Ragpicker’s passion to learn English


Lasting passion: Yuan reading an English book in her rented room in Qingdao.

“NEVER judge a book by its cover” is an English idiom that best des­cribes Yuan Yinghui.

The 44-year-old did not finish high school and neither does shehave huge savings nor hold a reputable job.

Her only assets are more than 60 sets of English language-learning material in the form of books and cassettes.

The ragpicker spent over 20 years learning the foreign language by herself, and now she can read newspapers and translate novels.

“I used up my salary on English-learning material and I have no regrets. If I were given another chance, I would still make the same decision,” Yuan told The Beijing News, although her efforts did not secure her a stable career.

Yuan, who hails from a farming family in a rural village in Qingdao, eastern Shandong province, has been passionate about English after picking up her first word in secondary school.

“At 16, I studied clothing and textile at a vocational high school but quit in my second year as I was not interested in it and more importantly, there were no English lessons.

“My father was so mad at me. All the while, my family hoped that I would finish the course, find a decent job at the garment factory and get married like all other women in the village.

“So, I left home at age 20 and began living a gypsy life,” she said.

But Yuan never gave up on her passion for English. Minus the necessary living expenses, she spent the rest of her salary, earned from part-time jobs, on educational material.

In 2003, she gave up her job to concentrate on her “studies” after inheriting 5,000 yuan (RM3,000) from her late father.

“I played the cassettes and listened to English news for hours every day. I also checked the dictionary for every new word.

“During my free time, I headed to the English Corner at colleges to practise what I had learned. I also talked to foreign tutors, who were impressed with my fluent English.

“Some college students suggested that I apply to become a guest student and sit for the intake examinations after earning enough credit hours, but I could not afford the tuition fees,” she said, adding that she started working again after depleting her savings in 2006.

As her skills improved, she started reading tougher articles like the inaugural speeches of presidents at their swearing-in ceremonies and memorised the sentences.

Yuan became a ragpicker in 2006 so that she could spend more time learning English.

“Of course, it would be good if I could live a better life but for now, English is my priority and reading is my biggest hobby,” she said.

She talks to herself in English, reads out aloud and uses every resource available to enhance her language skills.

In her small rented room, Yuan has stacked up all her books and notes tidily in a corner.

They are her only assets.

Last year, Yuan translated The Lost, an English crime novel written by Roberta Kray. She spent five months writing down the Chinese version in six notebooks.

She also translated some English magazine articles to Chinese.

Asked why she was so passionate about English, Yuan explained that she loved the language and wanted to make her life more meaningful.

Like everyone else, Yuan too has a dream. She has always wanted to find a job related to English such as a translator. But in a society that only recognises paper qualifications, no one has been willing to take her in.

“I told people I could read the English newspapers, but no one believed me because I only went to middle school,” she said.

Yuan’s story went viral after it was posted on social media sites last month.

She has since received tons of encouragement from netizens, asking her to not give up her dream and passion.

The People’s Daily showed one of her works to a translator, known only as Zhang.

Zhang praised her translation accuracy, but said she could not judge Yuan’s ability based on just one article.

“Her biggest problem now is a certificate. If she is really serious about becoming a translator, I suggest that she sit for the China Aptitude Test for Translators and Interpreters,” said Zhang.

Yuan said she has not been back home since the day she left to pursue her dream.

“My parents have passed away and my brother has his own family.Everything has changed now,” said the single woman, adding that she hoped to meet a like-minded partner and live a stable life one day.

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