Jessika’s journey into the outback is a story of heart and hope. The US military veteran and future educator shares her Aussie love story and describes her connections to the Indigenous communities with whom she plans to work in the near future.
Tell us a bit about your background. Where were you born? Where are you from? Did you travel abroad growing up?
I was born in Monterey, California, but my parents moved back to Virginia shortly after I was born, so I grew up mostly in Williamsburg, Virginia. When I was young, my parents divorced. We didn’t travel internationally.
It wasn’t until I was about fourteen and in the ninth grade [that I took my first international trip]. We were learning about Charles Darwin in my biology class and my teacher planned a science trip to the Galapagos Islands. My mom put together what I needed for the trip, and on my Easter holiday of ninth grade I was able to go to the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador. It was my first time overseas. It was my first time being away from my parents for that long. Being in a foreign country – I can just remember being a kid and getting off the plane and wanting to just fully immerse myself in this new culture. It was all very interesting to me. Some people might get off the plane in Ecuador and judge it in a different way, but I just wanted to be a part of it as much as I could.
A year later my dad took us on a family trip to the Bahamas. At the time that didn’t require a passport. I had a fantastic time; it’s like it’s in its own little paradise. It’s a very different culture from the US even though it’s so close. But it was fantastic. So that kind of kickstarted me on my interest in traveling abroad. Once I went to college I had more of the freedom and the finances to do it on my own. I went to the Naval Academy, so part of being in the Navy is the travel.
You’re in Australia now. What brought you there?
When I was stationed in San Diego in 2010, I met my husband, who is Australian. He was traveling with a friend through the US and Mexico and one of his first stops was in Southern California. He came to San Diego for a week and we met during an Oktoberfest street festival. We exchanged numbers and the rest is history.
He came to live in the US with me for a year and we got married in that time and had our son. My husband came to live in the US in 2011 and I resigned from the Navy in 2012. During the time we were considering what to do after I got out of the Navy, we discussed moving to Australia and what that meant, what that looked like.
For me, the move was exciting. I had the chance to visit Australia before I met my husband and also visited while my husband and I were dating. I always thought, “What a wonderful, quiet, safe place.” Not to say there aren’t places like that in the US, but it’s very different. You have a sense of community here that you don’t have in the States. So I thought it would be lovely to raise our children there. Seeing as we already had a son and we were discussing what our future would look like, I thought it would be great to move here for that reason. And of course Luke loves his country so he wasn’t against it. So we decided to take the plunge and see what it was like. We moved here in late 2012 and set up camp. We’ve been here nearly six years.
As an interracial couple in Australia, have you had any negative experiences? If so, could you share a bit about those experiences with me?
We don’t really get any overt racism. We don’t live in a major or metropolitan city; we live in regional Australia about an hour outside of Brisbane, the closest major city. Being in a smaller town, you don’t get as much diversity. It’s very, very white. I’ve never been in a place so white in my life. Being in a very white place that lacks diversity, you do stand out. My husband’s lived here just over thirty years. It’s a small town so he knows a lot of the people. When we first moved here, everybody knew Luke had a Black wife so it was kind of easy to pick me out everywhere I would go.
Being a dark-skinned Black woman, not a lot of people see that very often. [I don’t always] get negative looks; it’s more looks of curiosity. Where are you from? Where is this person from? But it can be a bit daunting if you’re not used to it, and I guess I wasn’t used to it. In the States, there are Black people everywhere so you don’t have people look at you like that. It did bother me, I have to admit. Because I didn’t know if they were racist or why they were looking at me so hard. But I did eventually realize that while some people could be doing it in a negative way, for others, it was more a curiosity thing. When you’re Black, you are very aware of your race so you’re aware of what others [may] people think. Overall, dealing with the change of not having a lot of people of your culture around and that mutual understanding.
What other general challenges did you encounter being in a different country?
Australia is just far from everything. It’s kind of isolated. There are no bordering countries, Papua New Guinea being the closest country. It’s expensive to travel anywhere here. Traveling home to Virginia I have to take a fourteen-hour flight to LA, then another five-hour flight to the East Coast. It’s painful to be that far away from your family, and it’s expensive so it’s not something I can do that often.
I’ve got two children now and raising a family so far away from your own family is hard. I talk to my mother every day and I’m blessed to have things like Skype and Facetime and Facebook Messenger. I always wonder what people did ten years ago to keep in contact when they were overseas.
I don’t know if I would have coped living so far away from my family not having access to these types of technologies. Six years down the line and this is home, but I still have my moments. Like Fourth of July or Thanksgiving – on the American holidays, it’s the hardest. It’s funny to drive to work on the Fourth of July, but then I remember no one knows what the fourth of July is here. Thank God for the technologies we have today that make home so close. It doesn’t make it seem like you’re that far away when you have things that connect you.
Australia is an English-speaking country but there are cultural differences. Coming from San Diego, a big, bustling city, to a small town where everything closes at seven o’clock at night – you have to make major adjustments, you really have to slow down. Australians are a bit more laid back. You don’t make the same demands or you’re just going to be laughed at, like that stereotypical American attitude. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told that! Americans are known to be demanding and loud and obnoxious. So toning that down.
What have been some of the pleasant surprises you’ve encountered living in Australia?
A lot! That’s why I’m still here. I like the laid back lifestyle for one. It did take me awhile – probably a solid year – to really appreciate it. But I do think I’m less stressed because of it. I move a little bit slower, I take in things a little bit more. That might be because I live in a smaller town, I don’t live in a major city. I’ve heard that if you live in Sydney or Melbourne you’ll probably be more fast-paced and tend to be more like what I was when I was living in America.
I don’t know if this is just with the circles I hang out with here but I find Australians are more interested in the environment in more ways than one. They support their local farmers: where does your food come from? How is your food grown? Having knowledge of that type of thing. The quality of food. Taking care of their oceans and their natural habitat. Being kind to the animals around them. It just seems more of a concern within the general population than when I was living in the States. So I’ve taken more of an interest in it as well. For instance, this year one of my ‘resolutions’ was to use less plastic because plastic has become such a detriment, particularly to the oceans and wildlife in the oceans. So doing things like using reusable cups. Even when I was living in the States I used cloth nappies for my kids – cloth diapers, sorry. There’s the Australian! Reducing single-use items. Taking bags into the shops instead of using plastic bags. Using metal straws and that type of thing. It’s more prevalent here.
I like Australia’s foodie culture. Coffee culture is very good here, too. Australia appreciates where things come from and quality of food. They know where their coffee beans come from and people care what brand of milk they buy. I have an appreciation for that and now maybe I’ve become a bit snobbish when it comes to where my food is coming from.
Less consumerism than back home. You don’t get as many options here because it is isolated. Things are more expensive, the cost of living here is higher. I find that people here are less wasteful, and that can go along with the environmentalism as well.
When I had my second son here, I had this group of mothers who basically gave me everything I needed. It’s all second hand but you just cycle it through your little group of friends. And people do that with everything, not just baby stuff. But as soon as I said I had a baby people said, “Oh, I’ve got a bassinet for you, I’ve got clothes…” Everything that I needed was just presented to me. All people said was “pass it along to the next person who has a baby.” There’s this community that just got together. I find that it’s a very common thing for people to do here.
Do-it-yourself (DIY) is a huge thing here, too. Because a lot of times either what you want might be too expensive or you don’t have access to it. So a lot of Australians have this DIY culture. They build or renovate their own homes or make their own clothes or five-star dinners. It’s just different. In San Diego, I would eat out all the time or buy everything. But here you might not have access to everything you want to buy so you make it or you find a good alternative. So getting used to that and not being a consumer, being able to be more self-sufficient. I like that.
Lastly, I like being outdoors. Hiking, bushwalking – I’m still trying to figure out what the bush is six years down the road. Bushwalking is basically any kind of a hike, whether it’s in a bushy area like a forest or not. Every weekend when you meet up with friends, you’re either going to have a barbeque – we live on the coast, barbeque by the beach, or fish and chips by the beach. You have not had good fish and chips until you’ve come here – it’s addictive.
In Part Two of our interview, Jessika talks candidly about what it’s like being Black in Australia. She discusses the challenges of navigating a homogenous landscape while in an interracial marriage and raising biracial children.