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Home Our Volunteers Stories She Kept Going

She Kept Going

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We dedicate this article to the memory of Jiang Liu-mei, who passed away on October 8, 2017.

Many older volunteers in Tzu Chi are simple, down-to-earth, and endearing people. Responding to Master Cheng Yen’s call to recycle, they throw themselves into the work with a dedication that is nothing short of admirable. They may not speak eloquently about their task, but they surely do it with determination.

My photographer and I first met Jiang Liu-mei (姜流妹) in early June 2017 at the Tzu Chi Shuanghe Recycling Station in northern Taiwan. Her face, though roughened by age, was adorned with a beautiful smile. She said little as she tore apart piece after piece of paper to separate the printed portion from the rest—paper sorted this way fetches more money when sold to recyclers. My eyes were immediately drawn to her wrinkled hands as they went through the monotonous, repetitive motions. Such seemingly simple yet monotonous work is the best test to one’s patience.

Jiang was born in 1924. At age three she was sent to another family as a bride-in-waiting; in other words, she was adopted as a child bride by her future in-laws—a prevailing custom at the time. She started helping with house chores when she was five, and began caring for children younger than herself at age seven. She married at 18. Her husband died in an auto accident when she was 47, leaving her the heavy burden of supporting her family.

She fought back her tears as she recalled those hard days, but she regarded her lot in life with a sense of resignation. She was born at a time in Taiwan when boys were preferred to girls. It was just the way life was for many women of that era. However, the difficulty and toil of her past had strengthened her spirit. Despite being advanced in age, despite all her aches and pains, she still worked hard on recycling every day.

Dedication

Jiang joined Tzu Chi’s recycling work in 1999. She was 75 then and very agile in her work. She picked up recyclables in her community and at traditional marketplaces. No matter how big the load was, she could handle it.

During that time, she walked and then took a bus to the Jinhe Recycling Station every day to sort out reusable garbage. She only stopped going there after the new Shuanghe Recycling Station opened in 2011. She was 87 then. She had become much less nimble, but her devotion to recycling remained as strong as ever. She began volunteering at the Shuanghe station every day. Since she was old, her son did not feel it right to let her make the daily trip alone, so he took her to the recycling station in the morning and picked her up in the late afternoon. She worked there about eight hours a day, but she always wanted to work longer.

Age eventually caught up with her. She became markedly more feeble, especially after she turned 90. Her aches and pains became more obvious, and she spent several stints in the hospital. Despite all that, she kept up her work at the recycling station.

But in a recent visit to the station, we did not see her. We learned that she had been hospitalized for more than a month. The other volunteers at the station had kept her seat, hoping that she would return and join them soon, and continue doing the Earth a good turn.

A treasure of the world

One day we went to the hospital to see Jiang. We went with Xie Su-zhen (謝素珍), who also volunteered at the Shuanghe station.

At the hospital, we found Jiang lying in her bed, looking very frail and emaciated. She seemed too weak to even open her eyes and talk. Xie held Jiang’s hand tight and said softly to her: “Hang in there. Everything will be all right. We’re waiting for you at the recycling station. Return and join us soon, okay?”

To everyone’s surprise, Jiang’s eyes suddenly popped open and she answered with all her might, “Okay.” Everyone’s heart lifted, and hope was reignited that she might eventually recover. We took out the photos that we had taken of her at the recycling station. She opened her eyes again to look at them. When she saw herself in the photos wearing her recycling volunteer uniform, she broke into a smile that people around her hadn’t seen in a long time. It became crystal clear to us in that instant how much she loved recycling.

“When she wakes up, the first thing that comes to her mind is recycling,” Jiang’s son said of his mother. He told us that even after coming out of a lengthy coma, the first thing she asked was, “Where are my scissors? I need them to cut paper for recycling.”

Though tormented with illness and pain, she never complained or whined. She realized that her time in the world was dwindling, but still she didn’t given up recycling. She hoped to live her remaining days to the utmost by dedicating what little time she had left to a meaningful cause. She identified with a worthy goal, devoted herself to it, and stayed true to her commitment, never wavering for any reason.

It is no wonder that Master Cheng Yen deeply cherishes Jiang Liu-mei and other volunteers like her. In her eyes, they are the living treasures of the world.


By Huang Xiao-zhe and Cai Yu-xuan
Translated by Tang Yau-yang
Photos by Huang Xiao-zhe
Tzu Chi Bimonthly January 2018