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Home Our Volunteers Stories The Renewal of Liao

The Renewal of Liao

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At dawn, volunteer Liao Kun-yong reports to work at the Tzu Chi Dongda recycling station in Taichung, central Taiwan. He does whatever needs doing: taking apart a computer, sorting out recyclables, or testing discarded fluorescent tubes so that those that still work are reclaimed instead of being disposed of as waste.

Like a fluorescent lamp reclaimed after being discarded prematurely, Liao, once a hooligan, drug addict, and longtime prison inmate, was discarded but has now been reclaimed. He hopes that one day his hard-earned experiences can help others avoid the same mistakes he made, or help others that have made poor life choices get back on the right track again.

It was early Sunday morning. Instead of sleeping late, Liao Kun-yong (廖坤永) hopped on his motor scooter and drove half an hour to the Tzu Chi Dongda recycling station in the western part of Taichung. A few early birds were already there by the time he arrived. The elderly volunteers greeted Liao warmly as if he were their own child. He waved back, feeling a surge of warmth that would propel him through the day's work at the station.

He saw a huge signboard propped against a wall among the piles of refuse. He grabbed a screwdriver and squeezed behind it to remove all the fluorescent tubes on the back.

He then tested each of the tubes to see if it was still usable. "It'd be a pity to throw away a good tube," Liao said. Even if a tube failed the initial test, he would put it aside to be tested again later. "Surprisingly, almost nine out of ten discarded fluorescent lamps are still functional," Liao said proudly. The tubes that are still good are reused and the others recycled.

A different person
Liao did not always prize resources quite so highly, not by a long shot. On the contrary, he was quite wasteful. Perhaps this was due to his unique status in his family: He was the oldest of three children and the only male child. Such a status secures excessive love and attention from traditional Taiwanese parents and grandparents. It's no surprise then that his parents bent over backwards to meet his every whim, despite the fact that they were ordinary workers with little earning power.

When he wanted a motor scooter for his graduation from junior high school, his parents bought one for him. Then he thought having a drum set would be fun, so they scraped together what they could and bought that for him too. The drum set cost his parents over two thousand U.S. dollars, and this at a time when the house was running low on food.

Their love for him, though amply demonstrated, failed to steer him clear of trouble. When he was 18 Liao left home to work in northern Taiwan, but he returned home after losing two fingers in an occupational accident. People ridiculed him. Soon thereafter he joined a gang, a misstep that led to frequent run-ins with the law. His gang affiliation caused his family unceasing agony.

By the time he was 26, Liao had moved up the gang hierarchy and had become a leader of the mobsters. In 1989, illegal drugs became popular in Taiwan for the first time. Unwilling to give others in his line of business any chance to question his ability to keep up with the latest fad, he felt that he had to take drugs himself.

In his gang circle, one's stock rose or fell with the extent of one's drug consumption and the money the person paid for it. The more drugs one took and the steeper the cost, the more respect one commanded. As a result, Liao bought and used heroin without a second thought, not knowing what he was getting into. Soon the drug took control of him. At first, he could not sleep without it. Then he could not work or even make drug deals. His stock plummeted.

Not being able to work meant an empty wallet. With no money of his own, Liao turned on his family and blamed them for not giving him drug money. "Whenever he ran out of money, he came home to beg, steal, or outright rob," said his younger sister, Liao Chun-mei (廖春美), a painting teacher. "If we refused to give him money, he'd scream, kick the doors, and slam things on the floor, keeping us up all night."

One day Liao went home again, set on stealing the family scooter. His mother had just started the scooter to go out. Liao chased her and yanked her off the moving vehicle.

Chun-mei commented: "I hate drugs, but I hate drug users and drug peddlers even more." Her brother was like a nightmare from which the family couldn't awake. She said that the drugs seemed to have devoured all of her brother's conscience. He was jailed six times during more than two decades of addiction. Despite all the suffering he caused his family, his mother never gave up on him. She even continued to visit him in prison. The sixth time he was incarcerated, his mother, who worked as a cleaning lady despite her advanced age, borrowed money so that she could buy train tickets to go visit him in a prison in southern Taiwan.

"But what did he do to pay back our mother's love during all that time?" Chun-mei asked. "Nothing! He even grabbed all the gifts of money that our friends and relatives had given to our family at our father's funeral so that he could buy more drugs!"

In order to sever their ties with their brother, Chun-mei and her younger sister even tried to persuade their mother to move away with them so that when their brother was released from jail he would never find them again. They no longer wanted to have anything to do with him.

Turning point
Shortly before Liao was released for the sixth time from prison, another inmate asked him if he would use drugs again. He answered, "Abso-lutely." Evidently, even after six tours of incarceration, he had little interest in kicking the drug habit. He was still solidly hooked.

At around the same time, he saw another inmate crying as he read a letter. Curious, he grabbed the letter to see what had caused the man to cry. As he read, he himself felt like crying too.

It was from the inmate's younger sister. She wrote about how her health had seriously deteriorated during a time in which she was forced to work as a bar girl to earn money for her brother's drugs. The work involved entertaining and drinking with customers at night. It resulted in sleep deprivation and excessive alcohol and had literally destroyed her health. Because of that, she had had to take medicine every day just to live and work through another day.

After reading the letter, Liao thought of his own two sisters with whom he had grown up and on whom he had inflicted so much pain over the years.

Liao's mother happened to visit him a few days later. She came with a friend by the name of Zhou Su-e (周素娥). At the end of the visit, Liao looked at his mother's stooped back as she left with her friend. He noticed that his mother, who had always loved him so much, was getting old. "For the first time in my drugged life, I asked myself whether it was time to kick the habit," Liao said. The innate goodness in him had finally created a hairline crack in the deadly grip of his addiction.

Zhou, his mother's friend, was a Tzu Chi volunteer. Feeling for Liao's mother, she sincerely hoped that Liao would repent and reform. She wrote him letters and even sent him books and pocket money. She also encouraged him to volunteer at the Tzu Chi Dongda recycling station after he was discharged from prison.

With his newly discovered conscience, Liao began going to the recycling station after he had regained his freedom. In all honesty, however, he was not at first particularly fond of recycling work. "After three days of flattening PET bottles with my feet, I got really bored. So I sneaked out of the work area to cool my heels under a tree nearby, pondering how to get out of the place altogether without being noticed."

But before he could make his exit, volunteer Lin Yan (林儼) happened to walk by and took notice of him. "I could tell what was on his mind just by looking at him," Lin said of their first encounter with a smile.

Lin was to play an important part in Liao's life. She helped turn his life around.

Lin came from a family that had three drug addicts—her two brothers and her younger brother's wife. "My biggest regret in life is that I was never able to help them reform. So when I met Liao, I decided I'd do my best to help him."

She transformed him through sheer love and devotion. Though she was busy with her own grandchildren and her work, she made a point of coming to the Dongda station often so that she could see Liao in person and keep tabs on him. But her care did not stop there. Worried that without a job Liao wouldn't be able to support himself, she even helped him get a job as a truck driver.

"Sister Lin is like my brother's second mother," said an elated Chun-mei, who reconciled with her brother after he successfully quit drugs last year. Liao's anti-drug success brought great joy to everyone around him. Last year the entire family went out for an excursion for the first time in decades. It was a joyous occasion for all.

During the trip, Liao kept getting phone calls every so often, which made Chun-mei wary. She thought that they might be from some of his old gangster friends. Her anxiety prodded her to ask him about the calls.

"It turned out that every one of them was from Sister Lin. She was calling to check on my brother," Chun-mei said, happy tears in her eyes. "Sister Lin is the one who saved my brother from drugs. Save a drug addict and you save his whole family. Everyone in my family is so grateful to her."

Staying clean
According to Sister Lin, the physical withdrawal symptoms last about three days and then start to abate. So why have so many drug addicts found it so difficult to quit? Lin said that bad company has a lot to do with it. If a reformed drug addict continues to hang around current addicts, the ever-present temptation makes for a tough recovery. Therefore, it is very important for a recovered person to be insulated from current addicts in order to help prevent a relapse.

On that score, Lin believes that the recycling volunteers at Dongda played a crucial role in his recovery. "Were it not for their warm reception and acceptance of Liao, my own efforts to help him would have proved too little," she said.

Liao is also most grateful to the volunteers at the Dongda recycling station. "People are generally wary of ex-cons like me and they ostracize us," he observed. "But not the volunteers at the station. They took me in wholeheartedly. They treat me like their family, like their son. They don't mind my past, and they love me dearly."

Surrounded by love, the once fierce hooligan is now much mellower and gentler. One day, for example, Lin asked him to pick up recyclables from a caller. His truck soon got stuck in rush hour traffic, but he remained poised and polite. He even yielded to motorists who had cut in or passed him rudely. When asked if he had always been such a model driver, he burst out laughing and said, "Not in a million years!" He said that in the past when he had had a run-in with other drivers, he would have immediately taken out his "tools"—his knives or guns—and let them have it. Now, after having served for nearly one year as a recycling volunteer, his tools have become hammers and screwdrivers—"but they're purely used for breaking down recyclables," he smiled.

After the pickup run, his day for recycling at Dongda ended. He would return the next morning to put in a couple of hours before going to his day job. After that, he would attend a study group where they would read The Compassionate Samadhi Water Repentance. He had begun going to the study group at Lin's suggestion.

The Compassionate Samadhi Water Repentance, written by Dharma Master Wu Da, teaches people to sincerely repent of their wrongs and lead a new, reformed life. In the study group session the next day, attendees chanted the text as they flipped through the pages. Liao chanted along. The group leader explained the verse: "Only through repenting of past wrongs can one start a new life." Liao gazed at the words long after the group had moved on.

Liao is like the fluorescent tubes mentioned at the beginning of the article. They were not broken and could still be reused. Having endured the dark times in his life, he is now ready to give off light. Maybe his story can help illuminate a path for those who have gone astray and are still struggling.


By Chen Shi-hui
Translated by Tang Yau-yang
Photos by Huang Shi-ze
Source: Tzu Chi Quarterly Fall 2011
Used with permission of Rhythms Monthly Magazine

 

" Each time we forgive others, we are, in fact, sowing blessings. The more magnanimity we show, the more blessings we enjoy. "
Jing-Si Aphorism

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