“My life is like a mixed-media painting, a collage. I’ve had an array of experiences, places and people all thrown on to a canvas to make me who I am,” mused Zhupeni Akamu, or Penpen, as she is affectionately known to friends and colleagues.
Describing herself as a third-culture kid*, Penpen was born in the mountains of India but moved to Thailand at eight years old when her parents felt led to be missionaries among the Akha Hill Tribes. There, she attended a Christian international school and really grew in her walk with God. After graduating high school, Penpen moved to Singapore for college to study art.
*Someone who is originally from one country [culture 1] but grew up in another country [culture 2] and might not really fit into either culture—hence developing a third culture.
Childhood photo of Penpen and her siblings in the villages of Thailand, where her parents did ministry
Stability through the struggle
This move was not easy on Penpen. “It was a real struggle—loneliness, loss of identity, loss of purpose, loss of community, questions of faith. So I sought to fill the void in my heart with earthly things. I kept trying to be better on my own,” Penpen recalled.
“When I hit my lowest and darkest point, God met me. I finally surrendered every single part of my heart to Him. It was during this time in a new country, away from everything and everyone I knew, that God had the opportunity to do those deep heart renovations that I needed.”
As a third-culture kid, the issue of ‘belonging’ becomes even more poignant. Where is ‘home’? Which place(s) can I belong to? Essentially, the question we are all asking: where is my stability?
Meal times at the dorm where Penpen and her siblings lived, with their dorm family
Coming out on the other side, Penpen shared, “The gospel and Jesus became so real and personal to me; it completely changed my attitude and my heart.”
“The gospel brings me home, to belong, to be known, to be loved, to have purpose and meaning. That’s when I knew, there was no question—I wanted to spend the rest of my life serving God, on mission, whatever that may look like.”
A masterpiece that reflects the Master
Now with the deep reassurance and security of being loved as a child of God, Penpen understands, “My identity is first and foremost in Christ, who saved me and gave his life for me so that I can have new life. Being a third-culture kid is part of my experience, not my identity.
“It’s like a paintbrush that allows me to see different angles, lights, colors, shades that I can bring into how I create, how I live, and how I interact with people,” she expressed.
Having tasted and seen God’s goodness, Penpen is passionate about sharing the reality of the gospel with others through her creativity and work. She explained, “As an artist, I am a part of the Great Commission. I want to bring beauty and light into a world that is depraved of color, life and hope.
She continued, “I love this quote by Thomas Terry: ‘Creativity helps open heaven’s doors to let the light of God’s transcendence flood into our head-down, cynic-filled world. We make things to help the world look up.’ When I create, when I design, I am echoing and reflecting God’s creativity.”
David Balch, the Biblio Ministry’s Senior Specialist, who has worked closely with Penpen affirms, “There is no doubt that Penpen’s aesthetic appreciation has been developed by the myriad of cultural influences that she has been exposed to. The colours, smells, places, traditions, people, even the politics of Nagaland and Thailand have informed her outlook on the world around her.”
He continued, “The Gospel has taken these influences and added an intuitive ability to put God's truth into a creative narrative. In a multicultural, postmodern world, she can draw upon her own experience and faith to communicate across cultures with the Truth that ultimately unites us all, the Gospel.”
Penpen (far left) with her family
With the convergence of her life, talents, and all she has overcome, Penpen has found clarity in what she is meant to do. Bringing back the imagery of her life as a painting, she concluded, “As a painting, I don’t live to be just that. I live to give glory to the ultimate Artist who is writing a grand story.”
“My painting is just a beautiful small piece of a more glorious piece. And that includes yours. We all get to be a part of His creative story.”
Penpen is now involved in Crea, Cru Singapore's Creative Ministry, that disciples and partners creatives to create content that engages culture. Click here to find out more about the different Crea communities and opportunities that you can get involved in!
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