Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation

Sep 21st
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The Eco Duo

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The Eco Duo
Neighbors and friends
The journey
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Sitting across from 52-year-old Qu Su-min (曲素珉), I stretched my neck to get a closer look at her sightless eyes. Then I closed my eyes and tried to mimic what she was doing—folding newspapers. "How hard could it be?" I thought, as I began to fumble with the papers.

As it happens, folding newspapers without the benefit of sight turned out to be much more difficult than I had imagined. Try as I might, I couldn't fold the newspapers into the same neat, tidy piles that Qu had accomplished. My piles of newspapers always looked more crumpled than folded, a far cry from her perfectly aligned and neatly piled stacks.

Qu said that other volunteers at the recycling station had taught her how to fold newspapers, take cassette tapes apart, and do other tasks. She demonstrated for me just how adept she is at tasks that seem impossible for someone without the benefit of sight. For example, she showed me how she sorted bottles by type. She picked up an empty beer bottle and moved her fingers over it, feeling the cap, the body, the label, and the bottom. Then she rendered her verdict: "This is a Taiwan Beer bottle; it has a bigger label." She repeated the same procedure with a few more bottles and explained her judgments by turns: "This one has a rounder bottom, so it's a Tsingtao Beer bottle; this one, with a longer shape, is a Kirin Ichiban bottle; and the rounder curvature of this one indicates a…"—she paused for effect—"Heineken." I was amazed when she was done—she was right each time.

Though Qu does not drink beer, she can beat heavy drinkers at their own game when naming a bottle. She displayed a broad smile at the conclusion of her demonstration. Her obvious happiness and contentedness made it hard to imagine that until she began volunteering at the recycling station eight years ago, she had been living under thick clouds that made her world even darker.

Doing recycling has transformed Qu from a deeply depressed person to one who has rediscovered her worth. "In my life there are numerous people to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. But where recycling is concerned, I must first thank Wu Xiu-yu [吳秀玉]," Qu said, gesturing at the petite woman sitting beside her. "She helped me break out of my self-imposed isolation at home, and she introduced me to the world of recycling."

Qu is a Korean of Chinese descent. She used to live in Incheon, Korea, but now is a resident of Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan. A high fever during childhood, nearly fatal, severely damaged her optic nerves. At first, though her eyesight was impaired, she could still make out shapes and colors. She could still see that the sky was blue, the grass green, and that flowers were colorful. She could distinguish between insects, fish, and birds. But gradually the images became more and more blurred, the colors darker and darker. She was completely blind by the time she was 27 years old.

The plunge into total blindness devastated her. "All I wanted to do was die," Qu said, her smile instantly replaced by a look of sadness. "The hurt was just beyond description." She repeated this statement almost ten times. Compared with those who are born blind and who do not know what they are missing, Qu's loss had been much harder to swallow. She had seen the beauty of the world before it had been taken from her forever. The terrible loss gnawed at her unceasingly and mercilessly.

As her sight went, so did her ability to do most everyday things. "The toilet in my home in Incheon was in the traditional Asian style, where one squatted over an opening in the floor instead of sitting on a toilet seat," Qu said. "That fixture presented a challenge for me—I couldn't see it, and so I could easily step into it." This was but one example of the inconvenience her blindness brought her. She had to learn from scratch to do just about everything else, too. Tasks as mundane as eating, drinking, or getting dressed suddenly became complicated and frustrating.

Qu had always prided herself on her self-reliance, but now she had to depend on others for almost every need. Her frustration and loss of self-esteem deepened her depression and brought her to the brink of collapse. Feeling intensely for her dear daughter's loss, her mother took her to doctors for treatment, only to be disappointed over and over again when they told her there was nothing to be done.

In 1990, when Qu was 31 years old, a relative introduced her to a man in Taiwan, a veteran 34 years her senior, who later became her husband. Though he was so much older, he cherished her. Qu gave birth to their only child two years later.

On the surface, Qu seemed an adequate mother and wife. She was able to cook for the family, do the laundry, and tend to her son's needs. But deep down, she bore a heavy cross. The sad realization that she would never see her son weighed down on her. "I love my son very much," Qu observed. "My greatest desire was to look at him, but when I faced the fact that my hope was next to impossible, I became even more depressed than ever before."

As her son grew, she became concerned that being seen with him in public would cause him to become a laughingstock among his peers. To protect his self-esteem, she kept herself secluded in her house. Her home became her prison.

"Before I met Xiu-yu, I often thought that it was just as well that I lived on the sixth floor," Qu said. When I asked her why, her answer caught me completely by surprise: "So I could just jump out the window and end all my agony."

Fortunately, as the saying goes, "Heaven will always leave a door open." Just around that time, when Qu was at her lowest, she met Wu Xiu-yu.


" True liberation is realized through unselfish giving for the benefit of mankind. It is also realized through the challenges of relationships with others. "
Jing-Si Aphorism

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