Three Decades of Commitment—Recycling Volunteer Huang Mei

I learned of Huang Mei (黃梅) years ago from a program on Tzu Chi’s Da Ai TV that features Tzu Chi recycling volunteers. I was impressed at the time with her dedication to recycling work, but it wasn’t until 2020 that I had the opportunity to visit her personally for the magazine I worked for, Tzu Chi Monthly. That year marked the 30th anniversary of Tzu Chi’s recycling work. Our magazine was publishing a special issue commemorating that milestone, so we began looking for volunteers who had been engaged in recycling work from the beginning. We narrowed our search to those who started recycling work after hearing Dharma Master Cheng Yen speak at a school on August 23, 1990, in Taichung, central Taiwan. It was in that speech that the Master first called upon people to do recycling work to protect the Earth. With the help of senior volunteers in central Taiwan, we eventually found one such volunteer. To my very pleasant surprise, it turned out to be Ms. Huang Mei.

Huang was born in 1942, which puts her at nearly 80 this year. Despite her age, she runs a stall every day selling traditional Chinese Zhuangyuan cakes. (In ancient China, a Zhuangyuan was the person who earned the highest score on an imperial civil servant examination.) In addition to her work as a vendor, she recycles, visits the needy, and does other volunteer work for Tzu Chi. Her life is as full as can be.

When Huang was young, her husband had an affair, which led to their divorce. She began raising their child on her own afterwards. It was a tough time in her life that left her depressed and sad. It wasn’t until she was exposed to Buddhism and came to understand the law of karma that she was able to open her heart and come to terms with it all. She now chooses to live a simple life, focusing her energies on doing good and giving of herself.

One fine day, Huang posed for a photo with piles of recycling in front of her home. She smiled shyly at my camera. It’s hard to tell in the photos that she was actually quite tired. She lives every day so fully that she challenges the limits of her physical and mental power.

A fixture near Mount Bagua

Huang has sold Zhuangyuan cakes near Mount Bagua, a famed scenic spot in central Taiwan, for more than 40 years. She’s been at it so long that her stall has become a fixture there. On the day I visited her, I saw her working constantly at her stall making Zhuangyuan cakes. She’d first stuff ground Penglai rice (a type of rice widely eaten in Taiwan) into a wooden mold, add sesame or ground peanuts, and then steam it. When the mixture was cooked and cooled, it became a delicious, firm-to-the-bite dessert. Many of Huang’s customers have eaten her rice cake since they were children. Some have become grandfathers or grandmothers but still patronize her stall. Her cake, redolent of their childhood memories, is flavored with another special ingredient: nostalgia.

When Huang first heard Master Cheng Yen’s appeal to take up recycling more than three decades ago, she responded readily. Her hands, so dexterous in making her delicious cake, began to collect and sort recyclable garbage. She also began sharing with her customers the importance of environmental protection. By and by, people began taking their recyclables from home to Huang’s stall. At the end of the day, Huang would haul them home and sort them out.

Tzu Chi recycling stations hadn’t yet been established when Huang began her work, so she had to take her sorted recyclables to a dealer for sale. She didn’t earn much for her efforts, just a few dozen Taiwanese dollars per trip. (Thirty Taiwanese dollars is about the equivalent of one U.S. dollar.) Since it was never much, she’d save the money from each trip in a container, and when the container was full, she’d take the money to the Tzu Chi Taichung office and donate it.

Thirty years have since flown by—so fast it seems like the blink of an eye. Huang’s black hair has grayed. Her hands have become wrinkled and spotted. But her stall is still there, her rice cake as tasty as ever, and her dedication to recycling work as steadfast and firm. In this ever-changing world, her persistence has a special power to move and inspire.

A typical day

While visiting her, I saw how Huang tended to her stall all day while sorting the recyclables that had been brought to her in her free moments. After a full day, she closed up her stand and headed home. She walked her bicycle, now laden with recyclable garbage, next to her. Ten minutes later she stood in front of her house. Heaps of recyclables had been piled in front of her home. I learned that some locals drop off their recycling at Huang’s home too. In fact, she receives so much recycling each day that her two younger sisters help share her burden. They come each evening to help her sort the recyclables.

I thought Huang would call it a day when they were done organizing the recyclables, so I was surprised when she mounted her bicycle and headed out into the neighborhood after dinner to work some more. It was already past eight by that time. She made stops at homes and stores and collected even more recyclables. It was after ten when she was done with her rounds and had returned home. But she still wasn’t ready to retire for the day—she had to prepare the ingredients for the rice cakes she’d sell the next day. Washing the rice, soaking it, grinding it, and then dehydrating and putting the ground rice through a sieve would take her another couple of hours. By the time she had finished the preparation work and tidied up her house a bit, it was past midnight. This is a typical day for Huang.

She was born in winter, so her grandfather named her “Mei,” meaning “Chinese plum,” a plant that flourishes in the winter. The colder it gets, the more this species of tree blooms. Huang is just like her namesake. Though her life hasn’t been easy, she has “bloomed” magnificently. Her strength shows in her attitude towards her recycling work too. Instead of being daunted by the large amount of recycling she has to tackle day in and day out, she persists at the work willingly and selflessly, rain or shine, day or night, demonstrating a spirit of “If not me, then who?” You can’t help but be impressed.


A life of frugality

Not only was I moved by Huang’s spirit of giving, I was also impressed by her simple, frugal life. Her house is small and shabby, and she keeps her three meals as simple as can be. Because she works during the day, she pre-cooks some rice and a pot of vegetable soup or a few dishes, then puts them in the refrigerator. When she comes home for lunch, she heats up some of the food for a quick meal. A bowl of vegetable soup and some plain rice is all she needs. Her dinner is just as simple. What sets it apart from her lunch is that she watches Master Cheng Yen’s televised Dharma talk when she eats. The Master’s teachings are her indispensable spiritual food; she can’t go a day without them.

It’s hard to imagine a person her age willingly living like an ascetic, especially when she could afford a life of comfort and ease. When I asked her about it, she said that she keeps her needs to a minimum so that she can focus her energies on recycling and other volunteer work. For Huang, doing good for the world and helping the needy constitutes the happiest and most blessed life—not a life of ease and comfort.

Day in and day out for 30 years

When Huang attended the speech in 1990 during which the Master made her appeal to everyone to recycle, she was accompanied by her two younger sisters, Huang Su-zhen (黃素貞) and Huang Shu-he (黃淑禾). After hearing the Master’s appeal to cherish our environment and help reduce the pollution caused by garbage, the three sisters took up recycling, and haven’t let up since. Even though it hasn’t all been smooth sailing, they managed to overcome whatever difficulties they encountered and kept at the work. Even now, when old age has brought aches and pains and illness and made their movements much slower, they are staying the course, supporting and taking care of each other not only in life but on their path of recycling.

When I look at the photographs I took that day, I still can’t help but admire my subject. One of the pictures shows Huang traversing the alleys in her neighborhood on a bike laden with recyclables. It was late at night when I took that photo, and the lights in most households were out. Their occupants had long gone to bed, but Huang was still busy at work. It took just a moment to capture that shot, but behind it are three long decades of steadfast, unwavering commitment to a worthy environmental cause.

March 2021