Story of Beijing cleaner’s efforts to learn English on own goes viral
Making the extraordinary
Published: Nov 28, 2023 09:13 PM
Sanitation worker Zhang Jianna cleans the street in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of the Beijing Chaoyang Sanitation Center

Sanitation worker Zhang Jianna cleans the street in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of the Beijing Chaoyang Sanitation Center

"Hello everyone, my name is Zhang Jianna. I'm a city cleaner from Beijing's Chaoyang sanitation [department]." The video of Zhang fluently introducing herself in English recently went viral on the internet. Still in her sanitation department uniform and a confident smile on her face throughout the video, Zhang comes across as friendly and upbeat.

Netizens expressed their admiration and amazement, wondering how "she can speak English fluently with foreigners," describing her efforts as a "talent" and declaring "she is great!" 

Zhang, a 49-year-old sanitation worker in Beijing's Chaoyang district, has studied English by herself for nearly a decade. Despite earlier hiccups, she can now communicate with English speakers with ease while offering her assistance when needed.  

"I like to try expressing Chinese friendliness and hospitality to international visitors," Zhang told the Global Times on Monday, adding that such an approach makes her work worthwhile. 

Love, persistence 

Zhang's interest in learning English was sparked by her work in the Sanlitun embassy area in 2014. 

It all started with the embarrassment, according to her, when a foreigner inquired about the visa application process outside an embassy gate, but she didn't know what he was talking. After an awkward moment in which both she and the foreigner stared at each other in confusion, Zhang was determined to learn English. 

"It was very awkward, I was very eager to learn English starting from scratch at that time and to offer some help to people," Zhang said. 

Zhang's own service resume is impressive, having been in charge of a team cleaning more than 100,000 square meters of road in an area with 56 embassies. They also need to empty and clean more than 300 dustbins in the area.

Not only did she incorporate her language learning into her daily work routine, studying while on her breaks and after work, she also employed her surroundings to expand her English vocabulary. "I know all 56 embassy names in English, such as Chile, Mexico, Congo, and Sudan," she told the Global Times.

Zhang Jianna (top right) talks to her colleagues in Beijing.  Photo: Courtesy of the Beijing Chaoyang Sanitation Center

Zhang Jianna (top right) talks to her colleagues in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of the Beijing Chaoyang Sanitation Center

Zhang's previous English learning stopped after graduating from high school, and after that she forgot much of what she had learned. In the process of English self-tutoring, she insists on using rote memorization for vocabulary even though her memory is admittedly not as good as what it once was. 

"The most important thing in learning English is persistence! Learn step by step. Learn every day," Zhang said. "There are many channels for English self-study." 

Zhang also learns English by conversing with her children in English, and has downloaded English language apps on her cell phone, while growing her composite collection of sentences and words when she has time. 

She told the Global Times that learning English is an interesting experience. Compared with the subtleties and euphemistic nature of Putonghua (standard Chinese), English is particularly intuitive. The phrase "escape one's lips," for instance, literally translates to "escaping from your mouth." Meanwhile, the word "Cambodian" seems distantly related to the word "bamboo." 

"I think it's fun to memorize words and I can easily learn more through word association," said Zhang.

'A bridge'

"English is a bridge to communicate with foreign friends, and introducing Beijing to foreign friends is my responsibility and obligation," she said, hoping to showcase a true Beijinger's enthusiasm through her efforts. 

The ever increasing number of Chinese speaking foreigners is also a source of pride for Zhang, as it shows international friends' willingness to come to and learn about China and its people. 

Those not as conversant in ­Putonghua, however, the foreign language is in good hands with Zhang, as she is able to confidently engage and provide answers to questions, guiding them through the city's streets in English. 

Zhang's ambitions don't stop there, as she intends to learn a different foreign language in the future. "I've heard that French is beautiful, and I'd like to learn it," she said. 

State broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) also published a video acknowledging Zhang's admirable efforts, while she was awarded the title of "Outstanding Lecturer" at the Beijing and Chaoyang district levels, and was selected as a representative of the city's lecture tours. 

When it comes to her seemingly sudden but well-earned fame, Zhang said that it gives her more motivation to continue learning, as well as a sense of responsibility and accountability. 

Her hometown in Baoding, North China's Hebei Province, produces ­Chinese herbs, which inspires her to help "foreign friends to learn about Chinese medicine culture and to promote Chinese medicine outside of China," she said.

"I will become a light, illuminating a path for more people," she promised.