ZHENGZHOU, May 1 (Xinhua) -- As the first ray of sunshine reaches Kaifeng, Xu Shijie in a red velvet waistcoat heads for the bustling street on his pedicab while reciting dialogue he learned from an English book the night before.
Once a high-school dropout and unemployed, Xu, 51, is now the most sought-after pedicab driver and tour guide in Kaifeng in central China's Henan Province.
He is more often known as Jason rather than his Chinese name and has been recommended in Lonely Planet China, a travel guide, in its introduction about Kaifeng.
"Although taxis are faster to carry tourists from one scenic spot to another, the slower pedicab is more effective to let them know a city's history, culture and people," Xu said.
Over the past 17 years, he has devoted himself to shortening the psychological distance between the city and its foreign tourists travelling on his pedicab, with his self-taught English.
Xu dropped out of school due to poverty, but his interest in English did not end. He used his spare time to read English magazines and books when he served in the army.
In 1992, Xu completed his term of service and worked at a syringe plant in Kaifeng, his hometown. But the slender income failed to support his family. He had to ride a tricycle to pick up tourists around the city every day after work for extra money.
The plant he worked for went bankrupt in 2005, and Xu became a full-time pedicab driver.
Although life was hard, and time and money were luxuries, he kept learning English, with the dictionary his only teacher. He recites articles in English textbooks and makes notes in his diaries every night.
With a history of more than 3,000 years and serving as the capital of seven dynasties, Kaifeng regarded as a cradle of the Chinese nation. It has many cultural legacies, relics and historical sites.
China's tourism industry is on the fast track after 40 years of reform and opening-up. It is the world's largest source of outbound tourists and the fourth largest destination for inbound tourists.
Now more international tourists visit Kaifeng than ever before. There are more than 600 pedicab drivers in the city, but very few can speak good English. "Tourists need someone to introduce the story of the city, its culture and history," Xu said.
His chance came one day in 2003 when a Swedish tourist tried to find a pedicab who could speak English. A pedicab driver approached him, but his body language failed to help the Swede.
Before the tourist left, Xu maintained his courage. "Hey, wait a moment." This was the first time he spoke English after years of silent learning.
"I was nervous and upset. I didn't know if he could understand me or not. But it turned out to be a joyful tour," he said.
Since then, Xu has studied English harder, and practiced his listening and speaking every night. He treats every customer he meets as a friend and records their stories in his diaries. Xu has finished six diaries involving the stories of more than 700 foreign tourists.
In 2005, two tourists from the Netherlands gave him an English name -- Jason. "I told them I was just a pedicab driver and I didn't need an English name. But they insisted that it might be useful in the future."
They were right. Xu stands out from his peers, not only because he can speak English, but also for his warm heart, and diligent, meticulous attitude toward work.
He often helps tourists buy train tickets or medicine, or find quality hotels. In order to give them a better introduction to the city, he reads lots of books about its history and culture.
"Some call me a cultural ambassador. I try my best to live up to this reputation," Xu said.