Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ice Cream or Garbage?

I just wrote this for another website called Wasai. It is a site sponsored by my university that has stories about culture shock written by foreigners living in Taiwan. They offer $700NT for an article, so I thought I might as well knock something out and make a few bucks. It is not my finest work, but I guess it was worth the money to write it. I have another post about garbage, in case you want to check it out.

Ice Cream or Garbage?

One of the first things that struck me as odd about Taiwan was the way that garbage is collected. The first time I heard the garbage truck music, I thought it was an ice cream truck. Where I come from, we have ice cream trucks that drive around playing music during the summer. When kids hear the music, they run out and buy ice cream. Little did I know the first time I heard it that the music meant garbage, not ice cream.

In Seattle, we have a different system for garbage collection. We put our garbage and recycling into big plastic bins. Then, once a week, we put the bins out on the sidewalk, and a truck comes through the neighborhood and the garbage men dump the bins into the truck. The trucks don’t play music, and you don’t have to be home when they come. In fact, unless you hear the sound of the truck’s engine as it approaches, you never even know it is there. Also, the truck goes through the neighborhood very quickly. It may only take a few minutes to pick up the trash from a whole block, because they don’t have to wait for all the people to come out of their houses and approach the truck one by one.

Taiwan’s system is very different, and when I first saw it, I was really surprised. When I heard the music, I asked the people I was with, “Is that the ice cream truck coming?” They looked at me like I was crazy, and explained that it was the garbage truck. It seemed strange to me that great classical music would be used for garbage collection. It seemed kind of disrespectful to me. I doubt that Beethoven or Mozart would approve. To make it worse, the sound quality was very mechanical and tinny. I wondered how the garbage men kept from going insane from having to listen to that same music over and over, day in and day out.

When I watched the garbage collection in action, I was also surprised. Instead of the garbage men going to get the trash, the people had to take the trash to the garbage men. I thought it was pretty inefficient. Instead of two or three workers picking up all the trash in a neighborhood, every household has to take part. Not only that, but the noise of the truck and its music as it slowly rolls through the neighborhood seemed like an unnecessary contribution to an already overly-noisy environment.

Now that I’ve been here for a few years, the system doesn’t seem that strange. It works, and it gives neighbors a chance to meet and say hi. Still, for people like me who are away from home when the truck comes, it can be a problem. For example, I am never at home when the recycling truck comes. I’m still not sure what to do about that, and the bottles and cans are starting to pile up.

In the end, I really don’t care how the garbage is collected. Like anything else when you move to a new place, it seems strange at first and then you get used to it. The only thing I really worry about is those garbage men. It seems certain that eventually one of them will snap. Luckily, another difference between the U.S. and Taiwan is that there aren’t many firearms here.

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