After a flight of more than two hours from Taiwan, our Tzu Chi aid distribution team arrived at the Haikou Meilan International Airport in Hainan Province, China. Dusk had fallen. It was 7 January, 2015.
A bus took us from the airport into Haikou, the provincial capital. The densely packed tall buildings, continuous flow of automobiles, and bright advertisements made the city appear every bit on a par with the largest cities on the mainland seaboard.
“Hainan has in recent years experienced rapid growth, and with it inflation,” Jiang Fujun, a Hainanese Tzu Chi volunteer, said to us. “This time our distribution will be held in the Meilan District, the oldest in the city.” His remarks shifted my mind from the prosperous city scene before me to the other side of the tracks, which we would soon see.
“The rice will arrive at the school at seven o’clock....” said Jiang into his phone. He was working on the upcoming distribution as the bus ferried us to our destination. An hour later, we reached Haikou No. 29 Elementary School. The wind was blowing and, with the moon hidden behind clouds, the campus was rather dark. Close to a hundred people had formed two lines and were moving bag after bag of rice from a 25-ton truck into the activity centre of the school.
Only a few uniformed Tzu Chi volunteers were there. The rest of the group wore street clothes, some were in suits and ties, and some women even had high heels. The heels did not appear to diminish the women’s ability to do the job, however. The rice bags were being moved along smoothly. Despite the low temperature of ten degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit), some of the people had taken off their outerwear—but they were still sweating...and smiling. The rhythms and enthusiasm of the participants’ motions made me warm inside.
In less than 90 minutes, they had finished unloading and moving 22 tons of rice. Now all 1,500 bags, each weighing 15 kilograms (33 pounds), were stacked neatly in the school’s activity centre.
When the work was done, everybody stood in front of the stacks of rice bags and shouted, “Serve the people!” This slogan, one that I had long thought trite and banal, suddenly came alive against the backdrop of this evening, and much to my surprise moved me to tears. It was no longer just a slogan; the actions of many kind-hearted people had given it real meaning.
Aid Distribution and Home Visits
At about five in the morning of 10 January, 2015, around 50 volunteers relayed 22 tons of rice out of the activity centre to the area where it would be handed over to distribution recipients later that morning.
The school bustled with people during the Tzu Chi aid distribution. Recipients received goods including rice, cooking oil, blankets, toothbrushes, toothpaste, towels, soap, and socks.
The aid recipients were very warm to us. When my accent betrayed me, an old woman asked and discovered my Taiwanese roots. That knowledge prompted her to take my hand and blurt out a series of sentences that I did not understand. I turned to a local volunteer beside me, my eyes asking for help. Understanding my helplessness, the volunteer said, “She was asking you if you’re cold and if you’re doing okay here.”
“I’m not cold, and I’m doing well. Are you cold?” I asked back. The old woman just pointed at her cotton-padded jacket, lightly patted my face and smiled, revealing a partially toothless mouth.
Later, I looked around the distribution site and observed, “It seems that there are many elderly people in Meilan.” Local volunteer Chen Yanjian said in reply, “People who can move away have all done so.”
It was not until the home visits, which we conducted that afternoon, that I got to know the situations of the recipients better.
In Shangpoxia Village, alleys were very narrow, from about a meter (3.3 feet) wide to half that much. We often had to turn sideways to get through, and sometimes we had to bend down to avoid hitting low eaves. Not only did the neighbourhood have narrow paths, but its alleys often branched into many more alleys. The homes there were old and clustered so tightly together that it was very difficult for sunlight to penetrate. The whole place was like an endless dark maze to me. I stayed close to my group to avoid getting lost.
Finally, a volunteer at the front of our little procession stopped and said, “This is it.” I took a look at the house we had come to. Some windows were broken, and the front door was missing. The volunteer that had guided us here called out, “Is anybody home?”
Someone responded from inside the house, and the seven of us proceeded forward. Just then, a black hairy creature the size of a small cat suddenly dashed across our path and crawled over my shoes. Before I could even think, I let out a sharp scream. Everybody turned around to look at me. “What’s wrong?” they asked with concern.
No sooner had I begun to answer than my eyes met those of Mr. Fu, the owner of the house. He looked at me apologetically and uneasily, perhaps because he knew what the creature was. I swallowed the words that were about to come out of my mouth and said, “Oh, nothing. I just bumped into something.” Whatever that animal really was, there was no reason to make our host any more uneasy than he already was.
Mr. Fu had a bad heart, which prevented him from working gainfully. His wife did odd jobs to support the family. I looked around the house and saw wardrobes doubling as dividers between spaces, in each of which was nothing but a bed and scattered clothes.
Mr. Fu pointed at the goods that he had received that morning at the distribution and said to us, “Thank you.” A volunteer noticed that there was only a thin blanket on a bed, so she reminded Mr. Fu to use the blankets made from recycled PET bottles that he had received. “Those blankets are very warm,” the volunteer said. Mr. Fu lifted a corner of the thin blanket on the bed to expose a new blanket underneath and said, “I’ve already tried one. It’s very warm.”
We asked after his son, a high school student, and we encouraged Fu to take good care of himself and to be sure to get plenty of rest for the sake of his health. Then we left.
We turned a few corners and came to a house bearing the marks of age. “Is Mr. Cai home?” a volunteer called out. We looked in the courtyard and saw an old woman sitting there.
We told her why we were visiting, and she greeted us warmly. Soon she began to tell us about her family. When she talked about her oldest son, who had passed away two years earlier, her eyes brimmed with tears. Her family had moved here 50 years before. More than a decade ago, the plot of land that they had always farmed was confiscated by the government under eminent domain. With the taking of their land, the family lost their primary source of income.
“None of my five children ever went to school, so they could only farm,” the woman said. “With the land gone, they’ve been out of work all these years. Their wives work to support our family now.” One of her sons happened to walk through the door right at that moment and heard his mom’s remarks. Sensing his mom’s disappointment and worry, he walked back out into the alley and paced there, his face clouded with shame and unease.
Volunteers softly comforted the woman until she cheered up, and a male volunteer went outside and said to her son, “She’s just worried. Don’t read too much into it.” The man squeezed out a wry smile and nodded his head.
I looked back a few times as we walked away from the Cai house. Just a short distance ahead was the bright world of mainstream Hainan, but behind me was a world of darkness and desolation. Pondering the circumstances of these families, it suddenly occurred to me that every house back there had on its wall a red spray mark, a flag for demolition. The government has planned for many years to clear these houses from the land and to relocate the residents elsewhere, but it has not gotten around to executing that plan. Nobody knows for certain what impact the eventual relocation will have on these poor families.
No matter what happens in the future, I am sure that our volunteers will accompany these families in the days ahead.
Scholarships for Needy Students
In addition to the homes of some distribution recipients, we also visited the homes of scholarship winners. These visits further heightened my appreciation of the divide between the haves and the have-nots in Hainan.
Guoxing Secondary School is an exemplary school in Haikou for seventh through twelfth graders. The school’s students, before coming to Guoxing, were all at the top of their classes in their previous schools in all parts of Hainan. Some of them come from poor families or from families of minority groups from the far corners of the island. They strive for better lives through better education. They are motivated, and Tzu Chi volunteers want to help.
On 9 January, the day before the goods distribution, we paid home visits to some of the needy students. One of them lived in Chengmai, a 40-minute drive from Haikou. We could see that the student’s father, a farmer, had really pinned his hopes on his son. We also went to Danzhou, two hours from Haikou. The breadwinner of that family ferried clients to their destinations for a fee, much like a taxi driver, except that he used a scooter instead. He had to care for his sick wife at home. Here we saw a father, stretched on several fronts, striving to provide food and care for his family.
We learned that Huang Qiri, another student, had a sister who had to quit school and work to help support the family. “She was a very good student, too,” Huang said. “But we simply couldn’t afford the cost of schooling for both of us.” He felt guilty that he was going to school at the expense of his sister.
He Qiuli had always worried about her mother, who had to work despite being sick. Fighting back tears several times during our visit, she told us that she just wanted to study hard, get into a good college, find a good job after college, and support her family.
Through the home visits, I came to better understand the students’ struggles, their hard work, and their need for an education. I truly felt for these children and their families, who were fighting to lift themselves out of poverty.
On 12 January, 2015, volunteers handed over scholarships to 38 students at Guoxing Secondary School. Volunteers visit the school every month and give 500 renminbi (US$80) to each of these students, money that helps propel them closer to their goals.
I embraced the children who had accompanied me on the visits to their homes. Like a mother, I advised them to bundle up against the chill. I pulled the scarf off my neck and wrapped it around one girl. She tried to decline the gift, but I insisted and said to her, “Be a good girl, keep it. I’m going back to Taiwan tonight.” She stiffened and said, “So soon? But you...” I held her tight before she could finish her sentence, but I could not stifle the flow of my own tears.
After I returned to Taiwan, I went through the pictures I had taken during the trip to Hainan, and once again I was caught up in the emotions that I had felt during the visit. I’m grateful to the families we visited, to the students who received our financial aid, and the volunteers who gave so happily to others. I cherish every encounter because I believe that they were brought about by the karmic affinities we had formed during past lives.
Extracted from Tzu Chi Quarterly Summer, 2015 (Taiwan)