Walking into an alley off Nanchang Road, a shop-lined commercial street in Taipei, I soon saw the Jiliu Recycling Station. Inside, a group of older women were busy sorting bottles, cans, and paper of different colors. Ninety-five-year-old Huang Mian (黃勉), all smiles, was singing. Several women in their 70s or 80s, amused by the vivacious nonagenarian, laughed heartily.
Before long, Huang was telling me how she had become a recycling volunteer for Tzu Chi and what she had learned along the way, never for a moment stopping in her work. She was quick and neat. While we were talking, she prepared several old books for recycling. When she was done, she stood up and said, “I have to rush home.” A recycling truck was visiting her home and some nearby locations in half an hour to collect recyclable garbage, so she had to leave in a hurry.
I followed Huang as she traversed streets and alleys. I saw her entering shops and coming out with plastic bottles or paper, or stepping into tall buildings and asking if there were any recyclables for her. Later I learned that she had been doing this work for over two decades. She collects recyclables within a 30-minute walk of her home.
I asked her if people were ever rude to her or refused to give her their recyclables. She answered with a smile, “Very rarely.” She explained that she always wears a hat with the Tzu Chi logo on it while out collecting recyclables. People are generally willing to let her have their recyclables when they see that logo. If she encounters people unfamiliar with Tzu Chi, she explains to them she isn’t salvaging the reusable materials to sell and make money for herself; instead, the proceeds are being used to advance the missions of a charitable organization. “I tell them they’ll gain spiritual merits from donating their recyclables to a good cause. ‘Let’s do good together,’ I say. After hearing my words, most people are happy to work with me.”
She cheerfully added that it is a really happy thing to be able to do good and help others.
Though she is still healthy and agile, Huang Mian, 95, could not have stuck to her recycling work day in and day out for over two decades if she did not have a dedicated, determined heart. HE TING-YU
Rain or shine
Huang was born in Nangang, Taipei, in 1921. As often happened with children of poor families at that time, she was given up for adoption by another family when she was still very young. She started working at nine and never went to school. Later, she became a cleaning lady and washerwoman. At her busiest, she washed clothes for 73 families and had to leave for work at two or three in the morning. Life was hard, but it did not deter her from helping the needy. She began donating to Tzu Chi back in the 1970s.
After toiling away for her family for the majority of her life, Huang found herself out of work at the age of 72. Her employers had all bought washing machines; even if they hadn’t, they would have been reluctant to continue hiring her because of her age. Even though she was unemployed, she did not feel bad. Her children had all grown up and become independent. She had done her duty for her family, so she was free to do what she wanted to do.
She began pushing her grocery cart around to collect recyclables, which she delivered regularly to a local Tzu Chi recycling point. She told other recycling volunteers that she had retired and could focus on doing good.
Now Huang has a very tight schedule every day. She has a set time for gathering recyclables in the alleys, a set time for picking up plastic bottles at a high school, a set time for collecting paper at companies, etc. When she is not making her rounds reclaiming reusable resources, she volunteers at the Jiliu Recycling Station.
Volunteer Hong Jin-hong (洪金鴻) expressed his admiration for the nonagenarian’s perseverance. She has been at it now for over 20 years. Rain or shine, hot or cold, she never rests. She takes the elements in stride, saying that a little sun and rain is nothing to her and that she endured far harder days when she was younger.
Besides doing her work, she cares for other volunteers like a mother. Volunteer Li Xie-sheng (李謝陞), 70, is often so busy driving a truck around to collect recyclables that he often skips lunch or postpones it until very late. Huang admonishes him when that happens and makes a gesture to spank his bottom. “If you don’t listen to me and take good care of yourself, I’ll stop giving you the recyclables I collect,” she says, threatening a man old enough to be a grandfather but still young enough to be her son.
“I always tell my own grandchildren that I won’t have much money to leave them, but I’ll leave them a lot of spiritual wealth.” Huang said that she is lucky to have very sensible children and grandchildren. They have never been opposed to her doing recycling work because of her age; instead, they just tell her thoughtfully to watch her step when she goes out for her collection trips and to be sure to look both ways when she crosses a road. With their strong support, she says, “I feel at ease every day. I’m so grateful.”
Volunteers gather at a recycling point in front of a bank every Tuesday to sort recyclables. Everyone there, no matter how old they are, calls Huang “Grandma.”
Nothing is difficult
Huang lives on the fourth floor of an old apartment building. There is no elevator. If she cannot find a place to store the daily recyclables she collects, she has to haul them up three floors to her home and then move them back down with the help of other volunteers when a Tzu Chi recycling truck comes by to take them away.
Huang’s home is near Jianguo High School. She visits the school every day to collect beverage bottles. Other people visit the school for the same purpose, but students there tell those people they are saving their bottles for “Grandma Bottles.” She joked that her age puts her at an advantage against her competitors.
Plastic bottles, being light and easy to carry, are a treasure in Huang’s eyes. After class is dismissed for the day, some students stay at the school to play ball. They put their unfinished drinks on the sidelines. In order not to miss those bottles, Huang sometimes waits patiently on the sidelines to gather them.
Her collection area covers two streets where there are many publishing houses and bookstores. She gets a lot of blank white paper there. She likes that because the white paper needs no sorting and can go directly to a recycler.
Paper in bulk is heavy. I asked her how she moves it. She told me that after she ties up paper in her home, she throws the bundles down to the first floor for a recycling truck to come and collect. That way, she doesn’t need to haul those heavy stacks of paper down all those stairs. Huang truly embodies Master Cheng Yen’s teaching: “Nothing is difficult if you set your mind to it.”
Helping each other
There are about a dozen regular volunteers at the Jiliu Recycling Station. Most of them are elderly. Li Chun-hui (李春慧), a volunteer who has known Huang for over ten years, told me that Huang loves Tzu Chi and Master Cheng Yen very much. When Huang attended a Tzu Chi year-end blessing ceremony last year, she held the Master’s hands tightly and wouldn’t let go.
Having worked hard all her life, Huang has a pure and determined heart. “I’m happy that people still let me work despite my age.”
Volunteer Li Xie-sheng said that before the Jiliu Recycling Station came into being, a truck passed through Huang’s district only once a week to collect recyclables. Huang gathered a lot of recyclables, and every Tuesday when the truck dropped by she had to push cart after cart of recyclables to the collection point for the truck to take away. Li felt for her. To save her all those trips, he began driving his recycling truck to every point where Huang temporarily stores her recyclables. He has a lot of collection points to visit, so his schedule is packed. Nonetheless he insists on doing that for Huang.
“All I give is a little energy and time, and yet I can save her a lot of work,” said Li. “This is something I must do.” These two volunteers, one 70 and the other 95, care for and help each other. Aided by good-hearted people like Li, Huang continues to stride confidently forward on her path as a guardian of the Earth.
After finishing her work at the bank, Huang moves on to her next collection point.