Right after I was born, my mother—like many other Taiwanese mothers before her in Los Angeles—called in the reinforcements. She flew her mom in from Taiwan to help with her postpartum care and cook all the food.
In Chinese tradition, the month after a woman gives birth is one of the most crucial. It's called 坐月子 (zuoyuezi, which translates to "sitting the month"). It's a confinement month, where a woman is put on lockdown and eats a strict diet of warming foods like pig trotters or chicken soup with rice wine. Spicy food, alcohol, and raw foods are prohibited. In its most draconian form, women are discouraged from washing their hair or even going outside—though few follow those guidelines religiously.
Traditionally, grandmothers would assist in the preparations and do all the cooking. My grandmother was, well, a bit unconventional.
"She ended up making us drive her around Los Angeles to see all the tourist attractions," my mom reflects, "It was horrible. We had to carry you everywhere while we drove her around. It defeated the purpose of recovery."
And so, two years later, when my brother was born, my mom decided to skip the invite and put down $1,200 for a nanny. The nanny would care of my brother and cook all the postpartum meals.
"It was much more relaxing," my mom says.
"In a woman's life, the postpartum month is the most important time to reset the body," Nicole Huang says in Chinese. The mother of two is standing in front of an audience of 30—all couples of Chinese descent. Most of the women are pregnant.
Huang is holding a seminar for prospective customers. She owns Jing Mommy—a yuezi catering service headquartered in the City of Industry. Most of her customers are from the San Gabriel Valley, a suburban chunk of Los Angeles County with a significant Chinese population.
Jing Mommy supplies 30 days of postpartum food and supplements with herbal medicine packs. They have a commercial kitchen that whips up the meals everyday at 5 AM, and the day's worth of food is delivered to customers' doorsteps fresh every morning. The pricing starts at a cool $2,280 for 30 days.
"Westerners don't follow yuezi, and that's why when they get old, they age really fast," Huang says to the group. "For us, we don't age as dramatically."
Huang's four-hour seminar goes in-depth about the diet. The first week is focused on balancing the body, so pork liver is a regular part of the dishes. The second week is focused on warmth; Huang incorporates eucommia bark into the foods to achieve that. The third is what Huang calls "the big repair," which calls for sesame chicken soup with rice wine. The belief is that the skin's pores are extremely open at this time of life, so a woman must eat foods that warm up the body and avoid wind or even cold water. Showers are discouraged because a woman can catch a cold.
"If you break down and have to take a shower, at the very least, make sure all your windows are closed. This is very important," she advises.
The audience listens intently. Some raise their phones to snap photos of the Powerpoint slides. At the end of the seminar, we're all given a portion of the chicken soup to taste. It's delicious; the rice wine is subtle. The chicken falls off the bone; it's stupendously oily. I feel my body heat up immediately.
Huang did her job well. Attendees immediately fill out the order forms; a lot of them flock around to ask more questions.
"I'm doing this so my parents from Taiwan won't have to worry about it and my husband won't have to worry about it," says Taiwanese-American Jenny Lee, who is five months pregnant.
"You're losing a lot of nutrients and you're going to have to gain it all back somehow," she says. "I did my research. I read all the reviews on Yelp and Facebook and I'm a believer."
Huang, who opened Jing Mommy in 2008, says that her company is the largest postpartum meal delivery service in Los Angeles County. She has a roster of 40 to 80 customers a month. When she started, most of her customers were Taiwanese immigrants. Today, she sees a rise in both Chinese and American-born clients.
Jing Mommy may be the largest service, but they're not the only one. In Los Angeles, these services have been around for 30 years, coinciding with the wave of immigration from Taiwan and Hong Kong in the late 1980s. As income levels have risen and as Los Angeles has become a hot destination for the wealthy mainland Chinese, these businesses have become more in demand.
"Most of our customers are from China," says Laura Huang, who owns a yuezi care center in Los Angeles.
Huang hosts an average of three moms in her Pasadena center each month, though she notes that this year is slow because it's the Year of the Sheep. "It's bad luck to be born on the Year of the Sheep," she says.
She tells me that most of her clients are wealthy immigrants who come to the States to have their babies. They stay for postpartum care and then return back to China with their newborn.
"They're mainly from metropolitan cities like Beijing and Shanghai," she says.
The price tag for this service starts at $1,000 a month for accommodations alone. Customers have the option of staying in the center throughout their pregnancy as well. And though the concept of yuezi is focused on staying indoors, Huang admits that many of her clients will go out to shop.
"They love shopping," she says.
Other companies offer personalized consultations. I'm sitting in at the office of Meal4Mom, another postpartum Chinese delivery service. At the corner is a young Chinese pregnant couple. Sitting alongside them is the mother-in-law, who wears a scowl on her face.
They pick at the food samples in front of them. "This is too bland," the pregnant woman says.
"We can customize this for your needs. Fill out the forms and I will ask for the doctor's schedule," the saleslady says.
At Meal4Mom, clients are paired with Chinese medicine doctors, who will give them consultations and alter their meal plan based on the diagnosis. Their pricing also starts at $2,280 for 30 days.
"They came to my house and even took my heart rate," 39-year old yoga teacher Joanne Peng says. "That's how they diagnosis you." Peng had her second child just three months ago and opted for Meal4Mom after doing a lot of shopping around.
"There are so many services out there. I tasted so many different foods. I chose Meal4Mom because I like how light their food is," Peng says. "I'm considering ordering more even though my yuezi is over. Even my husband said he felt lighter."
At Meal4Mom, instead of meal deliveries, you can hire a stay-at-home cook for $3,800 to $4,500 a month—a much steeper price than what my mom paid back in 1991.
Postpartum nannies are common in Los Angeles County. A quick Google search in Chinese will yield a thick list of numbers.
"A nanny for one month is $4,000 for 26 days," a representative at US Mommy Baby tells me on the phone. US Mommy Baby connects customers around the United States with postpartum nannies. Food costs are not included in that price.
I call them under the guise of being a customer, pretending that I'm looking for services for a cousin coming in from Taiwan.
"Most of our customers are from Taiwan," she tells me. "What you can do is rent a condo for them for a month and we will send a nanny in. This method is very popular these days."
It's not just immigrants or the extremely wealthy who sit the month. Yuezi is a necessity among all new Chinese moms—despite income levels or upbringing. Taiwanese-American Phoebe Macias is a stay-at-home mom and a former customer of Jing Mommy. When she had her kids, her mom paid for the service.
"I wouldn't have been able to afford it otherwise," she says. "Grandmothers these days don't want to cook anymore. They're too independent. We all just don't have time anymore."
Faster lifestyles and unavailable grandmothers have turned an ancient Chinese tradition into a blossoming trade. Busyness, it seems, is at the heart of the postpartum industry.
At the end of Jing Mommy's seminar, I spot the same couple I saw at the Meal4Mom office—the ones that were in for the consultation. I stop them and try to ask a couple of questions.
"I'm sorry, we really have to run," the woman says while walking out the door. Her husband doesn't even look at me.
"We're just really busy," she says.