With her husband at her side, Xie Guizhi plays the piano at their home in Henan province. To fulfill his wife's wish, Wu Zheng collected recyclable waste for 20 years and eventually bought her a piano. Zhang Leilong / for China Daily
It may have taken him two decades, and the income saved from tons of recycled trash, but Wu Zheng finally fulfilled his wish to buy his wife a piano.
"It was not just an instrument, but a witness of the love from my husband," said his wife, Xie Guizhi, who has made the piano the centerpiece of her narrow and crowded guestroom.
"I clean the piano every day and don't allow other people to touch it," said Xie, 58, a retired worker in Luoyang, Henan province.
Wu, 68, said he made up of his mind to buy his wife a piano long ago, even though their life was poor.
"My wife enjoys music and loves piano very much," Wu said. "I dreamed of buying her a piano as early as 38 years ago when we fell in love with each other."
Yet the cost of the piano - at 22,550 yuan ($3,500) - was a big sum for the family. His wife suffered from backbone problems for years and Wu's salary at the rural credit cooperative could only cover the basic expenses of food and medicine for the whole family.
Their son also suffered from some mental difficulties and has had to receive medical treatment.
"You can hardly imagine how difficult it was to take care of a child with mental problems," Wu said. "He always escaped from home and got on any bus he came across, making us exhausted looking for him and taking him back home again and again."
To make more money to support the family, Wu decided to pick up recyclable waste after work in the early 1990s.
"It was a hard decision because there were lots of prejudices toward waste recyclers at that time," he said. "Most people thought that collecting recyclable stuff from the dustbins was shameful."
To avoid being identified by his acquaintances, Wu wore a mask and a pair of dark glasses at first.
"It felt like I was committing some wrongdoings when I started to search for recyclable waste in the street," he said. "The most worrying thing for me was being identified by my colleagues."
When they eventually did recognize him by the way he walked, he told them he suffered from hip problems, and bending down to pick up the waste could strengthen his muscles. "I just wanted to maintain my self-esteem by telling such lies."
By collecting all kinds of wastes including rubber shoes, plastic bottles, glasses and newspapers, Wu could earn about 4,000 yuan per year and save about 1,000 of that.
"Whenever I got two or three hundred yuan by selling waste, I felt quite happy about getting closer to the dream of buying her a piano," he said.
The realization of his dream was accompanied by lots of sad memories - he described as feeling "like a beggar" when he would wait for customers at a roadside barbecue to drop their empty beer bottles.
"Sometimes I had to wait for more than half an hour until they finished their drinking and left the bottles for me," he said.
"Some young men would rather break the glass bottles in front of me on purpose, and it felt like breaking my heart," he said.
He was also moved sometimes when the others gave him some plastic bottles "in a respectful manner".
He had to travel around the city twice every day for more than 10 kilometers to find as much stuff as possible.
Since Wu has fulfilled the dream of buying his wife a piano, he does not go out to pick up waste any more, though he still keeps the habit of saving his family's recyclable waste.
He could still easily tell the prices of different kinds of recyclable waste - shoes 20 cents per kilogram, broken glasses 10 cents, and so on.
"There are no differences between so-called noble or humble jobs," said Wu Yuanhong, the couple's 36-year-old daughter, adding that she felt proud of her parents.
"People deserve to be respected if they are dedicated to their dreams and don't rely on others."
For Xie, the piano was a surprising gift - she had never played the piano before and she is trying hard to study how to play.
"People could hardly connect the piano - a symbol of elegance and nobility - with waste recyclers, who are always thought of as dirty and messy," she said.
"I really appreciate that my husband has done so much for me."
The biggest joy for Wu is to sing songs to the accompaniment of the piano, and his favorite song is The Most Romantic Thing.
"The most romantic thing I can imagine is to get older slowly with you," Wu sang to the melody of the piano.