Little Smiling Sun

Guo Zhe-yong (郭哲雍), a lean 12th grader, speaks slowly, giving people an impression of being circumspect. He likes to paint—and he has a talent for it too. He says he enjoys the peaceful feeling of carefree abandon when he loses himself in a world of lines and colors.

In addition to being a good painter, he excels in school. He graduated summa cum laude from junior high in 2015 and tested into the Architecture Department of Daan Vocational High School in Taipei the same year. Mature and considerate, he chose to study architecture because he wanted to help with his family’s finances. Architecture graduates have a better opportunity of landing a job than graduates with a fine arts degree, and he wants to share his mother’s financial burden as soon as he can.

Mom is gone

Zhe-yong was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (often referred to as a mild form of autism) when he was around three. Asperger’s is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulty with social interactions and a restricted range of interests. Because of his disorder, it was hard for Zhe-yong to settle down and focus. However, when it came to things he was interested in, he could exhibit a high level of concentration.

Zhe-yong’s father passed away when he was five. His mother, Zhou Ya-lin (周亞霖), was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on medication. A side effect of this medicine was drowsiness. Zhe-yong, in second grade at the time, had to get up and go to school on his own. He also had to call home from school every day to wake his mom so that she wouldn’t oversleep and miss work.

“Miss Lin,” he said to his teacher one day. “I forgot my coin purse today. May I borrow a coin from you so I can call home to wake my mom?”

“Your mom’s been taking medicine again so she has difficulty getting up on her own?” asked the teacher

Zhe-yong bowed his head and mumbled yes.

“Here you go,” the teacher said as she handed him a few coins.

“Thank you, Miss Lin.” Holding the coins in one hand, Zhe-yong walked briskly to a payphone.

“Hello, Mom,” he said into the mouthpiece. “Are you up? Remember to go to work.” He also reminded her to pick up his younger brother from the child care center in the afternoon. She said that she would.

One time, in a fit of bipolar rage, Ya-lin was unable to keep her temper in check, and she beat Zhe-yong and his brother severely.

“Mom, please stop!” Zhe-yong cried. “We promise we’ll be good in the future. Stop beating us, please.” The two brothers knelt in the living room, tears streaming down their cheeks, and begged their mother for mercy. Red welts surfaced on the brothers’ tender skin.

Knowing that her emotions had run away with her again, Ya-lin looked at her little boys with deep remorse. Each of them was now hugging one of her legs and sobbing uncontrollably in fear.

Their cries eventually drew the attention of their neighbors, who reported the family to social services. Taipei City social workers listed them as a high-risk family and put Ya-lin on compulsory treatment. The two brothers were sent away, one to a temporary shelter and the other to a foster home.

After about a month of hospital treatment, Ya-lin’s condition improved. She was very worried about her two children, especially Zhe-yong, since he had Asperger’s. Accompanied by a social worker, she visited him at the shelter. Staffers there let the mother and son meet in the reception room.

“Zhe-yong, Mommy is here to see you,” the anxious mother said to her son when they met, lightly tugging at his hand. She wanted to hug him, but the boy just hung his head low and played with a toy car in his hands. At times he would raise his head and shoot her a glance, his eyes asking her why she had abandoned him. She felt so guilty and remorseful that tears spilled out of her eyes.

“Zhe-yong,” the social worker said to him, “your mom has come especially to see you.” She patted him on his head and encouraged him to get closer to his mother.

The boy ignored the social worker and his mom and went to a book case in the reception room. He rummaged around in the book case, seemingly looking for a certain title. After a little while he found the book he was looking for.

“Zhe-yong, you’re a good kid. You like reading so much,” the social worker praised him. However, she and Ya-lin both fell silent when they saw the book’s title: Mom Is Gone.

"House on Bridge"

Positive influences

After Ya-lin’s condition stabilized, her two sons went back to live with her, and the family was finally reunited.

Ya-lin made a point of accompanying Zhe-yong to an early intervention program for autism at a hospital. In an art therapy session there, she was surprised to find that he could sit still and focus on painting for a good 15 minutes. She was so happy her eyes welled with tears. “Maybe artistic creation is in his future,” she thought.

Later, she found a full-time job and could no longer take her son to the hospital for the therapy program. Hospital social workers referred their case to Tzu Chi and asked for help. Soon thereafter, Tzu Chi volunteers took over from Zhe-yong’s mother and began accompanying the boy to the hospital. They found Zhe-yong a polite, well-mannered kid, but having Asperger’s syndrome he was like a locked door that kept his emotions in. They could never tell whether he was happy, angry, or sad.

The volunteers did their best to unlock the door. They tried to talk to him about his school life, the books he was reading, or any other topic that might interest a young boy. No matter how hard they tried, his answers to their questions were always very short, as if he were consciously blocking them from catching a glimpse into his inner world.

One time, the volunteers gave him a book called The Little Sun’s Smiles, which illustrated Master Cheng Yen’s teachings with cartoons. Zhe-yong was immediately drawn to the illustrations in the book and even discussed the contents with the volunteers.

Zhe-yong’s mother later told the volunteers that her son liked the book very much, so the volunteers brought him more books in the same series.

Zhe-yong put the books on his nightstand and read a few pages every night before going to sleep. He was in third grade at the time. The books’ impact on him was obvious. He became a more considerate child, often sharing household chores with his mom, including mopping the floor and doing the dishes. He told visiting Tzu Chi volunteers that after reading the books he rarely quarreled with his brother or classmates any more or talked back to his mother.

The volunteers asked him what words of the Master’s he liked the best. He answered: “Nothing is impossible with confidence, perseverance, and courage.” When they asked him why, he said, “One should face difficulties with optimism.” His mother, a long-time sufferer of bipolar disorder, was very pleased to hear such a mature and wise reply.

Learning from Master Cheng Yen’s teachings to give to others, Zhe-yong began saving spare change in a coin bank and donating it to help the needy. Ya-lin’s heart warmed to see her son paying forward the love he had received from others. She was very grateful for the positive influences of the Tzu Chi volunteers, and her trust of them only grew deeper.

The Master’s teachings were like a window through which the sun shone straight into the family’s world. Besides calling home from school every morning to wake up his mom, Zhe-yong often encouraged her to smile more and be happy. Zhe-yong’s positive attitude spilled over to Ya-lin, making her more upbeat as well.

Volunteers brought other uplifting and inspiritional books to the family, and they offered their assistance when the two brothers encountered problems in life or school. Volunteers also took the family to Tzu Chi activities.

When he was in fifth grade, Zhe-yong started participating in a Tzu Chi tutoring program where children from underprivileged families regularly gathered and received help with their schoolwork from Tzu Chi volunteers, including members of the Tzu Chi Collegiate Association (TCCA). Zhe-yong especially liked to chat with Sun Min-yi (孫敏翊), a TCCA member. He felt at ease in the tutoring class and opened up easily. Now a vocational high school student, Zhe-yong still clearly remembers Sun Min-yi and other TCCA members who gave him a lot of help with schoolwork when he was younger.

Tzu Chi volunteers have accompanied the family for about a decade now. They have witnessed over the years how the boys have grown. At the same time, their work has helped bring stability to the family.

"Light Drizzle on Tomb-Sweeping Day"

Zhe-yong showed a talent for painting in elementary school. When he entered junior high, his excellent performance secured him a spot in a class for artistically gifted students. He received special lessons as part of the class in drawing, watercolors, print making, oil painting, and other media. His works stood out and were often entered into art contests, for which he was frequently awarded prizes.

After he tested into the Architecture Department of Daan Vocational High School, he developed a passion for architecture. Having found something he loved and could pursue as a career, he became more confident and cheerful. He now talks easily with Tzu Chi volunteers about what he is studying. He revels in the training he receives at the school, whether it be in theory or practice. His grounding in the fine arts stands him in good stead as he hones his abilities as a future architect.

Master Cheng Yen’s teachings have instilled in him an attitude of modesty. He knows that while he need not hide his light under a bushel, being humble is the way to get along well with other people. This is especially important in the field of architecture. Every architectural work is a result of teamwork. You can’t have an overblown ego and think only of yourself if you want to work in the field; otherwise you will become a burden to others.

When Zhe-yong was a junior in his school, his class elected four students to volunteer at a project organized by the Association of Humanitarian Architecture, a non-profit organization in Taiwan that usually constructs buildings in remote, disadvantaged communities. Zhe-yong was one of the students elected. He was thrilled to be able to participate in the project and go to a far-off village in Hsinchu, northern Taiwan, to build a reading room for an elementary school. He had received a lot of help from others growing up, and this project would give him an opportunity to give back to society. He was as happy as could be.

His mom was happy and proud of him too. Her boy had grown to be a young man who knows to contribute his skills for the greater good of society.  

July 2018