A Totally Impractical Expat Interview #14: Amber Roshay- Teacher, Writer, Traveller

Welcome to the 14th edition of the expat interview series. This one is slightly different from its predecessors in that it comes from a woman who is actually a friend of mine here in Shanghai. Yes, Virginia, I actually do also exist in the physical world. I am not composed solely of ether and urls, as one might have suspected. Sometimes I even talk to people using my vocal chords rather than my keyboard. I know, it’s crazy.

Today’s interview is with Amber Roshay. I’ll let her tell you more about herself in the actual interview bit below. She’s a colleague of Doug’s (which is how we met) and teaches in a Shanghai university program similar to my own except, well, much much bigger, much more organized, and not being permanently shut down come the end of term. When she writes about teaching here, I totally get it. She got it. When you read it, you’ll get it too. She’s an awesome writer.

The timing of this interview is apt as the school term is winding down to its last few weeks for me and I’m trying to prepare myself for saying goodbye to my current crop of kids. There are about a dozen of them that I’ll miss terribly when I’m booted out of Tongji University come June 24th. My job exhausts me, frustrates me, drains me mentally… but there are moments of brilliance that carry me through and which leave me with a lot of sadness when it’s over.

As well as girding my loins for the end of my job and possibly the end of teaching for the next year, last night I was faced with the graduation dinner for my students from last year. I wasn’t so sad at the end of the last school year because I knew I’d see them in the halls this year.

They've turned out well.

We have a two year diploma program in Shanghai before the kids that can hack it are shipped off to Australia to complete their degrees at La Trobe in Melbourne. They had been a much more, um, challenging group overall than my current crop, but by last June we had grown to like each other quite a bit. And now they’re off to Australia. And I’m slightly heartbroken. Maybe this is one of the disadvantages of being the only teacher in a program: it’s all yours. All the awesomeness, all the crap, all the sadness. It’s all yours.

The kids gave me a thank you gift (a Tongji t-shirt that was thankfully not an embarrassing size XXXXXL, a laminated formal photo of the graduating class with the Party Officials, and an ornate wedding-cake’ish picture frame covered in piped-icing rosettes and rhinestones, which I plan to fill with pictures of sea monsters) and hustled me, Cissy the Admin, and Brian the Accounting Teacher off to a banquet hall somewhere out by Yanchang lu.

It was a wild banquet- the normally staid kids were chugging back the crappy weak Chinese beer (oh, Snow- why do you bother even being bottled??) and toasting each other and Brian and I with brutal shots of turpentinish bai jiu. They really did pour the beer all sloshy from a height like in the ads that annoy me so much.

The kids are alright

By 8, the kids were sweetly plastered and running up to us to thank us for the past two years of guidance and love and support. A million photos were taken. Arms were drunkenly wrapped around teachers’ shoulders– arms that are normally kept neatly, reservedly, away from teachers. Unlike Turkish students, my students here have never hugged me, kissed me, rubbed my back, held my hand. After downing a few bottles of beer, a few of them managed a tentative shoulder squeeze. It was sweet.

I’ll probably never see any of them again. Bye, guys- I’ll miss you. You were awesome. Most of you anyway.

On that note, I’d like to turn you over to the lovely Amber, who talks about a similar (but so much more poignant!) end of term gesture from her own students.  Ladies and gents- Amber Roshay!


I first read the term ‘old China hand’ after I had been in China a few months. It is an expression used for a person who stays in China for an extended period of time, who uses their skills and knowledge to help support and develop China. I liked the sound of it. Perhaps, because it gave me a sense of purpose, a reason for being here other than for love.

An hour by boat off the coast of Sihanoukville (pic by MaryAnne)

I came to China after meeting a Chilean man on the beach in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. I was on my way to South Korea and he was on his way to China. He swept me off of my feet, so I followed him. It didn’t matter to me where I went as long as it wasn’t back home. I left the States out of a deep dissatisfaction. I had friends and family close by and a good job, yet, I couldn’t seem to be content.

I had always traveled. Once or twice a year I would pick a new destination and go, feeling more alive after I returned. My travels were a badge of my self-worth and accomplishment. I watched friends marry, buy a house and build their nest egg, while I spent all my money on the next journey, my next fix.

After the failure of a marriage I moved to Taos from San Francisco. I wanted to be lost in the desert. There I came to the decision that I needed to leave. I sold everything, gave away my two cats and took a job in Thailand, for three hundred bucks a month, in a remote village where the local nightlife consisted of a transvestite karaoke bar, and a massage parlor where most of my students worked. Surprisingly, in this place I came alive again – found some sort of refuge. The longer I spent there the more I wanted to never go home. Then after a while, just as I had grown content with being alone, and certain that I did not need love, along came Cristian. He swaggered up to me on the dance floor with this cocky smile.

“Wow, you’re hot,” I said. The words ripped from me.

Two months later, I found myself in Shanghai being greeted at the airport by the same man who would become more than just someone in a sexy shirt. When I arrived I didn’t have a kuai to my name and was solely reliant on a man I barely knew.

I remember I arrived wearing flip flops and a two inch tan in mid March, hoping that I would be able to buy shoes my size. My first clear memory of China is of standing on a street corner I couldn’t pronounce the name of, and marveling at the number of bicycles. After a few weeks I found a job at a local language school, where I quickly learned that most foreigners have a love-hate relationship with China.

The reason is that, at first, living in China is like walking using your head instead of your feet. Shanghai is a city of tangled chaos of roughly 20 million people, give or take a few million. The consensus is difficult to determine because millions of undocumented migrant workers arrive from poorer cities in hopes of making it big in Shanghai. Then add the cultural differences, and one’s head starts to slowly turn around. It’s not just simple differences, like the preference for tea over coffee; it is much bigger fundamental differences like how honesty and truthfulness are viewed. One lies to save face and one lies to save someone else’s face. If you get away with a lie then it makes you clever. There is even a difference in opinion of when the New Year begins. There is, however, one key similarity between China and most Western cultures – the love of money.


I spent my first six months here analyzing China; trying to figure it out. Cristian and I would spend hours in the evening going over the days’ events, comparing cultures, sifting through the madness. Then one day I just stopped. I had become settled into my life. Suddenly, I had five pairs of shoes and no remnants of a tan. One year in China turned into three, and it no longer mattered what those cultural differences were or if I would ever truly understand them. I had become settled.

This happens sometimes to a traveler, when you least expect it. It’s human nature to settle in and plant roots. Even travelers need to have a home.  The need to feel attached to a place is primal, an unwavering instinct that even the most dedicated nomad falls victim to.

Except, Shanghai is a strange place to call home, as an expat. It is possible to live quite easily and comfortably without ever having to speak Chinese, interact intimately with a Chinese person or even eat Chinese food.

A little hong shao rou for good measure (pic by MaryAnne)

Can you really call yourself a traveler then? A connoisseur of culture when really you are more of an anthropologist writing in a little notebook, making judgments and never once really understanding the people around you.

Many foreigners come to China and end up staying. The two most common reasons are to make money or dabble with Chinese women. For western men it is a bit like being in a candy store. Even though I don’t have that appeal for Chinese women, Shanghai has been good to me. When I left the States I drank and smoked too much. I could barely pay my bills and I was terribly overweight. More than that I was deeply unhappy.

Still, even after knowing that my life is better now, I sometimes question my choices and look towards the future, wondering when my next stop will come. I question whether I’m too old to be doing this, or whether I shouldn’t be home close to my family, back where I grew up.

Maintaining Stability

Yesterday, I had the most amazing experience as a teacher, a vocation that I have been questioning for some time now. For the past few years I have been teaching in a foundation program at a British college. I teach students from various parts of China who come to our program in preparation for finishing their degrees abroad.

Two students: Stella and Maxxie (and cake)

These students are rich kids who failed the Gao Kao, the Chinese college entrance examination, and view the program as the last resort. Most of these kids arrive feeling like complete failures, and are thrust into a school system that is completely alien, while having to study academic English. The majority of my classes are really lessons in patience and determination. In some classes I count down the minutes.

For the most part Chinese students are considerably passive in comparison to other nationalities. They view shyness and modesty as virtues, and even as they want to practice their English, they will only do so at the coaxing from the teacher. But, more than that they are tired.

They spend their formative years overburdened by homework and taught to memorize over learning. And they are convinced that there is only one possible answer, and are ridiculed if that answer is not given.

Over the last year I became quite close to one class in particular. First of all, the class dynamic was slightly different than my other classes. I had three very outgoing students who love to be in the spotlight; one student who lived in South Africa for ten years, who is sharp as a whip, and one low level young woman named Maomao who cannot form a sentence, but is the most popular girl in the class, and also my biggest advocate.

At the beginning of the year I had a few problems with a student named Moon, one of the more outgoing students, who the class viewed as the appointed leader.  True to his nature, Moon always tried to dictate the flow of the class.

His speaking level was quite high so he could communicate quite effectively, either to challenge me or to convince the class to follow me. At first I resisted his dominance because I didn’t want to lose control of the class. I needed to be in charge.

Then I realized that if I just gave him some control it would work in my favor.

Amber and Moon

Eventually Moon and I came to an understanding. I kept him after class and asked him if he was trying to embarrass me. That was all it took.

After that, Moonie, as I grew to call him, never deliberately challenged me again and I also gave him the recognition he sought.

I also tried to make the classroom atmosphere extremely relaxed and comfortable but I never let them break the rules. Chinese teachers are supposedly very strict and like to compare students to each other. There can only be one best student in the class.  I made sure to never do this. I would correct their errors but never make them feel bad about making them.

Sometimes I would question the judgment of this because I would not see any language improvement, and even my most planned lessons would fail. Perhaps, I needed to be stricter, or less easy –going. Perhaps, these students needed a strong hand to guide them. Not some hippy kid from the sticks, who didn’t know the first thing about being Chinese.

Over the year we got to know each other slowly. I would tell them stories about my family or what it was like to live in the United States. I let them ask me any questions they wanted. On Fridays we would play games for two hours. I started to notice that I looked forward to going to these classes.

At the beginning of the week I would tell them what we were going to do for the rest of the week, and each class after that they would come prepared. I gave Maomao the nickname ‘One’ because she can never say more than one word in English. I would force her to complete a sentence and the whole class would wait patiently, helping her when she needed it.

I began to see them each individually. I could tell you in an instant what they were having problems with and if they understood the requirements of each assignment.

I began to rely on Shen, the student who lived in South Africa, to explain things to the class because I knew she understood. I also saw something in her, an underdeveloped leadership ability that she was too insecure to come forward.

Amber and Maomao

Maomao started to complete sentences. I knew she wouldn’t pass my class, but at least I got her to express herself in English.

Then it came to the last day of classes. We spent the first hour practicing presentations. At about break time Moonie said, “Time for a break.”

I said okay, used to Moonie’s ways.

“But,” he went onto say, “You have to come with me.”

I gave him a look. “Please,” he said and smiled.

I knew they were up to something, but I was too interested to see in what it would be. Moonie, Maomao and I went to the store. Moonie, barely able to contain himself, confided that we couldn’t come back until one of the other students called him.

Twenty minutes later they let me back in the classroom. All the lights were off. In the center of the room they had lit purple tea candles into a shape of a heart. On the multi-media white board music played with the lyrics drifting over the screen.

All the students stood around the room holding a lit tea candle. Eric, one of the most outgoing Chinese students I have ever met, stood in the back with a microphone and started to sing ‘You lift me up.” They put a chair in the center of the heart and sat me in it. Shen came up to me with flowers and gave me a speech. She sounded just like a native speaker. I felt extremely proud of her. She said things I cannot remember because I had started to cry. What I do remember is that she ended with, ‘more than anything I want to say thank you.’  Then the rest of the students started to sing, ‘You lift me up’ with Eric.


After that, one by one, they came up to me and gave me a deep, long hug, each saying how much they appreciated me. I felt stunned. I just did not know what to do with it all. I couldn’t believe it.

I had been questioning whether or not I was fulfilling my purpose in life by being a teacher. I wasn’t meant to baby-sit rich kids, no matter how good the money was. I was meant to travel and write and experience adventures. Not hide away in China, settled into any life I could have had back home. But, these kids did appreciate me.

It took a year but for the first time in that room nationality and language did not exist. The barriers had disappeared. Then the best gift came. They gave me candles that each of them had signed. One student Viola wrote, “You have our respect and gratefulness.” Of all the things they wrote I would always remember that one forever.

I also know that I am in the first foreigner these students had ever met let alone a relationship with. China has only been open to the outside world for the past twenty years. This was the first generation born into the new China.  Not only that but this was their first time away from home and their first year of college. This year was probably one of the biggest in their young lives. I could clearly see that I had an impact on their lives. I had turned into an old China hand.

The heart

The Future

I’m not sure where I am going next. I hope I am going home. The longer you are away the harder it is to go back. You meet people here who have been gone ten years and they will tell you that they could not survive ‘there.’

A few years ago I went home for a visit. I had been away for a two-year stretch. In the shuttle bus from the airport to my mother’s house, they announced on the radio that Michael Jackson had died. Before the announcement the other passengers stared straight ahead in stony silence. But after the announcement everyone started talking about Michael Jackson’s death, each expressing shock and sadness over his passing. I sat horrified that these were ‘my’ people. And  this was all we had to talk about.

After that trip I never thought I would return, that I just couldn’t be a part of that culture. Now, a few years later I am hoping that I will go home. I need to go home. I left a lot of good people back there. I miss driving a car singing to the radio. I really miss the grocery stores. I want to buy one of those shiny, waxy red apples. I want to be able to read the labels on the back of an aspirin bottle. I want to be understood. More than that I want to feel connected again.

I am grateful to China. I have learned an enormous amount here, but I have also learned how to keep myself distant and quiet. Still, that moment with those kids, my students will sit with me for a very long time. For now, I will remain an old China hand, until it is time to go home.

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.