BEIJING, June 2 - On most weekday mornings, as a honking swarm of suburban commuters merges onto the clotted beltway here known as the Third Ring Road, Ouyang Junying stands beside the rush hour traffic, opens a book and reads. Out loud.
It is one of the worst traffic snarls in the city, with exhaust and noise rising into the air, but Ms. Ouyang has been going there for almost five years. She is studying English and believes the distractions help her concentrate. It is a bit like practicing the flute beside the New Jersey Turnpike.
It is also the reason she has become an unlikely sort of celebrity, a mysterious siren of the morning rush hour in a city once better known for comrades than commuters. For tens of thousands of motorists arriving daily from the northeastern suburbs, she is The Girl Who Reads Aloud.
She reads. Beijing stares. And wonders: Who is this young woman? Why is she reading in such a terrible spot? Is reading her only reason for being there?
"It is like a stage," said Yin Yan, who drives past while taking her daughter to school. "Drivers like me have nothing to do but look at this girl. They, of course, will judge her."
Beijing has long tolerated, even celebrated, certain types of exhibitionists, with the city's many parks filled with people practicing tai chi or ballroom dancing or, in some cases, walking backward (supposedly good for the health). With 15 million people living in cramped quarters, the parks serve as the city's collective backyard out of necessity. But Ms. Ouyang does not like them.
"If I study in a park, people always watch me," she said. "They are so curious. I don't feel comfortable. But if cars pass me, I don't care."
The daughter of a farmer in rural Hebei Province, Ms. Ouyang, who is 29, came to Beijing in 1995. Without connections or wealth, she grabbed on to English for the same reasons that many other striving young Chinese do - the possibility of a job at a multinational corporation and with it a chance to make more money and to travel, or even live, abroad.
Like many others, she has taken an English name, Joy, and her cellphone rings with a ballad in English. Her first job in Beijing was as a hotel receptionist, where she studied English with other young workers or alone. "I often studied in the late night or the early morning," she recalled, speaking in English. "I studied in the locker room."
She comes to the Third Ring Road because it is close to her apartment. When she started five years ago, traffic was far lighter. But suburban housing compounds have now sprouted around Beijing, and the city has added more than a million new cars. Many of the city's wealthiest people, as well as many foreign expatriates, now travel down the city's Airport Expressway through the greenish morning haze toward the ramp to the Third Ring Road.
They are greeted there by numbing gridlock, and Ms. Ouyang. She stares at her book, rarely looking up, with her back turned to the people peering at her. Her lips almost chew the acrid air as she enunciates her lessons. Word about her spread so widely that a Beijing television station last year featured her as model of hard work for younger students.
But many people in her audience question the motives of someone who puts herself on such public display.
"Most people say she is crazy," said Zhang Yu, a commuter. "Other people think she is trying to advertise herself. They thought she was just a migrant worker, and that she knows lots of rich people drive down here on their morning commute."
At first, Mr. Zhang, too, figured Ms. Ouyang was looking for work. Yet his fascination grew as he rode a shuttle bus to his job as a swimming teacher. Finally, one hot day last summer, he left the bus to meet the woman who had filled his imagination.
"I was very nervous, but she is very easy to talk to," he recalled. "I asked her, 'Why are you studying here? There is a lot of gas exhaust from the cars.' She said lots of drivers told her that."
They became friends, and he taught her how to swim. Mr. Zhang, 35, still questions the wisdom of how she studies - "I hope you can suggest that she stop studying here," he told a reporter - but not her motivation. "I hope that one day God will be touched by her and she will get a good job," he said.
Ms. Ouyang hopes to earn a correspondence degree in English by next year. She is paying for it herself because she does not think her father would approve. Her parents do not know she studies beside the highway. "For a girl, he does not think it is important to have too much knowledge," she said.
She added: "My father said, 'You are so old. You are always studying. Why don't you find a boyfriend?' "
A friend once introduced her, by e-mail, to a foreign man, an American, and a correspondence began. After a year, the man proposed marriage. Ms. Ouyang accepted and awaited his arrival. But the man whose picture she had admired by e-mail was different from the man who stepped off the airplane.
"When he came to see me, I thought, 'Oh my God! He's so old,' " she recalled. She sent him back to America, unwed.
Motorists sometimes will shout out, asking why she comes to such a busy, polluted spot. A doctor stopped and strongly advised that she move, advice she has politely declined. Her only complaints are the sun - many Chinese women abhor tans - and the lack of a nearby bathroom.
"Some people will say, 'This girl must have some purpose to study here because so many foreigners come down this road,' " she said. "But I don't care what they think. I know what I'm doing."
She recently quit another hotel job and seems no closer to her ultimate goal of a position with an international company. But she did find a temporary job for which she is qualified. A Chinese architect asked her to help him improve a skill he hopes will improve his professional chances.
She is teaching him English.