I have lived on Saipan for 18 years of my life. I studied here from Kindergarten to high school, engaged deeply with the community and spent my entire childhood on this island I consider to be home. Yet, whenever I return to visit family and friends, I am considered to be a “visitor”—I’m questioned on the purpose of my visit, how long I intend to stay and whether I have a ticket departing Saipan. It feels strange to be a called a tourist in a place that has been a huge part of your life. But frustrating as it is, I have accepted (or rather, have no choice but to accept) that this is standard protocol since I no longer have residency.
Despite being a frequent flyer to Saipan, none of my previous experience would have prepared me for what happened during my most recent flight: take a pregnancy test or be denied boarding. On Nov. 9, 2019, I flew from Hong Kong International Airport to Saipan on a flight operated by Hong Kong Express Airways Limited. Before check-in, I filled out a mandatory questionnaire and one of the questions asked if I was pregnant, to which I responded “No.” Imagine my disgust when I was informed at the check-in counter that I was “randomly” selected to undergo a “fit-to-fly” medical assessment. After clarifying that this test was indeed administered to a random female passenger and needed to be completed in order to board my flight, I was handed a medical records release form to sign. However, upon closer examination of the form, it was evident that I was not randomly chosen based on the following statement: “In our routine initial safety assessment by our ground handling staff, we have reasonable suspicion on the health condition of the passenger above. The passenger has been observed to have a body size/shape resembling to a pregnant lady.”
Obviously, they suspected I was pregnant and trying to conceal this to board the flight. Never mind the fact that I had already explained I was only staying on Saipan for 20 days to see my parents and even showed them my departing flight. I was then led by a female in plainclothes, who claimed to be the medical practitioner, to a public restroom. I was handed a pregnancy test and when the result came out negative, she failed to record this on the medical form and instructed me to throw the test into the trash. Satisfied that I had no baby in me, the airline staff finally issued me a boarding pass.
I am truly appalled by the entire situation: the questionable policy of screening passengers, the non-transparency of the airline staff, and the flagrant discrimination. Most airlines allow pregnant passengers on flights without any medical certificate as long as they are below 36 weeks pregnant. This policy is in place mostly to prevent any medical emergencies that could delay or reroute flights. In the case of Hong Kong Express, their policy on pregnant passengers denies boarding to non-U.S. citizens who are over 20 weeks pregnant. This policy is specifically reserved for flights between Hong Kong and Saipan, which they claim is due to the request of U.S. immigration. Interestingly, the website of the US Homeland Security makes no mention of such a policy to the best of my knowledge. In all my years of flying various airlines to the U.S., I have never heard of such a practice.
I am well aware of Saipan’s reputation as a hotspot for birth tourism. There have been a handful of exposés on companies catering to expecting Chinese mothers seeking to give birth in the U.S. Nevertheless, I must raise an eye to the problematic practices of Hong Kong Express that are supposedly enforced to address this controversial issue. Firstly, it is discriminatory in that it targets passengers based on their outward appearance by pinpointing those that “appear” pregnant. Furthermore, the staff of Hong Kong Express displayed a lack of transparency throughout the incident (e.g. saying one thing while the document stated otherwise). There was no way for me to verify that the test was administered by an actual medical practitioner since the staff had no identification nor wore proper uniform. Finally, the effectiveness of this policy is doubtful in that one could easily produce false results since the test was conducted in a public area. Clearly, the practices of Hong Kong Express needs to be reviewed whether it actually solves the issue it intends to address while at the same time ensures that passengers’ privacy are respected.
Coming back to Saipan has always been a happy time for me as I look forward to seeing my family and catching up with friends. But after this incident, I can only think of how I will be suspected, investigated, and humiliated before I can return to a place I consider home.