A Good Life
Cheng Liao Mai (middle) rehearses for a Tzu Chi year-end blessing ceremony in 2016, where she shared her experiences with the audience. Huang Shu-ying

It is after three in the morning, and not yet light. The village of Xia’nan in Yunlin County, central-western Taiwan, is still bathed in a serene quietness. Though no one seems to be astir yet, a room in a traditional courtyard house lights up. Cheng Liao Mai (程廖邁), in her early 90s, lies flat on her bed. She shakes her legs, then her hands, then her legs again.

This is part of her morning exercise routine. When she is done with her exercise, she moves on to begin a new day. She burns incense, chants sutras, and performs her other morning Buddhist rituals before fixing her breakfast. By the time she finishes her meal, the sun has risen. While it is still cool and the air fresh, Cheng hops on her bicycle and goes out to collect recyclable garbage.

More than ten years ago, Cheng saw someone collecting recyclables in her neighborhood. That person said that she was gathering reusable resources to donate to Tzu Chi to help the needy. Cheng found the work very meaningful. Since it was something she could do, she didn’t hesitate to join Tzu Chi’s recycling effort.

At that time, she often helped her daughter harvest vegetables, and she’d use her free time to pick up recyclables. She would clean the recyclables she had collected, sort them into animal feed sacks, and sew the sacks up neatly. If a sack contained plastic bottles, she tied a bottle on the outside so that people would know that the bag contained plastic bottles. The same went for aluminum cans, and so on. She did a neat job of it.

When her neighbors found out that she was recycling for Tzu Chi, they mocked her: “You do such a good job recycling. You know what? You should just sell the recyclables and keep the money for yourself. Tzu Chi is rich enough as it is, and they are always helping people in foreign countries.”

Instead of taking offense at their words, Cheng calmly replied to her neighbors: “Money for Tzu Chi serves a good purpose. Without money, how could the organization help the needy? People in and outside of Taiwan are all our fellow human beings. When it comes to helping the needy, we shouldn’t distinguish between those at home and those abroad. Besides, isn’t it great that we have the ability to help others? It’s better to give than to receive.”

What she said made a lot of sense. After that, people stopped making fun of her.

Cheng is an adoptee, and her adoptive parents and grandmother loved her dearly. They wanted to put her through school so that she could have a better future, but she never liked school and preferred to work instead. Her adoptive parents tried to convince her otherwise, but she put her foot down. She told them she was strong and liked to do manual labor. As a result, she was educated only through second grade. (It was common in Taiwan at that time for people to have little formal education.)

Cheng married a good husband (who was still alive when she first began her recycling work). Her in-laws, who lived with them, treated her very nicely. She became a vegetarian at 35 when she heard that eating vegetarian could improve one’s temper and make one more patient. Contrary to some people’s belief that a vegetarian diet makes a person physically weaker, she remained full of vigor. She worked all year round as a farmhand, planting and tending crops and tilling the fields. No heavy labor was beyond her. She gave all the money she earned to her mother-in-law. “She treated me like her own daughter, so I treated her like my own mother,” Cheng said.

Cheng sorts recyclable garbage in a shed at her home. Zhang Wan

Going strong

Cheng has a son and a daughter. Her son lives in Taichung, a major city in central Taiwan. He has just retired from a customs service career. His wife, a former teacher, is also retired. They have repeatedly urged Cheng to move in with them so they can take care of her, but she always turns them down. She doesn’t want to live in the city. Besides, her daughter lives near her, and she and her husband take very good care of her.

Cheng has always lived in the countryside, and she likes country life. In addition, it is a pleasure to cycle around in a rural area and collect recyclables. Many people in her village save their recyclables for her, and she also picks up garbage from the streets. When she has amassed enough on a trip to fill a couple of feed sacks, she cycles home to drop them off and then goes out again to collect more. She stops working before ten to go home and prepare lunch. After eating and resting at home, she heads back out to collect more recyclables. She often rides to other villages for her collection trips too.

Cheng’s son and daughter worry about her safety on the road, but they know that she loves recycling and that it would be impossible to stop her from doing it, so they can only urge her to be very careful on the road. Cheng assures them she will.

She used to take the recyclables she collected to another recycling volunteer’s home with a hand truck when she had accumulated a certain amount. Then she hit upon the idea of fixing up an old shed at her home to use as storage space. Now a volunteer makes regular visits to her home to drive her recyclables away.

Cheng said that doing recycling keeps her happily occupied and prevents her from sitting around at home getting bored. Her leg was once injured in a fall, and she had to recover at home for three months. “Those three months were awful for me. I couldn’t do anything except watch TV all day long.” She really can’t stand being idle.

She spares no effort when it comes to collecting reusable resources. One time, she visited a construction site and saw a large pile of discarded building materials. She asked the man in charge there, “Do you still want those? If you’re throwing them away, can I have them?” The man saw how old she was, and he probably figured she couldn’t possibly have the strength to move that stuff away by herself. He said to her, half-teasingly, “If you can move it back to your place on your own, then it’s all yours for the taking.”

Cheng thought to herself, “This man thinks I’m too old for this. I’ll show him.” Looking at the pile of building materials, she started to plan out a strategy. She knew that if she tied them into big bundles, there was no way she could move them, so she decided to go for smaller bundles. Though smaller bundles meant that she’d have to make more trips with her bicycle, she had no problem with that. In the end, she successfully moved all those materials back to her home.

She went to the man in charge when she was done and asked, “Do you have any more for me? I’m up for more.” The man opened his eyes wide in surprise and said, “You sure are strong for someone your age. Amazing!”

Cheng feels that life has been good to her. She was even named a model mother in 2016, and she went to Taipei to receive an award from the Taiwanese president at the time, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). About the honor, she said humbly, “I don’t think I did much to teach and guide my kids. I just kept in mind that action speaks louder than words. Our children learn from our example.”

Cheng says that she has been happy through every stage of her life. “I love everyone and everyone loves me. And now, at my age, I’m still fit enough to give of myself. What could be more of a blessing than that? I’ll keep on this path and continue doing what I can for the Earth.”

May 2019