Roundy found her way to China, even though digging her way here didn't quite work out

Five-year old Roundy wanted to dig a hole to China. After 55 years, the slightly older Roundy "square danced" in Shanghai and became "American Lei Feng" in her neighbourhood.

Holin’s words:

“I will be back,” Roundy told me in a steady tone, pondering her life in Shanghai. Having lived here for five years, the American elder must say goodbye to China because of visa issues.

When I started this column, Roundy was the first suitable interviewee who came to mind. I met her three years ago. She was famous in Tianping Neighborhood where she lived before and was called “foreign Lei Feng” by her Chinese neighbors (Lei Feng was a PLA soldier known for his modesty and willingness to help others).

Both Roundy and her husband Carlos were professors in American Colleges. They came to Shanghai as foreign teachers at Jiao Tong University.

When in Shanghai, do as the Shanghaineses do. Roundy did just that. She joined in her community’s dance team and did “square dancing” almost every day, even after she moved to Tongji University. She took a one-hour subway three times a week from Yangpu District to the Xuhui Campus of Jiao Tong University especially to dance, then another one-hour subway back home.

“Look at my hair. People always offer me a seat," she said of being viewed as frail and old because of her gray hair. "And I will correct students’ homework on the Metro,” she said with a satisfied smile. “I always finish it by the time I arrive.”

I reckoned the "new Shanghainese” Roundy would always be there whenever I needed her to do the interview. But the Roundys turn 60 this year. It was time for them to retire — neither could continue to be hired here any longer. They were leaving. I got to know the news when I met Roundy again.

“What about doing an interview right now?”


Dear Roundy, here’s the present for you. I’m waiting here for you to come back.

Roundy's latest update:

Roundy is off with her husband on a new adventure to Vanuatu, where the skills of elderly people are in demand.

The couple set off on January 1 and will teach English on the Pacific island for the next 18 months as volunteers.

"This is our new task and new adventure," the young-looking 60-year-old said. She is ambitious about using her knowledge and experiences to make the world a better place.

Holin Wang / SHINE

Roundy smiles to the camera during the day of our interview on May 17, 2017.

Name: Debrah Roundy

Nationality: American

Job: Professor of Special Education

Years in Shanghai: 5

Holin: Hi Roundy, so nice to meet you again. You’ve been here for five years, so you must have some impressing stories or impressing thinking about the city or the country, right? Share some with me.

Roundy: Shanghai is such a rich and beautiful city. Something happened to me early on, when we first arrived. As a neuro-linguist, we are taught to look for the good in things, not for the bad. We say that your energy flows where your attention goes.

We met these young girls, they were foreigners, and I told them I was trying to find a market. They said “we’ll show you the market”, so we were talking along and they said, “Oh, the Chinese people do this that I don’t like, the Chinese people do that,” and they said, “We’re going to change China, we’re going to change China”, but China is so big! I thought about it, and you know, a lot of things that Chinese people do that foreigners don’t do works for China. The thing that they are complaining about is what has made China successful.

We, as foreigners, need to appreciate China and look at those cultural differences and say “what are they doing right that’s made them so successful?” China’s women have learned to work together, and they have learned to make it smooth and to get along and to support each other. We, as Westerners, need to copy that.

Other things, like Chinese people taking off their shoes when they walk in the house – us foreigners walk the dirt right inside! How much healthier is it leaving the dirt at the door? We need to look at the good things in this society.

Holin: That’s kind of a different angle for us to think about. And as a "new Shanghainese,” Roundy, how do you spend your weekends or leisure time here?

Roundy: Dancing, dancing, and sometimes after dancing we’ll go out for breakfast. And this year, one of my dance friends, who is one of the leaders and who I really admire, she touches my heart.

One day this year, I had too much work to do, so many papers to grade. She said, “Why don’t you just come to my house and I’ll make you breakfast, and you can get your work done”. So I went, and she made me breakfast and made me tea and then she went upstairs and I worked downstairs – we’re just like sisters. On Saturday mornings I tutor her little granddaughter and some of their friends, and I don’t charge I just volunteer because they have done so much for me. Then sometimes I get together with my friends, both American and other expat friends and Chinese friends. Then on Sundays we get with an expat group and volunteer there, one time it was helping single people who aren’t married.

Holin: Can you still remember the first time you met the dancing group?

Roundy: I just remember walking around the campus every day and having no friends at all. I kept seeing this beautiful, beautiful dance a group would do, and I thought, ‘I would do anything to know that dance, it’s so pretty!’

And one day I stopped and they invited me over, and now we use WeChat to chat because they don’t speak English and I only speak a little Chinese, so we can have long, long conversations through WeChat, just translating the messages at each end as we sit there with each other. It’s amazing, and it can be a very long conversation, especially if it’s about food! They said I’m the first person ever who’s come to join just from seeing them dancing. They’re from 55 to about 75 or 80 years old. I’m still dancing, not enough though!

I’d love to do it every day but I’m doing it about three days a week.

Holin: Which place in Shanghai do you like best? And tell me the reason... 

Roundy: My favorite is Qibao. I’ve been there at least two or three times a year, maybe four. I like the old-fashioned atmosphere. It’s so traditional, and the smells – I even like the smell of stinky tofu even though I don’t like to eat it! I loved riding on the gondola boats but they quit having them, I don’t know why. I probably rode on the gondolas six or seven times. Then the Qibao temple – it’s my favorite temple in Shanghai – it’s very quiet, it’s very beautiful. I don’t belong to the religion or anything but I just like the peaceful feeling there. The food is good there, too! They used to have the very best yoghurt I’ve ever tasted. I like all the different meats and noodles and potatoes, the curly fries. I want everything!

We just went to the aquarium (Shanghai Ocean Aquarium) for the first time, about a month ago. That was amazing! I guess it has the longest tube in the whole world. I’ve been to many aquariums in my time but nothing was that good! Absolutely amazing. I would say ‘go there!’

Holin: Which road do you like best? 

Roundy: It’s crazy but, you’ve got Huashan Road and you have Tianping Road, and in between there’s a little tiny road which people don’t take because it’s not very big and half way through it becomes Tianping Road, and many of my friends live there.

And to me it is my favorite, favorite place, because when I go through, everyone says hi. And it leads me to many places I want to go. It’s just an old lane, right in front of Jiao Tong University. It’s more old China. You go there and the clothes are hanging up and the people are busy washing their vegetables. A lot of people don’t have inside kitchens, so they do outside cooking, having their little pots and their tubs and sinks filled with vegetables and fruits. It’s a place that no one would ever find unless your friends took you there.

(I checked the map later. The small road Roundy mentioned must be a lane with no name between someblocks in the area of Kangping Road, Huashan Road, Guangyuan Road and Tianping Road.)

Holin Wang / SHINE

Roundy dancing with a big straw hat in Xuhui Campus of Jiao Tong University three years ago. 

Holin: Which element of Shanghai do you like best?

Roundy: It’s the whole big city atmosphere. I really like that. You’ve got the old things and the new things, and the energy of the new. I think that they’re trying to modernize it too much, sometimes, they’ve taken out a lot of the little food stalls – I miss that, especially over at Tongji University because they used to have a lot of that. I think they should bring it back, but have good food control. It would be nice if they could find a way to regulate it, keep it safe. I don’t see them anymore, hardly ever, and I miss that. It made Shanghai so unique, so I hope that they’ll think of a way to bring that back. 

Holin: And what do you hate or dislike here? And yes, you’ve mentioned one point just now. Do you have more and also any suggestions to make it better?

Roundy: You know, I don’t think there’s anything I don’t like about Shanghai. The people are amazing, and I haven’t met a person I haven’t liked, and I feel very safe in this city – much safer here in Shanghai than we do in a big American city. The policemen here are on top of things but they aren’t aggressive. The taichi in the community is helping!

Today is a good example of the goodness of the people. The other day I bought something but then I forgot my package, so today I went back to the same seller and he looked at me and then he ran and got my little card, which I had given him. And then he ran back and he had saved my package and he gave it to me, and I really felt I was taken care of. It was frozen chicken, and he kept it frozen for me all packaged up and everything!

Holin: Compared to your country, are there any shortages in Shanghai? Let’s borrow some solutions.

Roundy: The thing that I was talking with other teachers about on Monday is that I was impressed with the way Shanghai was dealing with some problems they have, one of which was pollution and rubbish on the street.

In the five years I’ve been here they have made such a big improvement. It’s not as clean as you’d find in an American city yet, but it’s making a change. And I see things on the subways telling people how to line up and how to respect others, and the people here are willing to do that.

That’s the people in Shanghai working together, so of course there are problems but the people know how to work together and how to solve them, and that really impresses me. I’m impressed. I see a lot of good things, and I look for the good things.

Holin: Any memory from your life that really impressed on you?

Roundy: I remember being a little girl, about four or five years old, and taking my shovel and going out to dig. And I remember asking my mom, “Mom, if I keep digging, where will I end up?” and she said, “Oh, you’ll get to China!” I never made it, I probably got one or two feet.

When I got older and had children, my oldest daughter decided, for her senior project for school, to make school bags for children in Africa. When she made these little school bags we had to take them to a place where they’d take them to Africa. So we took them to this place called the Humanitarian Center in Salt Lake City. They took us on a tour, and when everyone was all tired and wanted to sit down, she said to me, “Come here, I want to show you something”, so she took me to one room and it was full of books. She asked me, “Do you know what these are?” and I said, “Yeah, they’re books”. “These are medical textbooks, we have the latest ones donated to us and we want to get them out to the world, but it takes five years for us to translate them. We’ve got a new idea,” this was in 1996 or 1997. She said, “We’re going to start sending teachers out to the world to teach English and then we can give them the textbooks and they can have the very latest”. Then I got a sparkle in my eye and she knew I was a teacher and said that I might do one of those one day.

Then, when I came to Shanghai, it was with one of these groups that were sending people out to teach English. I had a dentist in one of my PhD classes, and he would talk about how much he loved dental work and so on. One of my teeth chipped and I had to go to the dentist, and when I got there I noticed they had everything modern, and I lay down and soon I just relaxed, because it was just like being in America. I could follow what he was doing from my memory, and then I realized, since he had been at Tongji University for 20 years, that he had very likely been one of the first teachers to learn English and have access to the very latest medical textbooks.

Quite an amazing story? To dig a hole to China and come back and find myself having been fixed with the most modern equipment, and it was probably because of that link.

What does Roundy want to say to her future self? Have a look! Roundy is sending a message to her future self to watch ten years from now!

Filmed by Holin Wang and Joan Zheng. Edited by Zhong Youyang. Special thanks to Andy Boreham.

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