“Everyone’s life is a mosaic.”
JUDAH JUSTINE is a true citizen of the world. Born to missionary parents, he has grown up in more countries (23) than years he's been alive (21). While his parents live in Thailand, this season finds him in Virginia, U.S., bringing insanely creative storyworlds to life in the Cinematic Arts program at Liberty University. In both imagination and reality, adventure runs in his veins!
I first met Judah as fellow interns at 7G.tv during his semester abroad in Beijing. Fresh off my own whirlwind decision to move overseas, I couldn’t have asked for a better accomplice to go snowboarding on fake snow, catch the Chinese premiere of Infinity War, and swap surprisingly addicting snacks (“crab roe flavor sunflower seeds,” anyone?).
Kicking off my first #ChrysalisConvo, here is Judah’s honest take on the perks of being a Third (or in his case, 24th) Culture Kid, how cultures speak through stories, and why the leap overseas is worth it!
How does a Third Culture Kid (TCK) become a 24th Culture Kid?
Generally, you’re a TCK if your parents grew up in a different country than you. A third culture forms where you develop your own way of thinking and responding to situations. That’s essentially me, except I didn't grow up in just two places. I grew up in 23 countries around the world. So that makes me a 24th Culture Kid!
Wow. How do you identify with 24 cultures, in practice?
Everyone's life is a mosaic. If you grow up in the same location, you have many shades of the same color. You’re given a culture, a set of values, and the choice to obey or disobey it. If you live in multiple locations, you gain the opportunity to choose and identify with more colors: Do I like this cultural value, or do I want to live by another cultural value?
TCKs have the opportunity to choose values and beliefs from the “home culture” their parents are from and the "host culture" they’re immersed in everyday, to create their own cultural mosaic. My mosaic is made of 23 colors. People often ask me to pick, but if you just focus on one, you miss out on the big picture.
I imagine your response to “Where are you from?" has evolved quite a bit over time.
Yeah for as long as I can remember, my answer has always been different. I spent my first eight years in Colorado. When I visited Kenya and Thailand as a kid, it was easy to say, “I’m from Colorado!” But when we moved to Montana, within Montana I still said, "I'm from Colorado," but outside the U.S., I had to decide, do I say I'm from Colorado or Montana? When my family moved to Thailand, things got messier. I had no intention of ever going back to Montana. My house didn’t exist in Colorado anymore. The place I felt most secure was in Virginia with my grandparents, but I’d never lived there before. So I wasn’t “from” Montana. I wasn’t “from” Colorado. I wasn’t “from” Virginia. And by the time I finished my time in Thailand, I was hardly from the U.S. anymore. When I got back to America and people asked where I was from, it was a toss-up. It was anything.
Now when people ask, my answer is a question: “What you do mean by from: Where was I born? Where do my parents live? Where have I spent the most time? Where do I love most?”
Of all the places you’ve lived, which culture(s) do you resonate with the most?
I would say Thailand. It’s a very warm and hospitable country, similar to the American South. If you smile at someone, they’ll smile back. People are willing to meet you on the street and talk for a long time. When I’m in Thailand, I feel like people will understand me even if I don’t speak the language, which is unusual for me.
Research has actually found that, in general, countries with a warmer climate develop a “warmer culture” that's more relationally-oriented, versus task-oriented. Or less “short time-oriented” and more “long time-oriented,” like valuing short-term goals that can be met very quickly, versus long-term goals that take time to come to fruition. As different as they are, Thailand and the American South both have warmer cultures.
Would you raise your kids with an upbringing like yours?
I believe the benefits of raising a child in numerous countries far outweigh any downsides. Now it is tough to build close, long-lasting, deep-seated connections with anybody. You’re always anticipating that you’ll leave the majority of the people you meet. I lived on a YWAM base for 15 years. YWAM stands for Youth With A Mission, the missionary organization that is connected to the most countries worldwide. I grew up in an environment of people constantly leaving and coming back. I might see them in five months; I might not. They might come back; they might not. It was always up in the air.
So missionary kids and TCKs are generally good at making friends quickly. I’ve learned how to build close relationships with people who might leave in weeks. I’ve learned how to integrate efficiently and pick up on cultural cues. I’ve developed my own sense of identity that doesn't revolve around what country I was born or most recently came from. I have a whole host of reasons that I can identify with half a dozen countries at one time.
If I were to raise a child the same way, I would want to be very intentional about asking, how is my kid feeling at, say, age eight, knowing he’s not just American, Thai, or Chinese? He’s all of these things put together, and that’s okay. My parents might not have understood the way I felt because they didn’t grow up as missionary kids or TCKs. They had an identity rooted in being American that I never had as a child. But they were the catalyst to inviting other YWAM kids over, or getting me into Boy Scouts, so I could meet kids my age with similar dreams.
As a mainly English speaker, how do you cross language barriers?
Stories are a great way of communicating beyond barriers. Growing up in homeschooling, we used a history textbook called Story of the World, which introduces a culture by the stories it has to tell. I remember one story vividly. A child is raised by wolves, and eventually, the town villagers discover him and bring him back into civilization, similar to the Jungle Book story. The idea of nature having a part in raising the community, the fact that it was crucial enough to be passed down over generations – this story allows me to see, “Wow, this culture really values our natural environment and life outside human community.” Just by hearing a story, I can get a sense of what they care about, or how they want to be seen. So every culture has stories that are near and dear, part of who they are. If you learn a culture’s stories, you allow the culture to speak for itself first.
As a storyteller, what challenges do you see to bridging cultures?
It’s impossible to tell one story that everyone resonates with in the same way. For example, people see the Bible through all kinds of cultural lenses. For a culture that’s very honor and shame-based, Jesus’ sacrifice is seen as restoring honor and removing shame from people in a way that they can’t do for themselves. Whereas for a culture centered on the individual, the Gospel is more personal, like “How does God speak to you? How does Jesus influence your life?” Apart from honor and shame passed down over generations onto you. The same story can resonate in two completely different ways, and this is just one cultural difference of thousands.
A major struggle is recognizing where your own culture falls short. Fish don’t know they’re wet until they’re brought out of water. Until you leave your culture and interact with others, not only do you not understand their values for real, you won’t even truly understand where yours comes from. You won’t know why you believe what you believe. You won’t know why your parents decided to continue on with the value system they do. Or why the people around you value what they do. Thanks to globalization, we're now being forced to see our own cultures honestly, more so than before. People are learning to coexist or push each other out.
So building a story that connects communities is a noble cause. It’s something to strive for. It doesn’t have to be one story that gets everyone. It just has to demonstrate that cultural values are each intrinsically valuable in their own way. Just because one story resonates differently with two groups doesn’t mean that one is wrong and one is right.
Any stories in the works?
I’m writing a fiction novel as an allegory of my own life moving around so much, learning how to deal with struggles and nightmares I had growing up. I think any story that resonates with your experience is enough to help people understand as well. Real or fictional, if a story is presented well and grounded in reality, it can influence people.
Can you see a 25th addition to your mosaic anytime soon?
About a year ago, my parents adopted my younger sister from China. She’s a huge ball of sunshine! Next year, we’re adopting a second little girl from China, which will make a quarter of my family Chinese. So if I didn’t have motivation to learn Chinese before, I definitely do now!
Any advice for folks considering a move overseas?
Just go. Doesn't matter where, as long as it's new. Different. Leaving is hard. But if you don’t go, you will miss out on so many adventures, experiences, and wisdom to be had from moving to different places. Learn about yourself. Learn about another culture. Experience life as it should be lived. When God created the world, he made places. He made peoples. He spread them out as ethnic groups with cultural value systems. They’re all different from each other, and there’s so much to be learned from each of them. So just go!