Cultural Connections: Community transformed Australian resident’s experience

Mandy Sheffer and son.

BY JULIA GASPAR-BATES — Growing up in a small town in New South Wales, Australian resident Mandy Sheffer never expected that she would expatriate to the U.S. Born to British parents who had emigrated to Australia, Sheffer claims that she had a very average childhood: “I went to an all-girls Catholic high school. I went to college in Canberra and lived with my parents, which is quite common in Australia.” At 19, Sheffer participated in a cultural exchange to live and work at a ski resort in the U.S., a practice common with many young Australians. “I ended up at Wintergreen Ski Resort outside Charlottesville thinking that I would do childcare. However, when I arrived, I found out I was also a ski instructor. I mostly taught 2- to 3-year-olds to ski.”

Soon after her arrival in Charlottesville, Sheffer met her now husband, Thomas, who worked at the resort on weekends while going to school. She claims that she knew right away that she would marry him. For the next two years, they visited each other’s country on extended tourist visas.

In 2004, six months before Thomas graduated from college, they realized that they couldn’t continue the long-distance relationship indefinitely. Thomas proposed to Mandy so they could apply for a fiancé visa. Following graduation, Thomas joined Mandy in Canberra, Australia, where they got married and lived with her parents while she completed university.

When Sheffer finished her studies in 2006, the couple decided to move to Brisbane, Australia. For the next few years, they encountered challenges as each tried to navigate life together in a new culture. “It was hard being that young and married and getting to know each other. Previously every time we saw each other, it was like a prolonged honeymoon.”

They decided to return to Virginia in 2008, so Thomas could start graduate school in Blacksburg. “Moving here, I was desperately lonely. Thomas was immersed in school and working, so he was busy. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but looking back, I was quite depressed. At the same time, it’s a privilege to live in a different country, and not everybody gets that opportunity.”

After Thomas finished grad school, the couple relocated to Alexandria and started anew. Again, Sheffer struggled to find a sense of belonging. “I really missed home. Not being in a school environment and jumping from different jobs, I didn’t have a community. Most people had a community through growing up, work or school, and it was hard to break into it.”

Despite many similarities between American and Australian culture, Sheffer experienced culture shock in small ways, such as “finding food that doesn’t have sugar in it.” She continued, “You learn in America that you have to read labels a lot. Also, there is so much choice that it was overwhelming. People are very friendly, but I was more of an open book and willing to share things, whereas people weren’t as open here. People always ask you what you do, your job, what you make. At home, the emphasis is what you do after work, your lifestyle. Australian culture is very laid-back and casual. Nobody cares what you do or how much you make, at least where I’m from. People are friendly; everyone smiles and says, ‘Hi.’”

After getting pregnant with their first son, Sheffer and Thomas realized that they wanted to buy a home. A friend in Mt. Rainier recommended checking out the Hyattsville area, as it was more affordable. They found a house in Hyattsville and immediately loved it and the community.

“Everyone was so nice, and told us we had to join the mum’s [Nurturing Moms] listserv. Soon after we moved in, some neighbors organized a play date. I got dressed up. I was so nervous, but everyone was so sweet and welcoming. It felt like I knew everyone forever. The friends we have made here are like family. If we hadn’t moved to Hyattsville, I would have wanted to move back to Australia much sooner, but because of this community, it is the main thing that makes me want to stay in the U.S. It’s my anchor here. But Australia is always my home. We need to find a magic solution to have two lives. If I had the choice to move Hyattsville to Australia, I would do that in a heartbeat.”

Julia Gaspar-Bates is a cross-cultural trainer and consultant. “Cultural Connections” is dedicated to bringing forth the voices of immigrants and foreigners who have settled in Hyattsville.