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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I can’t.

“I can’t” always has a story.

I can’t because… it’s too expensive, it’s too far, it’s too hard. Or I’m too scared, I’ve too many commitments, I’m too inadequate.

I can’t then becomes true.

Five years ago, false bravado made a far-fetched dream seem within reach. Back then, with foolhardy pride and unrestrained impetuousness, it was “I can.”

“Of course I can.”

Even with the unthinkably high six-figure tuition fees, the difficulty of being granted no-pay leave and my staggering immaturity, it was swaggering overconfidence and a dogged belief in self which made “I can” an obstinate life motto.

I can do it. I can take loans. I can make it on my own. Surely I can.

But the truth was, I could not.

Life took a gracious turn, and I ended up staying behind to get married instead.

It was a treasured, older, wiser friend who told me, “You can always pursue further studies another time in your life. But if you leave Cliff now, you might miss a part of your destiny.”

Looking back, I now see how true it was. But it did not stop me from feeling angry at the time, with Cliff first and then with God, for interfering with the plans I had for my life.

Two years later, I reapplied for further studies, but dropped my application again when we felt called to Uganda. As we served the poor there for a year together, I told myself that perhaps a Master of Public Health from the world’s top public health university was unnecessary after all. A heart for people, and hands and feet which were available, were all that were needed.

Then, I had a life changing encounter.

I was at a HIV clinic one day when an African professor sauntered in.

“What are you doing here?” he asked. “You don’t have any specialized qualifications. Why didn’t you come when you had better qualifications? Don’t you think we deserve better from where you come from?”

My face burned. That, and a few other key turning points later, made me determined to finish my application to Hopkins, after dropping it twice.

Yet, having had my pride crushed through surrendering my own career plans, a new sense of groundedness and unsentimental pragmatism had evolved.

“I can,” had, in an amusing turn of events, turned into “I can’t.”

Of course I can’t. I can’t raise the six-figure sum of money. I can’t be good enough to get a scholarship. I can’t do it on my own out there.

Surely I can’t.

Within just a few years, my inflated sense of self had shrunk into a sense of realistic inadequacy.

Looking back, both states were that of idolatry, centering myself around my goals, without seeking enough of what God wanted for my life.

But He has His ways, and five years later, through a whirlwind of unimaginable events, God made a way.

At a time where I said “I can’t,” He led me to see that I can’t, but He can.

I had assumed that no scholarships would be available for this buried dream. After all, I was ineligible for them, for one reason or other. I also had a contract with the government serving as a doctor, an added obstacle to getting no-pay leave approved for future studies. Lastly, my husband, who has a liver transplant, had to be in Canada for a fixed season of time to renew his healthcare at some point. He was also offered a position in Singapore, which ruled out me studying in the States.

When everything added up, it was impossible.

Going to Johns Hopkins to pursue a Master of Public Health, to equip myself better for serving underprivileged communities in future, became far-fetched at best.

But God did not think so.

One day at a health conference, I had a strange encounter. An elderly lady requested to sit with me at every panel discussion and even at lunchtime, asking me about my life’s aspirations. At the end of the first day, I went home and told Cliff I had a “bizarre encounter” with a stranger.

At the end of the 2-day conference, she finally shared with me that she was a Dean of a medical university in the States and a Fulbright scholar. Insisting that I email her my CV, she put me in touch with the scholarship board of the Fulbright commission, one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world but one I had, in my ignorance, never heard of.

“You have to apply,” she insisted.

“But I can’t,” I resisted.

I can’t, because I applied for the online program, not on-site, and the scholarship does not cover online programs. I can’t, because I won’t be able to get my no-pay leave approved. I can’t, because Cliff had to be based from either Singapore or Canada, and being separated from each other was not an option for us.

In the next few months, I continued to say “I can’t.” The difference was, instead of telling myself, I told God.

Then we discovered Baby.

Because Baby would come at the start of my online program, Hopkins allowed me to defer my program and at the same time, convert it to the on-site program.

Shortly afterwards, the scholarship board contacted me to say I had been selected. Cliff was then released from the leadership at work to return to Canada. Just a week before our departure, I was then informed that my request for no-pay leave, which had been forwarded to the parliamentary level, had been approved for not one, but two years, covering not only the length of my studies, but Cliff’s healthcare renewal in Canada, and maternity leave. With the Fulbright scholarship, and a supplementary scholarship from Johns Hopkins, about half of the cost of attendance would be covered.

Yet, there was still the other half.

I had given up hope. After all, the one other scholarship which I had yet to hear from only promised grants of limited amounts. With the exchange rate, it was a drop in the bucket, and I would still be short of forty percent of my tuition and living expenses.

Me being overseas, also meant I could not attend the interview in person. My chances were slimmer than cheese.

Then, a flurry of emails. And a much-anticipated Skype interview with the scholarship board, with me sitting in our living room and Cliff driving our newborn out in the car at night so I could be interviewed uninterrupted.

Two weeks later, I then received a letter which enraged me.

“This is highly unprofessional, Cliff,” I ranted. “How could they misprint an extra zero on the offer letter?”

I wrote back to the scholarship board immediately, requesting for a clarification of what seemed to me to be a grave error.

But there was no mistake. It was a five-figure sum, one which, together with the other two partial scholarships and an anonymous love gift we received, covered the full cost of attendance for our time at Johns Hopkins, not just for me, but for our now family of three.

It baffles me to think how all this could have happened, to someone who had struggled through medical school with Bs and Cs, because of her strugggle with depression. Back then, I wasn’t even sure if I would graduate on time, or at all. It baffles me to think that all three scholarship boards were willing to take a risk on a Mama with a newborn- what a risk, what undeserved faith I had received.

I am learning, that an “I can” attitude can only bring us so far in life. It may give us the seeming assurance of success, but it cannot pry open shut doors.

I’m also learning, that a dogged “I can’t” will maim the destiny God has for us.

But when we step back to say, “I can’t but God can,” that is when miracles happen.

People keep congratulating me, “Congrats on living your dream.”

But this is not the dream. Going to Hopkins is not and cannot be the dream. How often do we make more of our milestones than they were ever meant to be.

I am learning, how important it is to keep God’s perspective of our dreams and to remain faithful to them. The dream was, is, and has to be serving the poor in the best way we know how.

Hopkins- that’s not the dream at all. That’s merely a foot into a doorway which leads onto a journey of lifelong service, if of course, we do not lose our heads in academic pride and pomposity along the way.

Thank you God, for this opportunity; to Cliff, for standing by me all this time and for being the most amazing husband and father I could ever dream of; and to Baby, for being the kind of baby every Mama dreams of.

People keep assuming it must be so hard being a new mom and student at the same time, but you two have brought me unspeakable joy, and unquantifiable motivation. Someone in class called me “badass” for embarking on my MPH after just delivering a baby. But only God could have planned this all in perfect timing, for Baby’s sleep, feed, and growth schedule to be in sync with this season of life we are in. She’s content enough to join me at school over lunchtime seminars and sleeps through the night so Mama can study.

I’m here because of Baby, here because of Cliff, here because of Him.

I still can’t believe we’re all here together on this adventure.

May this opportunity not be for ourselves, but for the communities we hope to impact and touch in the years to come.

Thank you for being a part of our journey.

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So grateful to be this little one’s mom.

Just can’t get enough of these bread-roll arms and corn-kernel toes.

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A few weeks ago, I experienced my first Father’s Day.

 

As I reflected on the joy of being a father, I realized that a huge part of that came from Wai Jia’s dedication as my wife and mother.

 

During the past weeks while Wai Jia was away at Hopkins, I had the privilege of taking care of our little one.

I was scared at the thought that I would be home alone with her. (Maybe she was just as scared of being home alone with Daddy, haha!)

 

What will she eat? 
How will I know what she wants? 
What does she like to play with?

 

Before starting school, Wai Jia would share with me her daily routines to help me transit. That’s when I realized how much she sacrifices every day to make sure our daily needs are met.

 

What amazes me is how much of a joy it is for her (and now me) to take care of our Baby.

 

Yes, parenting has its ups and downs. There are times when I wish I was doing my own thing.

 

But spending time with our baby and seeing her grow everyday is priceless.

 

Thanks to Wai Jia, I know what a great blessing it is to be a father.
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The youngest member of our summer group Orientation faculty session, weighing into the latest global health discussion.

Thankful for wonderful coursemates who’ve been so supportive and encouraging, and a faculty advisor who’s a paediatrician!

 

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“How come she never cries?” has been our most frequently asked question thus far!