Perhaps it was the combination of her being a mother and a pediatrician that made this pearl in particular one of my mother’s most frequently uttered—sometimes with a stern motherly tone, and other times in a teasing, singsong way. It’s a saying that she heard quite a bit while growing up in Kerala, India, and it became one that she not only took to heart, but ultimately defined her very life by.
I must admit I didn’t understand it when I first heard it in my elementary school days, but said another way: “Only the babies who cry will receive milk,” or, as more people know it, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” It tells us that if you want something in this world, you have to seek it out. Many opportunities that are available to us will not make themselves available. My mom spoke these words quite often when referring to academic endeavors—seeking extra help from teachers, challenging ourselves with difficult courses, seeking out lesser-known resources. But she also applied it to many different areas of our lives—extracurriculars, hobbies, traveling. She always advocated for my siblings and me to pursue activities that we found fulfilling. If she heard her colleagues speaking favorably of a summer camp, research program, or service opportunity, she would make phone calls to find out more. If we emerge into adulthood as well-rounded individuals, we have our mother’s curious spirit and those phone calls to thank.
Some of my most unforgettable experiences so far have occurred because of that constant encouragement to learn more, do better, and reach higher. I’ll never forget the feeling of utter fear when my dad first took us to the jujitsu martial arts dojo in our town. As we watched people in gis (uniforms) throw each other and do rolls and flips on the mats, my eyes must have looked like saucers. My siblings and I never played team sports, but we stuck with jujitsu for about eight years, and I still miss it now. Later in college, though I had previously never been far from home for more than a month, my mom was my loudest cheerleader when a good friend and I decided we wanted to study abroad in Japan for a semester. Same when my roommate and I decided to rough it in Madagascar for a summer of service. And although I was a Biology major, and despite my mom’s virtually nonexistent knowledge of the subject, my parents were happy and proud when I published my undergraduate Honors thesis on hip hop culture.
My mom refused to accept that her own life was limited to her circumstances growing up. In a time and place where it was unheard of for a girl from rural Kerala to pursue medicine, she did just that and succeeded beyond her wildest expectations. I think that’s why she has been able to strike that delicate balance between letting her own kids explore life without feeling like she’s losing us to the world. She knows that her baby birds, though we may fly far and away—like my brother who’s currently working with the Peace Corps in Guinea—we will always return to the nest.
It seems that the onus is increasingly on us as we progress further in life and education. My mom also likes to say that nobody’s going to come to me, hold my hand, and show me where the best opportunities are. It might be an email for a conference that catches our attention; it might be a Google search for organizations that work with populations and issues we’re passionate about; it might be an away rotation in a city you’ve always wanted to explore; it might be a wide net you cast with different research groups to see what might pan out. It’s a matter of pushing ourselves just a little bit further, in areas beyond just our daily studying. In fact, I’ve increasingly found that when my life is enriched by more than just schoolwork, it makes my studying more efficient and—dare I say—enjoyable. It’s a constant effort, but one that I’ve found is worth undertaking.
My mother is a very simple woman. Though she may be a well-respected physician at Columbia University, you might never know it if you saw her. She dresses simply, she speaks kindly, and she cares endlessly. Her wealth lies not in her tangible possessions—she doesn’t even own a pearl necklace. Her pearls are of wisdom, and it is those pearls that I hope to share with you.