Saint Louis Priory School alumnus Justin Torrence has been all around the world since he graduated in 1999, but he found time last summer to return to St. Louis and stop by the campus to catch up with his classmate Justin Orlando, now chair of the Priory Science Department. The two Justins had a great time catching up and reminiscing about their days as Priory students, and Justin T. sat down with us one sunny afternoon to fill us in on what he’s been up to.
Justin Torrence and Justin Orlando, Members of the Class of 1999
Justin’s wanderlust started as a student after two seminal events: he went to World Youth Day in France, and he heard an alumnus speak about his experience in the Peace Corps in Africa. “After that I started thinking about the wider world. I was captivated by the Peace Corps presentation, and told my parents I wanted to do that after college. They didn’t take me seriously. ‘Yeah, whatever. Go to school,’” he laughed. The idea of traveling the world had always been in the back of his mind, but when he heard the alumnus speak he realized just how easy it could be. “You sign up for a program and you go.”
He matriculated to Grinnell College, and while there he studied in Tanzania for six months. He went to Belize senior year, as part of a senior elective course called Marine in Terrestrial Ecology. The professor running the course had a research site, and the trip included a week in the rain forest and a week on a coral reef. His appetite for the world only increased, and upon graduation he told his parents he was heading to China. “They were surprised, and I reminded them that I told them in high school I wanted to do something like the Peace Corps. They said, ‘We didn’t take you seriously…you were in high school!”
Grinnell College offered a fellowship modeled after Peace Corps, and Justin headed to Nanjing, China, to teach English for two years. The fellowship was supposed to be only one year, but at the end of his term the college offered him another year and he stayed. It’s a good thing he stuck around for that second year, because that’s when he met his future wife. They were both living in an international student dormitory, which Justin remarks didn’t necessarily give him exposure to local people but placed him in the midst of an international melting pot within the dorm. “I lived with Russians, Europeans, Africans, Kiwis and Aussies, Japanese and Koreans. We were close to John Hopkins Institute, so there were lots of Americans, too. You could meet people from five different countries just hanging out in the lobby and saying hi.” He also met and fell in love with a woman from England named Cathy, who lived in the same dorm.
When his fellowship ended, Justin returned to school for a masters in teaching. He then taught in public schools in Boston for three years before moving to Fort Collins, Colorado for Cathy’s job. The couple stayed for four years, and then Cathy, a professor of history, was offered a job in Hong Kong. Since Cathy’s U.S. visa was due to expire they knew they were going to move anyway. Justin found work teaching science in the international school in Hong Kong, and they’ve been there four years.
Visiting different countries is one thing, and tackling a temporary teaching position overseas is another, but moving yourself and your belongings is an entirely new experience. “When I was in high school and college, and even right after, I always traveled through a program. There were people there to look out for you, and there was structure and support. The people we worked with were English teachers at the local school and they looked out for us. That first week or two in Hong Kong, I was nervous because of lack of support. For instance, when I first got to Nanjing, China, my ATM card wouldn’t work and the machine ate my card. I was out of money and now my card was gone, and I didn’t know what to do. I got in touch with people from home and, and one of my new Chinese friends went into the bank and explained what happened. They were able to fish my ATM card out of the machine so it all worked out okay.” In Hong Kong, Justin was completely on his own to figure out any issues that would arise.
Justin and Cathy have adjusted to Hong Kong life just fine; they’re now starting their fifth year there. Professor Catherine Ladds teaches at Hong Kong Baptist University, and the couple is expecting for the first time: Twins! “We had decided we were going to have kids, maybe one or two. Then the doctor said, ‘Congratulations. And congratulations!’ We are going from a household of two to five in six months,” he said. Because they both work and don’t have family there, they will follow local custom and hire a helper. In the meantime, they are navigating new aspects of Hong Kong life: hospitals and insurance.
Living in Hong Kong provides relatively easy to travel to exotic locales. Justin and Cathy have visited Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, and Cambodia. Justin’s favorite place so far is Sri Lanka. “Looking back on my experiences, I think it’s a good thing I chose more adventurous places to go when I was young. That opened me up to new possibilities, instead of sticking to Europe. It might be more daunting now if I had only seen Europe when I was young,” he said.
He and his international school students participate in a program called World Classroom, where kids study for a week to 10 days at different schools around the world. “They need chaperones, so I get to go free of charge,” he said. He took his students to Tanzania for his first trip. Since then, they’ve been to Prague, Argentina, and Brazil. He arranged a trip for students to see a rain forest in Indonesia, similar to what he had done while at Grinnell. That experience led him to scuba diving, a new interest.
Justin reflected on his time in Hong Kong. “It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere since I moved out of my parents’ house. I foresee us being there awhile yet. It’s a really good place to live. If I had done it the other way around, Hong Kong first and then China, I’d be ready to leave. China has changed since I was there 13 years ago. Pollution wasn’t as bad, restrictive crackdowns weren’t as severe. Since then, the pollution has gotten worse and political freedom has gotten more restrictive. When I was in Nanjing and I spoke any Chinese, people were really appreciative. As an American walking down the street you were a cross between a rock star and a circus freak. People aren’t as impressed any more. It’s not as unusual to see an American. Because it’s more normalized, locals might not be so readily helpful.” Justin still enjoys visiting China, enjoying the food and watching how the country is changing in positive ways, too.
He said that Hong Kong is an easy place to live. “It has the best public transportation system (over New York, Boston, and London); it’s well-run, efficient and easy to use. You think of it as a giant, super-dense city, and it is, but 70% is set aside as parks. There are public beaches; you can walk along a mountainside. Pollution can get bad but being on the ocean helps. A storm comes along and cleans the city out.” But perhaps the best reason to stay in Hong Kong is more practical: “Because my wife is a British citizen and I’m an American citizen, it’s easier for both of us to live in Hong Kong than for either of us to live in either one of our home countries.”
Justin said that if they stay in Hong Kong for three more years, they’ll both be granted permanent residency. That means they would always have “right to abode.” They could leave and move anywhere, making sure they return once every three years. Even a simple layover while flying to another destination would count. Using their ID cards – even just at the airport – renews their residency. “We’re really happy there,” Justin said. “It’s a place where we both have a really good quality of life, our jobs are both good and headed in the right direction.”
Justin gives a nod to his Priory experience for his ability to adapt to different countries. He said, “Having to learn multiple languages at Priory was good. The languages themselves haven’t necessarily directly translated to my professional life, but wrapping your head around learning languages was really helpful. It’s not so daunting to think, ‘I have this language and this language and I’ll pick up another one.’ I’ve learned some Mandarin, and now I’m picking up some Cantonese. It gets harder as you get older, but I know what works for me to learn languages.”
He continued, “The intellectual rigor of Priory has always been helpful. In my case, going into teaching, I must have had a pretty good experience here to think I could spend the rest of my life in a school. I was into both English and science, and for whatever reason decided to go into science. Priory’s science courses helped prepare me. I was into biology, and I remember the first time we did a dissection, and the last time. We did field work on campus, and I liked when we got to go outside and use it as a resource. I appreciated those hands-on things.”
Justin listed a lot of monks who taught and guided him while he was at Priory: “Father Bede and Father Augustine started when I was there. Father Gregory, of course. Father Paul. Fathers Thomas, Gerard, and Finbarr. Father Ralph was my advisor back in the day!” He also wanted to give shout-outs to some of his other favorite teachers: Mrs. Hartnett who taught him French, Mrs. Raley in the theater, and English teacher Mr. Mohrmann.
As a student, Justin enjoyed gaming, reading, and participating in Priory’s theatrical productions. “I was a big time gamer, tons of role-playing. I read a lot…sometimes during class,” he laughed. He’s still reading and gaming, having gotten back into the latter after a hiatus during his time in China and Boston. He found a gaming community in Fort Collins, and remembered then how much he loved it. He draws a connection between the role-playing games and working on the stage. He was in "The Tempest" his senior year, and was Kolenkhov – a Russian dance instructor – in "You Can’t Take It With You." (This information was delivered, of course, in an over-the-top Russian accent.)
“I got a good foundation at Priory. Social justice was a strongly-held Catholic value that was instilled in me here that has continued to stay with me through the rest of my life. It led me to pursue a service-based career. I am very thankful for what I received when I was here.”
Many thanks to Justin for taking time out of his vacation to chat with us. Best wishes to him and Cathy on the pending birth of their twins.