A Life Lesson From a Nursing Friend

Culture Shock in Australia: Educational Scholarship

Deborah Christensen
Feb 12 · 7 min read

So nearly 20 years ago MaryAnne came to stay with us.

My adult kids sometimes ask,

Mum, remember that lady you rescued? The one who came to stay with us for a while?”

and then we will all laugh and exchange memories and stories of MaryAnne.

I met MaryAnne in Australia during an enrolled nursing course at TAFE (Technical and Further Education) I had started.

She was a quiet presence in the classroom.

Initially, she rarely smiled. She looked unhappy, ill at ease and appeared exceedingly shy. She didn’t make eye contact regularly. She looked down a lot.

It was probably during the second week of the TAFE course at lunch one day, that we went and sat next to her at her table. We asked her where she was from, and where she was staying?

We learned that MaryAnne had won a scholarship in her home country of Papua New Guinea to complete the course in Australia.

She had flown to Brisbane and was picked up by a sponsor family at the airport.

We found out she had never been away from her country before, and in fact, the first time she had ever come down from the highlands of Papua New Guinea and into the capital Port Moresby was on her way to the airport to come to Brisbane.

She had been working as a ‘nurse’ already for a couple of years in the highlands. They had a base clinic but they also walked from village to village regularly.

The things she did medically you would need to be trained as a medical doctor in Australia to be permitted to do. Most of the time she was on her own when she was treating people.

She regularly delivered babies, stitched up women after birth, stitched up deep wounds on people caused by matchette’s and actively helped in operations often conducted in emergency situations.

We were in total awe of her and impressed.

She revealed she had felt inferior and ‘less than’ next to all of us as she saw as having greater education and experience in the world.

We all assured her a hundred percent that her experience in nursing and life was at a level most of us could only dream of ever participating in.

Her work in her country was invaluable and important and we made sure she realized how advanced her skillsets were compared to what we could all ever hope to do within nursing in Australia.

She had dreams of becoming a Registered Nurse and even a Doctor one day and we all encouraged her.

Over that week we talked each day during our breaks from class.

We found out that the family she stayed with, made her stay constantly in her room.

  • She was only allowed out to eat her dinner.
  • She was not allowed out of her room without permission.
  • She was not allowed to watch television with the family.
  • She was not allowed to have anyone over or go out.
  • She was only allowed to go out to the TAFE for her nursing course.

We all were horrified. This Australian family was getting paid for having her stay, and they were treating her appallingly.

I immediately offered for her to come and stay for free with me in my home, with my four children.

I had recently separated from my husband but was still living in the family home for the time being. She understood it may be temporary but I assured her I would assist her in finding somewhere else to live before I had to relocate. It had to be better than the isolation and abuse she was suffering where she was currently living.

We all explained to her it was completely wrong being treated as she was, but she did not wish to make a complaint or cause any trouble for the family.

We respected why she felt fearful as she was living in a foreign country on a temporary visa and she did not want to make waves as she wished to further her education here in more advanced ways at a later time.

She didn’t want any trouble on her record.

Although we respected completely her wishes, we all were furious at the family that was treating her so badly, especially as they appeared to be getting away with what they had done to her.

She agreed to let the TAFE know she was relocating and why, and also make the sponsorship people aware.

She arranged for us to go and pick her and her bags up from down the street one day, after she left the home she had been staying in, and I brought her back to our home.

MaryAnne was fun and hilarious to have as a boarder.

She loved and adored my children and would spend ages talking to them and playing with them. She was completely curious and open in the kitchen, fascinated with the gadgets I had and the foods I cooked, being unfamiliar with most of them. I loved showing her.

MaryAnne: Personal Photograph of Author

She taught us songs and dances, cooked up foods and shared many stories of her life in the highlands.

One summer day when it was really hot I noticed she was wearing long sleeves. I knew she was hot as she was sweating and red in the face.

I offered her a top of mine to wear (no sleeves) if needed.

She turned it down emphatically. I pressed her.

She kept saying no. She looked embarrassed.

I said, “I am sure it is your size and will fit, I am bigger than you, so it probably will be too big anyway?”

She said to me, “I can’t wear it because of this” and with that she scooted her arms out of the top she was wearing and lifted one of them up in the air.

I had no idea what I was meant to be looking at.

I could see an unshaven armpit. That was all.

I did not know what I was meant to be seeing.

She indicated again, with her other hand, towards the hair growing under her armpit.

I laughed, and said,

“Oh, it's okay, I haven’t shaved for a few days and mine is growing back. Don’t worry about it, it's okay”.

She said,

“What?

What did you say?

You SHAVE your hair under your armpits?

What does that mean?

I don’t understand.”

I went to the bathroom and she followed me, and I pulled out of the drawer a shaver and showed it to her.

I asked her if she had ever seen a ladies shaver like this before and she said she hadn’t.

I showed her how it had a razor inside which cut the hairs off. I imitated the shaving motion under my own arm.

She started to laugh.

She told me she thought ALL white women in Australia DID NOT grow hair under their armpits.

She thought we must all be naturally naked of hair under our armpits.

She said had been feeling ashamed of her underarm hair and yucky and different in comparison to us all. She had felt ashamed.

I was horrified she felt this way about herself in comparison.

She had no idea we all shaved our armpits.

We both were crying in the end from holding each other and laughing so much. She wanted to know if I could give her a shaver so she could shave under her arms.

I took her into the bathroom and gave her a new razor. I told her she did not have to shave under her arms. No one in our class would care.

She wanted to.

I showed her how.

She came out with shaved armpits and a big grin on her face.

She was now the “same”.

Both of us laughed as she kept saying, “I thought all white women DIDN’T grow underarm hair as I have never seen a white woman with underarm hair.”

I explained that we all grew hair everywhere she had hair, but it was a pain in the neck to shave it all the time and lots of us didn’t bother during winter or other times. I explained how some women refused to shave at any time. It was not necessary to shave to be accepted.

But it had been a big deal in her mind.

She didn’t want to be the only one wearing no sleeves with armpit hair showing during TAFE class. She wanted to be the same whilst she was in Australia.

She felt more confident and was relieved to find out she was not so different from all of us, and the reasons we shaved were all to do with cultural pressures and expectations that had become the accepted norm.

It certainly did not make us superior in any way, in fact, many of us often felt trapped by the norm, as it was a pain in the neck to do half the time.

We all bonded as women the next day, at TAFE as she shared her story of learning that we all shaved away our underarm hair. We all laughed with her as she explained she had never seen a white woman with hairy armpits since she had been in Australia and how this had seemed extraordinary to her.

I lost contact with MaryAnne sometime after she moved out, and I moved away to a different town.

At times I wonder where she is might be now?

I wonder if she is a doctor in Papua New Guinea?

I wonder if she still shaves her armpits and has a stock of razors with her, wherever she goes, or if she gave it up as western idiocracy and smiles when she thinks back to her first experience of shaving under her arms in Australia.

I remember her with a smile, and of the time we held onto each other as we cried tears of hysterical laughter bonding over armpit hair.

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Musings on Life, Self Awareness, Art, Spirituality, Poetry

Deborah Christensen

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Seeker of Understanding/Meaning, Explorer of Spirit, Writer, Artist, Believer/Doubter, Dreamer, Introverted Communicator, Questioning it All

Daily Connect

Musings on Life, Self Awareness, Art, Spirituality, Poetry