Zhang Liyong, the migrant worker who studied hard to become a Chinese star

Life as a migrant worker taught school dropout Zhang Liyong the value of education. Now his fluent English has made him a mainland star

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 October, 2013, 5:42am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2018, 11:45am

The childhood memories of Zhang Liyong were mostly of poverty in Ganzhou, a village in Jiangxi province. Having dropped out of school at the age of 17, Zhang went to Guangzhou in search of work. Ironically, it was life as a migrant worker that taught him the value of education and learned skills, especially speaking English. Today, the 38- year-old is a household name on the mainland, known for his fluent English and the free inspirational speeches he gives to students.

What drove you to study English?

I have always been an enthusiastic learner. If my family had not been so poor, I would never have dropped out of school in the second year of senior middle school. We lived in fear of the spring rains, because the roof and walls of our home could collapse at any moment. We could not afford to fix them. Before the school term started, I would become anxious. I would find my parents knocking on doors of friends and neighbours, trying to borrow tuition money for my sister, my brother and I. Life was hard, and learning felt like a luxury to me at the time. But I did not abandon my the dream of going to university, so I always tried to find time for study.

Are you especially interested in English?

I like English, and being able to get a grasp of it makes me feel as capable as university students. When I came to Guangzhou to find a job at 17, I encountered nothing but hardship because I had no skills. One day I applied for a job at a joint venture business. At the interview, I was asked questions in Cantonese and English. As I stood there speechless in the office, I felt so ashamed. I did not get the job, of course, but the failure made me resolved to continue learning English.

How did you go about learning?

I used to work on a construction site. While my workmates were drinking, singing and playing cards, I was reading middle-school textbooks to learn English. It was hard to concentrate while sharing a work shed with dozens of people, but I tried to focus. I also helped workmates to send money through banks and write to their families. Many of them were illiterate, and they were very grateful. One day, a co-worker said: "You are different to us. You should lead a better life." Several days later, he introduced me to a relative of his, who was the manager of a toy-making company with a factory.

Did you find English useful at the toy company?

I started out loading and offloading cloth and other materials to and from trucks. As I was very diligent, I was soon promoted to team leader and then workshop director. One day, a quality inspector visited our plant from overseas. He was accompanied by a translator who was elegantly dressed and spoke English confidently. You can't imagine how much I admired him. From that point on I studied English even harder and became even keener to go to university. In 1996, when I was 21, an uncle in Beijing sent good news. There was a vacancy at a canteen in Tsinghua University. I quit my job straight away and jumped on a train for Beijing.

How did you feel at the university?

As I had no experience preparing food, I started off transporting coal to the canteen, lighting the stoves under the dozen or so pots. In the evening, when others were enjoying their leisure time, I read English books under weak light in my dormitory. Sometimes I'd go to playgrounds to read under the bright street lamps. It was winter and it was cold, but I didn't dare go to the heated classrooms. One day my boss said: "You'd better ride your bicycle slowly. The students are talents from around the nation. Teachers are treasures of the country. If you knocked any of them down, it would be a big loss." His words made me feel even more inferior. I was at a similar age to those students. They had a cosy environment to study, while I was a worker who had arduous chores to do every day. Fate felt so unfair. It was all because I was born to a poor rural family, I thought. Cynicism and that inferiority complex took hold of me for several months. Students talked about national English tests and the TOEFL, GRE and GMAT assessments all the time. I decided to prove myself by sitting the examinations.

How did you do in the tests?

I scored high in all the tests. For TOEFL, my score was 630 [out of a possible 677]. Also, I learned computer programming languages including Java and C++. Later I took a part-time course in international trade at Peking University. In 1999, Beijing Television interviewed me and the story of Tsinghua's English-speaking cook was heard by Chinese households. After the programme was broadcast, many parents took their children to see me, seeking my advice on study.

Are you still working at Tsinghua?

In 2006, I was invited to work with the organising committee for the Beijing Olympics. During the three years to 2008, I worked with its volunteer and international liaison departments, and spent my free time sharing my English-learning experience with taxi drivers, volunteers and other locals. After the Games, I was offered jobs in government departments and large companies. They would have been golden opportunities, but the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan province changed me. I came to Sichuan after the quake to offer a helping hand. Seeing the vulnerability of human life, I decided that in order to live a meaningful life, giving is more important than having. When I came back to Beijing, I set up a studio to give free lectures to students, migrant workers and juvenile delinquents encouraging them to study hard. I also get invitations from companies to encourage their staff to become lifelong learners, for which I charge to fund the studio.

What are your plans for the next few years?

I plan to go to the US to study education or journalism in a year or two. After that, I hope to travel to more rural provinces to speak to students and go to coastal cities to talk to migrant workers. I'd like to let them know their life path is not set in stone. They could be translators, or diplomats. They could change their fate by studying hard.