WHEN Debrah Roundy was a little girl digging a hole in the garden of her house in Idaho, United States, her mother told her, “If you keep digging, you can get to China.” This was the first time she heard about China.
More than 50 years later, Roundy has arrived in China. It’s been worth the wait as the 61-year-old American has jumped right into Shanghai life despite the language barrier. She teaches English at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, has joined a neighborhood dance team and does frequent volunteer work.
“I love Chinese culture,” Roundy says. “Unlike youth, we are not out to change people and cultures. We are here to learn from each other and to reflect on what makes each culture effective.”
She and her husband, Carlos, came to Shanghai in 2012 and lived in Tianping Neighborhood in Xujiahui. Her Chinese neighbors affectionately call her “foreign Lei Feng.” Lei was a PLA soldier known for his modesty and willingness to help others.
After retiring as a neurolinguistics professor in May 2012, Debrah and Carlos joined China Teacher, a nonprofit outreach program at Brigham Young University.
China Teacher provides experienced US instructors to Chinese universities. Since its inception in 1989, almost 1,000 teachers have taught more than 175,000 students at over 49 universities in China.
Now, the Roundys work at the School of Foreign Language at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Debrah works two half days per week while packing much of her remaining time with community events and volunteer activities.
She admits to being somewhat surprised with the willingness of neighbors to help her and her husband as they adapt to life in the city.
“Many Americans think Chinese are indifferent, but they are totally wrong,” she says. “Our neighbors watch over us. The health group watches my blood pressure. The ladies all walk me across the streets because they know I am from a very small town. They are like family. How can I not love them?”
Chen Qingdi, officer in charge of culture and education affairs in Tianping Neighborhood Committee and leader of the community’s dance team, remembers meeting Roundy for the first time.
“She just showed up one morning and pointed at herself and then pointed at us,” Chen says. “I understood that she wanted to join us, so I nodded my head. Since then, she has become an important member of our dance team. She comes every day except when she is teaching.”
Roundy says she once taught ballet in the US but gave it up when she was diagnosed with liver disease 30 years ago. She says that even with her background, Chinese dancing is still difficult.
Chen says she started the dance team in 2009 with only four members. They now have more than 20, mostly retirees from Tianping Neighborhood.
“After Debrah joined us, we have paid more attention to cultural exchanges,” Chen says. “She is very diligent and hard working. When she first joined, she recorded our movements and postures on an iPad and then started practicing at home.”
All the hard work has paid off. “Just two weeks ago, we won first prize in a municipal dancing competition,” Roundy says, proudly.
The Roundys have raised their four kids and 10 foster children in Idaho. Many of the foster children were exchange students from other countries. Debrah says of the experience: “We could not afford to take our children to see the world so we brought the world to them.”
She says it was great for everyone involved because the children learned to see the person, not the color of their skin.
While the language barrier makes living in Shanghai challenging at times, Roundy and her Chinese friends get around it by using e-mail and Google translator.
The American says her limited Chinese has led to some funny situations. On once occasion she wanted to tell a Chinese woman she was beautiful. Instead of saying “meili,” Roundy recalls using the words “meile,” which means nothing. Initially, her Chinese friends were rather puzzled, but then they realized what she meant and everyone had a good laugh.
Roundy seems to bring happiness and laughter wherever she goes. She gives English lessons in the neighborhood every Wednesday. Locals say that the group is always heard laughing during the class.
“The students I teach, though many are well over 60 years old, have a quest for knowledge that I admire,” Roundy says. “It’s very different compared with American seniors.”
Jamie Wang, one of the neighbors who attends Roundy’s English class and a member of the neighborhood dance team, says the American is patient, kind and understanding.
“I can not fully understand what Roundy talks about in class, but with some guessing and persistence, I learn a little bit each time,” Wang says. “We all like her.”
Roundy believes whole-heartedly in volunteer work and the good it can do for society. She says she once challenged her American students to do 1,000 good deeds (acts of volunteer service). It took almost three years but they did it, she says.
In Shanghai, Roundy has volunteered at an orphanage while her husband has contributed some of his time to Shanghai Charity Dream Healing Home.
She has also taught English to her dance team members free of charge and given summer classes to neighborhood children.
“Enter to learn; go forth to serve,” she says, is the motto of Brigham Young University and it’s clear she has taken it to heart.
Outside of her teaching and volunteer work, Roundy takes community classes like knitting, Chinese painting, tai chi and yoga. At night she keeps busy with correcting homework and checking e-mails.
“I rarely read newspapers and I never watch TV as I’m too busy to do so,” she says.
Wan Li’na, Party secretary of Tianping Neighborhood, says Roundy is different from other foreigners in the community, which counts 96 non-Chinese among its inhabitants. “She is the only foreigner to get involved in community events,” Wan says, And Chen adds, “So you can see why we treasure Roundy so much.”
The American says she has signed a 1-year contract with Tongji University after working two years at Jiao Tong University.
“I like Shanghai,” she says. “I hope I can be here for a couple more years if it’s possible.”
Roundy’s tips for expats living in Shanghai
• Don’t be shy, just ask whatever you want to know. People are always willing to help.
• Learn simple Chinese and Shanghainese. It’s a way to show kindness. Try new things and it’s fun.
• Use the way local people use to communicate, such as QQ, an instant messaging service for contact.
• Whenever going to one new place, remember the bus stop, road name or the street number by taking photos with camera, iPad or cellphone. Next time, you are able to go there on your own.