Was walking along the school corridor one day when I was accosted by two Hopkins administrative staff, “I just HAVE to give this to you for your baby girl!”

I think she likes it, thank you!

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Three months ago before we moved, a stranger-turned-friend insisted we meet. When we could not, she drove more than an hour to drop off a little red bag with a gift for us, because “I had a dream that Sarah-Faith was wearing this dress, a dress I had bought for my own daughter 9 years ago but she never got to wear. I want you to have it.” 

Since we began our journey of continuous moving, we’ve been so thankful for the many angels who’ve continually blessed us, especially since because we’ve travelled light.

Over the past two months, Sarah-Faith has been the recipient of thoughtful gifts, mostly from my classmates at Hopkins and new neighbours, and we are beyond grateful.

I named her 心恩 (heart of grace and thanksgiving) because of the blessings poured out onto her life since her conception.

Thank you for the blessing of love you gave to us. I think she feels like a princess.

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It had never happened before.

But when I saw it, I recognized it.

So I got up, carried my baby out and left.

Before school started, I always wondered how people would view a full-time Masters student who was also a new mother.

I was certain- those who were serious about work might discount me as “fluffy,” “distracted” or “tied down.” Those who had sacrificed their own dreams of pursuing further studies to care for their children might say I was too ambitious, too selfish. Either way, I didn’t win.

However, it didn’t take long for those thoughts, niggling at the back of my mind like an insatiable itch, to be put down. When I started school at Hopkins, the response I received from my Program Director, professors and my classmates shocked me.

In Sarah-Faith’s early days when I held her in class during Orientation, nursed her at the back of the lecture theatre, or brought her to lunchtime seminars or lab sessions, everybody loved on her. There she would sit, playing with her fingers and toes, smiling to herself.

As the days passed, my husband, Cliff, and I found a routine that worked- I would spend time with her in the car in the early morning till I was dropped off to school, after which she would nap at home till lunchtime. At lunchtime, Cliff would drop Sarah-Faith off to me while I nursed her and brought her to lunchtime meetings or seminars while he could take a mid-day break, before I handed her back to him for her afternoon nap. By the time she woke up again, I would be home.

Save for a fair number of crazy days where I would eat on-the-go and find myself carrying a heavy mom’s bag in one hand, Baby in the other and using my foot to open the door to the nursing room in the basement and running up 6 flights of stairs to get to class… this ran like clockwork.

Not once did I ever get a dirty look from anyone. Not once did I ever feel I was less than anyone else because I had a baby. Instead, the response was and has been one of overwhelming support, encouragement and joy.

“I don’t know how you do it.”
“Whatever you’re on, I want that too.”
“You give hope and inspiration to so many women.”

Not until today.

I left just minutes after the start of a lunchtime seminar to pass Sarah-Faith back to Cliff, who had driven back.

I returned to class without her.

When it ended, so many asked, in an incredulous tone, “Why did you bring her out?”

My reply was a wry smile.

I didn’t want to say, “Didn’t you see?”

I thought I might have been over-sensitive, but it was a close friend who approached me after class who said “I saw it, Wai Jia. I know why you left.”

All at once, I was saddened and joyful all at the same time. Saddened, by the professor’s taciturn response to having a baby at the back of the room of a lunchtime seminar, and yet, unthinkably, bizarrely joyful… in knowing that all this while, I have had the marvelous and rich privilege of being supported by amazing classmates and professors who had welcomed and continue to welcome Sarah-Faith to school while embracing me as their equal.

When school first started, I remember often feeling awkward about attending lunchtime talks or events, even though I might have been madly excited about the topic, because I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to bring a baby. I would always write in to ask, prepared for a negative answer.

My professors always shocked me with their replies:

“Of course she’s welcome. BOTH of you are.”
“You mean you’re the mother of that precious doll? She’s precious!”
“She’s going to be so smart- grad school before pre-school!”

I remembered feeling a tinge of disappointment when I received the invitation to the Hopkins’ Scholarship luncheon, wondering how I could attend the luncheon to network with other scholars and profs, while fulfilling my role as a wife to give my husband some respite, and spend time with Sarah-Faith in the middle of the day.

“But she’s part of the class. Of course you have to bring her!” Said my Program Director.

The scholarship luncheon shocked me. What I thought would be a casual mingling affair where I could disappear among the crowd turned out to be a formal sit-down session with a panel of professors who had awarded the scholarships to us.

But there Sarah-Faith sat, playfully cooing and twisting a piece of plastic, while different professors affectionately made timely, humorous references to her whenever she made a squeal and my peers glanced over lovingly at her new-found antics.

I was nervous, but they set me at ease. I always worried if I might annoy or offend others, but people would text or say to me afterward, “How’d you get such a perfect baby!”

At that moment today, I was saddened. And yet filled with gratitude at the overwhelming encouragement I’ve received from people who are committed to seeing me, us succeed.

It made me soberly reflect on my GPA of 4.0 in my first term of school (something I’ve never received in my entire life), not because I worked incredibly hard, or am incredibly smart, but because of God’s grace, an amazing husband, and because I received unbelievable support from friends, mentors and people who believed that as a mother, I had as much of a privilege and right as anyone to gain access to an education and opportunities to change the world, just as anyone else did.

It brings tears to my eyes as I ponder over the day I sat in the US embassy in front of the panel of official board members, and wonder what went through their minds when they decided to give a woman in her third trimester with her first baby a scholarship. It makes me wonder why the other board didn’t discount my abilities as a new mother when they interviewed me while I was still nursing our baby round-the-clock.

Why they didn’t hold back, why they didn’t think twice.

It made me reflect on what we’ve been learning about in class this past month about bridging inequities, because an overwhelming majority of women around the world face discrimination and stigma in quiet and overt ways, because many are gradually sifted from their workplaces because of unsupportive work and family environments, because many have held back fiery tears and hid from the watchful public, seared hearts, caused by caustic comments loud and clear, and disdainful glances, sharp and silent.

Today, was the first time I received that look which pierced right through my heart.

I count myself incredibly blessed- for this to be just the first time in three intense months of school to experience this, for my classmates to show such support and love, for me to realize what an incredible opportunity I have to be a mother and student at the same time.

I have lost count of the number of people who’ve offered to help babysit our baby so Cliff and I can have date nights regularly; I am thankful for the friends I have who don’t mind going through group assignments with Sarah-Faith with me; I have been humbled by the friends who’ve opened doors, given up seats and ran for elevators for us, because I had my hands full.

To all my classmates, colleagues and mentors, whom I’ve grown to love and admire for the heart and passion you have to saving lives around the world “millions at a time” (Hopkins’ tagline, no doubt), thank you for being culture changers in our world of shifting values, for bridging inequities that have hurt, punished and disempowered women for being mothers, and most of all, for making an intentional difference to our lives, Sarah-Faith’s and mine, one heart and life at a time.

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Joining us at our scholarship luncheon with our panel of professors and scholarship recipients!

and scholarship recipients!

It’s been an intense season being back at school as a mom,

but here’s remembering the precious moments that have

flown by all too fast.

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This adorable face!

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Our first video interview as a family of three at Trinity Church in Baltimore.

Apparently, no one was really paying attention to what we said because 

this little one stole the show!

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A memorable time speaking at a youth service on “Making a Difference” on screen and off screen on the same day! But really proudest of our littlest team member who just soaked in the limelight on film and on stage the whole time!

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Sent the husband outside to unwind when I came home from school one day,

so he could have some “me-time” after a hard day’s work of Daddy duties,

and he came home with this instead!

Cliff Tam, you are a rock star.

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Mama had to sign some official scholarship papers at the embassy, 

and this little star was the centre of attention!

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That morning hair and pajama smile!

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Papa and you.

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Mama and you.

Thankful for the many moments of

joy, laughter and love

that you’ve brought to us since the day

God created you.

It’s true.

When they said your greatest teachers would not be your textbooks but the friends you made, they were right.

Over the short summer, I’ve been encouraged by some of the most amazing women in my class:

From Iran to Ecuador, Syria to China, USA to Cameroon to India, these women’s dreams of changing the norm, standing up for justice and serving the underprivileged have encouraged me every day.

Above all you’ve done already and your dreams to impact lives in the future, your stories of tremendous courage to triumph over war and conflict, societal stigma, and personal pain and loss have inspired me in the deepest ways.

Some of you have had to flee wars, while some of you plunged right into them, at the risk of everything you had, and everything you knew.

Some of you have gone through grievous losses, and yet continue serving, and have emerged stronger. You challenged my own ideals of servanthood and redefined what privilege means, the responsibility it entails.

All of you know that with this degree, you could get a cushy job, get famous, be comfortable. But you remain committed to return to where you’ve come from, where brokenness and pain and poverty had gripped you and given you a reason to, against all odds, come here and go home, go global to make a difference.

You are vulnerable and resilient, broken yet incredible. You push yourselves out of your comfort zones to make a difference to the lives of others. You’ve been torn down and you’ve come back up.

You’re all global leaders in your own right, and yet incredibly grounded, impossibly humble.

They said you could not, but you did.

And here you are.

I should not be here among you. A year and a half ago, sitting at a Forbes Asia “30 under 30” award ceremony celebrating young changemakers around the world, I remember feeling so out of place, so undeserved.

But it was when an elderly Afghan woman went on stage to share about the work she had done to give Afghan girls a chance to attend school, at the expense of continual death threats, that I first had a vision of me being here at Hopkins. It was when she spoke, that I felt God rekindle that dream in my heart, that with Him, all things are possible.

Thank you for inspiring me in your unique ways, for obliging me with this photo. This is just a tiny glimpse into the many, many incredible people I’ve met in the past two months at Hopkins, who’ve come from all over the world.

Because when Sarah-Faith grows up, I want her to see examples of women who dared to dream and live sacrificially for others.

I hope she catches that fire that you have, to light up this world.

Keep dreaming, girls.

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Recently, I met a professor who saw Sarah-Faith and I at school and lovingly asked if I was doing okay, because doing this intense MPH program and taking care of a baby must be “so hard.”

I couldn’t help but be honest- that having a loving husband, this happy baby and a group of amazingly supportive friends and professors has made this journey not only -not- “hard”, but one filled with thanksgiving and joy.

The MPH itself is challenging for sure, but so many have made what should be an impossibly rough endeavor, unthinkably memorable.

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And to come home to your smile,

a smile that could melt a hundred sunbeams and

light up a thousand night skies,

is reward enough and

more than I could ever ask for.

Love,
Mama

Her first doctor’s checkup in Baltimore:

Weight: 70th percentile
Height: 50th percentile
Head Circumference: 96th percentile! 

Looks like early exposure to school at Hopkins does have its effects, haha!
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Thank you to everyone who’s loved on her,

and for the book & dress as gifts! 

I was shaking, literally.

I wondered if I had raised a few eyebrows or worse, lost friends.

How my face and heart burned.

As I left class to cross the road, desperately wishing I had been more articulate or eloquent, two classmates came to give me a hug, telling me how grateful they were for someone who had the courage to speak the truth, and stand for hope.

I was still shaking.

Maybe the professor had meant for his question to be a joke, or to be a provocative academic exercise.

In any case, others and I did not take lightly to his suggestion.

We were learning about population dynamics. He was sharing his story about meeting a mother from India who had drowned each of her ten infant daughters because she wanted her firstborn to be a boy.

So he suggested that allowing technology to give such families the option of choosing the sex of their children and making it widely available should be the solution to stopping female infanticide in India and the rest of the developing world.

“I say, if the woman wants boy, then give her a boy! Let her choose. Does anyone agree with me?”

A few hands went up.

“Does anyone disagree with me?”

More hands went up. In particular, three female classmates from India raised their hands and shared gently how this would worsen the problem by reinforcing cultural norms.

I’m not sure what came over me. Maybe it was a sense of having what I had thought were the immutable laws of ethics and morals overturned on me, or just insanity.

I stood up.

“I’m from Singapore. As my classmates know, I’m a new mother of a baby girl.”

What I said after is now a blur to me. Everything moved so fast and slowly at the same time like an old vintage movie. It felt like I was in a play on stage where I’d forgotten the lines but remembered my character and so spoke from my heart.

“In Singapore, we have immigrants from India, China and all over the world. But as we evolve and continue to evolve as a society, even if it takes time, WE have the responsibility to challenge and shape cultural norms, to make ethical decisions about our responses to birth and life, instead of shifting the benchmark of ethics to suit our desire to play God.”

My heart was racing.

There was silence. The professor looked at me and the class, muttered a sentence, and then dismissed us abruptly, ten minutes before class was supposed to end.

I left class, my face and heart burning.

I always knew I wanted to save the lives of underprivileged mothers and children in developing countries through public health, but I thought I would never have to revisit this subject again, on so personal a note.

For years, I had known my own story, that I was predicted to be a boy as the doctors said and I turned out, on labor day, to be a girl. My name was Plan B. Nonetheless, since my encounter with God, I now know for sure, that my life and my gender was not an accident.

When I myself was expecting, that hurt sowed years ago as a tiny seed sprang up to choke me, when, friends and people I respected speculated the sex of our baby based on folklore, myth and their opinion based on my husband’s and my personality, and the shape of my belly.

Expectations, both unspoken and unfortunately, spoken, were placed on me, sometimes with unintentionally-misplaced excitement- “Maybe you’re having a boy, how exciting!”

Was the contrary less so? I wondered.

At times, I was baffled by how the issues I was grappling with in the 21st century were still the same ones women struggled with centuries ago, struggles which had led to the greatest atrocities of all times, leading to generations of women to be lost forever.

These were educated people, people from religious and non-religious backgrounds, people who were Asian and Caucasian, people who were joking and not joking, who told me reason after reason about why they thought we would have a boy, why boys were better, why if we had a girl, I would lose out because girls always become “Daddy’s girls” and “get harder” because they are “more emotional.”

During my pregnancy, I had the opportunity to travel to 8 different nations for various reasons, work-related and otherwise, and it surprised me that both eastern and western cultures contained the same elements of folklore and disdain.

It drove me nuts.

Then, I found out we were having a girl.

A woman whom I respected and whom I shared the news with uttered words I did not expect.

It cut like glass.

The pain tormented me for months. Curled up huddling my growing womb, the nights were stained with tears. The shame I felt for feeling sad tortured me relentlessly. I was certain I had failed already as a mother. I wanted to forget, wanted for my child never to know what her mother had felt because it was so wrong, so wrong.

So I promised myself not to let our unborn child or myself face the further, unnecessary hurt of meaningless speculation and banter. My husband and I decided not to announce her gender till she was born, even though people continued to pry and speculate.

At that moment in class when those words left my lips, it suddenly became crystal clear to me, why I had been through that pain and humiliation in my pregnancy, a pain I wanted to bury and forget, to have a taste and glimpse of the agony, magnified a thousand, million times in other cultures, so I could feel a shred of the anguish faced by the millions of women since time immemorial, who drowned, aborted, killed their own children, due to a great extent by cultural pressures…

But more importantly, I was reminded of my own resolve to be a part of that radical shift in cultural change, even if my entire worldview and life impacted just a tiny, incremental shift in the grand continuum of change.

It reminded me of the girls who changed my life 12 years ago, the girls whom I had stayed with at an orphanage in Nepal, who were abandoned by their families because they were girls. Those girls inspired me to write and paint my first book called “Kitesong”, to raise more than a $100’000 to build a permanent home for them. Today, many of them have grown up to become mothers, teachers, and nurses.

At that street junction where my two classmates hugged me, I remember their words dearly, “You spoke HOPE, Wai Jia. That we CAN be culture changers. It was the most hopeful thing we heard in all of class today.”

You, Sarah-Faith, are the very reason why I’m proud to be your Mama, why I’ll always be proud of you for being my firstborn daughter.

Because more than me choosing you, God chose you, above my weak wishes, and beyond the petulant whims of this bizarre world… He chose you to make a stand and make a difference, as a girl and as a woman in this crazy, crazy world.

You, Baby, were born in an age that is astoundingly progressive and puzzlingly regressive when it comes to women, but you represent the generation of culture shifters and world changers who can make a stand for what is pure, and what is true. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

That very same afternoon, I received an email. The timing could not have been more uncanny- it was from the senior editor of a national newspaper in Singapore, thanking me for a letter I had written to the Forum regarding a moral stance I took some time back, one which I received flak for by naysayers, but also rousing support. I remember being certain of losing a few friends that day my letter got published, but it became clear to me, that the danger of not speaking out in a public sphere regarding what I felt was deeply and ethically wrong, was greater than my own personal risk.

Baby, Mama hopes that someday, you too will stand up for something you believe is worth fighting for, something that stands for goodness, for purity, for truth, even if it comes at your personal expense.

In your first six months of life, you’ve already, in your own quiet cherubic ways, challenged cultural norms by joining Mama for classes at grad school and refusing to be cared for by childcare.

Remember, don’t let anyone tell you what’s impossible just because they haven’t done it.

Precedence is not a determinate of Possibility.

And remember too, that it doesn’t matter how many academic degrees you have or how smart you become, because if you have not character or ethics or morals as your foundation, if you treasure not the sanctity or divinity of life, if your heart is hardened to the injustices of this world in your pursuit for more knowledge (Mama’s going to be honest with you here)… then all your education counts for nothing.

Nothing. Remember that.

You are Mama’s firstborn, not because it was a mistake or a disappointment or second-best, not because Mama or you did something wrong or our fates were less than perfect, but because it was God’s perfect plan as a testimony to this reeling world…

Mama and Papa pray for you every day, that your life would fulfill the highest destiny God has called you to, to be a star, anchor and compass, to bring light, truth and hope to this dark and dying world.

Mama will, forever and always, be cheering you on.

Keep bringing hope and light to the darkness, Sarah-Faith, as you already have, already are.

I’m grateful for your life, Precious, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

You go, girl.

Love,
Mama

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I was petrified, to be honest.

Going back to school as a new mom in a foreign country after having moved across 3 countries and had a baby away from home within 6 months was unnerving, to say the least.

Would people think less of me as a mom? Would I cope? Would I constantly struggle with guilt.

I wasn’t sure if this was do-able, much less if I could do it.

Some people said we were crazy to care for her full time without daycare. Some said our marriage would undergo yet another major strain, what with our roles being reversed with Cliff being a stay-at-home Dad and me, a back-at-school Mom.

Looking back at the first month of school gone past, however, I’m filled with gratitude:

For the professors and staff who let me to bring Sarah-Faith to school for Orientation and lunchtime seminars, for the friends who constantly offered to help me with my bag or lunch while I cradled her or had to scoot to the nursing room, I never envisioned school to be the loving, supportive family for ours.

One day, I had a wish- to take a photo of the few angels I’d met in school who’d loved on Sarah-Faith, just so we could take a photo again at the end of our school year, and compare the two.

How precious these memories would be, I thought, for these angels to be a part of the year she would learn to crawl, and walk, and say her first words.

As time went by, the people who shared their love with us grew.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect more than a hundred classmates to show up for the photo, with my program director and the MPH office joining in too.

Such has been the love and warmth of this amazing class of global health leaders from all over the world- from Syria to Peru, from Iraq to Cameroon, from USA to Macedonia. They inspire me with their big dreams to impact the neediest and poorest (sometimes in life-threatening settings), but more so, with their big hearts.

To all of you who have made a difference to our lives in our first month of school, whether it was calling Sarah-Faith our Class Baby or going gaga over her cheeks, whether it was telling me how being a grad-school mom wins instead of discounts your respect for me or asking me in-depth about my aspirations to impact the poor through health systems and policy change, whether it was smiling at us when she joined a lecture or asking me whether she ever cries, thank you.

For making this unthinkable dream not only possible, but one kind of memorable.

Thank you Cliff,

for being the awesome super Dad you are,

and God,

for making what I was certain to be impossible,

possible. 

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I took a double take when a classmate at school stopped me in my tracks to ask, “Where is your piece of cake?”

It was only when I stared blankly at him that he explained with a Cheshire grin, “I’m talking about your baby- so cute I could eat her! Don’t forget your piece of cake!”

 

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