Speaking Chinese).

JACQUIE: (Speaking Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Thank you. Thank you.


MCCUNE: Both Jacquie and Jessie stay in the hospital for the next few days. The baby does great, comes off that tube blowing air into his nose within an hour of meeting his mom.


MCCUNE: Down the hall, it takes some time to get Jacquie's blood pressure down. It will look good and then shoot back up again when she does anything stressful, like when she lets me interview her the next morning, and her blood pressure machine starts beeping.

JACQUIE: Pain medicine - oh, I have to take a break for a minute. It is 162 over 91.

MCCUNE: Is that...

JACQUIE: That's high right now, yeah.

MCCUNE: Should we stop talking?

JACQUIE: Yeah, I should probably take a break.



MCCUNE: Weeks later, after Jacquie has gotten the OK to go back to her job as a nurse, I give her a call.

JACQUIE: I can mostly fit into my scrubs - my work scrubs (laughter).

MCCUNE: Jacquie says she's done a lot of thinking about pre-eclampsia and that her doctors say she likely got it from the baby she agreed to carry and give birth to. She was always interested in the medical adventure that surrogacy would take her on, and now she's read a pile of studies about how the father's genes may be a factor in pre-eclampsia.

JACQUIE: And they used a term that I don't like at all called the dangerous father effect. That puts all of the blame on a person who has no control. Several people have asked me, if you had to do this over again, would you do it? And so my answer is yes and no. If I had known that I would've been at a high risk for complications, I would not do it again.

MCCUNE: She says she'd risk her health for her family, not for a stranger. But since she did take that risk for Jessie, something has changed between them. Jessie and her baby had to stay in Oregon for weeks longer than she'd planned because it took that long to get her son his American passport and do all the paperwork necessary to go to China. She and her mother rented an apartment, and with Jacquie pumping breast milk every day, Jessie came regularly to see her and pick it up. Jacquie got to hold the baby a lot more than the two hours that was in the contract, more than she even wanted to. She didn't want to intrude.

JACQUIE: I would usually only hold him for maybe, like, two to five minutes at a time, and then I'd give him back to Jessie.

MCCUNE: It was actually the moments with Jessie and her mom that Jacquie says she savored most. Jessie's mother kept telling Jacquie she's pretty. Once, at the hospital, she started playing with Jacquie's hair. And it was Jessie who beckoned Jacquie into a photo with her mom and the baby.

She called Jacquie something in Chinese which the medical interpreter translated as the most important person. Jess' translation is security guard. Jess' dad thinks it's more like guardian angel. And the dictionary translation is benefactor.

JACQUIE: She wants me to come to China and visit her family.

MCCUNE: She does? Really?

JACQUIE: She wants - she does, yeah. So I'm going to try to go within a year. She told me...

MCCUNE: I really wasn't expecting that.

JACQUIE: I know, I know. The way she phrases it is, welcome to China.


JACQUIE: When we use WeChat app, that's how it translates - welcome to China.


WARNER: Hey. It's Gregory back in the present day. That is where we left things when this story first aired in 2017 - Jacquie feeling welcomed into this new family. She couldn't wait to visit China. Of course, before she could even think of visiting Jessie, she just wanted to go back home, get her life back. And that's when she realized she couldn't do anything that she used to do. She couldn't exercise. She couldn't drive.

JACQUIE: The elevated blood pressure would get so severe that sometimes I would see flashing red and green lights.

WARNER: The pre-eclampsia, it hadn't gone away when the baby was born.

JACQUIE: And for me, stress was also a trigger. So it was really difficult to explain to my then-6-to-7-year-old, you have to have good behavior (laughter) 'cause he did not get that. He was not on board with that. So my husband would have to, like, take him out to the park and things. So that was kind of sad. I missed out on some time playing with him, too.

WARNER: Even in these times when she had to kind of isolate herself from her own family, she did not regret her decision to help Jessie have a family of her own. And after a month, she could resume her old life again and actually so much more so.

JACQUIE: And then it's like, yay, I'm alive. I'm going to do - go out and do healthy stuff and, like, get fit.

WARNER: Inspired by all of the Chinese dramas she'd watched during the surrogacy to help the baby learn his native tongue, Jacquie signed up for martial arts classes. She takes them with her son. And with the money from the surrogacy, she was able to take time off work and complete her master's degree, start a new job as a home health nurse. After months of a complicated pregnancy and then a confining diagnosis, she suddenly had more resources and more clarity to pursue the life she wanted. Meanwhile, in China...

JESSIE: (Speaking Chinese).

WARNER: Jessie's life looked very different. Our producer Jess Jiang is interpreting.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) Before I became a mom, I really wanted to become a mother. And now that I've become one, it's happy. But there's this phrase, the ground is covered with chicken feathers.

WARNER: It's an expression for having a thousand mundane tasks eating up your day, crowding out all your plans - an expression that would speak to any new parent. But for Jessie, it took on this whole other meaning because her city was now on lockdown. Even the most ordinary tasks were extra-complicated, and she and her 2 1/2-year-old were now stuck inside. She could see it wearing him down. She had potty trained him, but he started to regress.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) In one morning, he could wet himself four or five times. There are times when I'm really dispirited.

WARNER: In the middle of all this, Jessie's husband was diagnosed with cancer. And as Jessie found her own joy in short supply, it was her toddler often comforting her.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) When I'm saddest, he'll hold me and say, Mommy, I love you.

WARNER: She found herself thinking about her friend in Seattle - her guardian angel, her benefactor, her security guard - who had given her this child.

JESSIE: (Through interpreter) It's been a month since I sent her a message, and I still haven't heard anything back from her. And I'm starting to get worried.

JACQUIE: I have to be honest. We don't communicate a lot, and that is mostly my fault.

WARNER: When Jacquie decided to become a surrogate, she wanted to be connected to another culture. She wanted to be part of an extended family across the world, and she got that. But that experience, it also gave her this whole new life that she was now really enjoying. She loved her new nursing job. And then the same pandemic that had shut down Jessie's city hit Seattle.

JACQUIE: So my boss recommended that I work in their COVID screening tent.

WARNER: Jacquie has asthma, which makes her more vulnerable. But she's always felt her best self on the front edge of things.

JACQUIE: I just learned how to control my fear.

WARNER: Jacquie looked at this task - potentially dangerous, hazardous to her health - and said...

JACQUIE: Yes. Sign me up. I want to wear that personal protective equipment for sure.

WARNER: And in her hazmat suit in a COVID tent in the parking lot, she sounds like she's exactly where she feels like she should be.

Today's show was produced by Jess Jiang. Our update was produced by Autumn Barnes and Derek Arthur. Thanks to our interpreters Yin Hanson and Jess Jiang's parents, Zhidian Deng and Wei Jiang. Thanks to Detour, the audio walk company, for use of their studio. And thank you Elizabeth Senja Spackman for introducing us to Jacquie in the first place. Editing by me and Sana Krasikov, and the update was edited by Lu Olkowski.

The ROUGH TRANSLATION advisory team is Neal Carruth, Chris Turpin and Anya Grundmann. Mary Glendinning and Brin Winterbottom fact-checked this episode. Mastering by Andy Huether and Isaac Rodrigues, original music for this podcast composed by John Ellis and scoring by Marianne McCune. I'm Gregory Warner back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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