Written by Daphne Liu
Translated by Mark Wan, Diana Chang
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska
Tzu Chi New York has a tradition, which is, at the end of each lunar year, to distribute gift bags to seniors and long-term care recipients while bringing heartfelt best wishes. The practice has been going on for five years. Many look forward to their visits and company since the volunteers have helped them get through low points in their lives. Some even became volunteers themselves because of this ongoing custom. And sadly, a few of the care recipients Tzu Chi volunteers got to know passed away during that time.
“Compassionate Care in New York During Lunar New Year and Beyond: Chapter One” is the first in a series of four blogs sharing stories about New Yorkers under Tzu Chi USA’s long-term care. The gifts Tzu Chi New York volunteers offer during the Lunar New Year celebration period are just one part of their ongoing support.
People who are 65 years old and above account for more than 17% of the entire U.S. population. Each year, volunteers from Tzu Chi USA’s Northeast Region prepare gift bags on the occasion of Chinese Lunar New Year, which they give to New York seniors of Chinese descent who live alone. The seniors have grown to perceive the volunteers’ level of care as spiritual support in their lives as first-generation immigrants.
Take 91-year-old Uncle Wu, for instance, who came downstairs and waited outdoors from very early in the day, expecting the Tzu Chi volunteer team’s arrival. Their visit was even more precious since the pandemic began in 2020, as this is already the second year of living through this dangerous global health crisis that has driven everyone indoors and into further isolation.
People say that the winter in New York City is either too cold or too damp. And yet, the arrival of Tzu Chi volunteers bringing Chinese New Year gifts can feel like the warmth of sunshine bursting into their lives for the seniors they visit, most of whom reside alone in Chinatown, in lower Manhattan.
Moreover, the gift bags they bring, which contain favorite and easy to prepare staples like noodles and Jing Si Instant Rice, are only half the story: The seniors equally cherish the time they spend together with the visiting Tzu Chi team.
For Uncle Wu, who relies on a walker to get around, the visit meant a chance to safely go outside and do some physical warm-ups, such as clapping hands, moving feet, or swaying from side to side alongside the volunteers. They also took the opportunity to remind him to exercise daily to improve his blood circulation.
On the same day, the volunteers also visited Jie Min, an elderly lady they affectionately call Aunt Min, who showed them around her garden. “This is their canteen, cats’ canteen, and I cook for them,” she said. “Where are the kittens, nowhere to be found?” the volunteers inquired. It turns out that these kittens are timid around strangers, especially several, so they stayed well out of sight.
Aunt Min’s mother loved small animals, and this love now lives on in her daughter, who so far has devoted sixteen years of her life to caring for homeless cats. Moreover, Aunt Min’s kindness further amplified after she happened to learn about Tzu Chi a long time ago through a hot meal distribution event. On that occasion, she discovered Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s teachings, unforgettable words of wisdom that left a lasting impression until now and still inspire her daily.
Tzu Chi volunteer Hsiuchun Wong is incredibly touched by Aunt Min’s depth of kindness. She is willing to give and serve the community even though she has very little herself and has limited mobility due to her need for crutches.
The proportion of seniors living alone in the United States is high. Although social welfare is good, its spiritual support is limited or lacking. At Tzu Chi New York’s Manhattan Service Center, more than half of the households under long-term care by volunteers comprise solitary seniors from NYC’s Chinese community.
In addition to delivering gift bags during the Chinese New Year celebration period, volunteers at the service center also hold hot meal distributions or health seminars for the seniors residing in this community, ongoing care that is most appreciated.