Thoughts on Trash


Sheng Kao '20 is the 2020-2022 Independent Fellow and is based in Taiwan. This is her first year narrative.

16:45. 19:50. 21:50. Every day except Sundays and Wednesdays, paper recycling accepted Mondays and Thursdays, plastic recycling accepted Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. I have this schedule memorized, and while I wouldn't say that having to remember when to take out the trash and recycling rules my life by any means, it is a comforting rhythm that outlines my otherwise irregular routine. My work for New Bloom doesn't really adhere to any sort of strict schedule, and it can take me all over Taipei or require oddly-timed meetings and calls, so I appreciate the consistent timeliness of the Taipei City trash system.


For the uninitiated, Taipei and New Taipei City make use of a sophisticated trash and recycling system which has been well-studied and praised by governmental and environmental researchers from around the globe. As explained above, each neighborhood has set daily times where trucks park in specific locations, and you need to lug your own trash and recycling to the trucks, which announce their presences by playing Beethoven's Für Elise. You can only throw away trash that is packaged in special bags issued by the Taipei City or New Taipei City governments, which are more expensive than the normal bags you get when shopping or getting take-out. These bags come in a few different sizes and have special holographic anti-counterfeit labels. The (relatively) hefty price of the trash bags encourages everyone to sort and take out their recycling separately from their household trash, which requires no special bags. I knew about the trash system before moving to Taipei, but I didn't realize how much time I would actually spend thinking about it while living here.


Back in October, I went to a book talk my cousin gave on her new novel, which she explained was based on a petition in 2017 to change Taiwan's time zone from GMT +8 (which is the same as mainland China's time zone) to GMT +9, which would mean sharing the same time zone as Japan and South Korea. As my cousin said at her talk, even something humans consider as objective and scientific as time is determined by our own decisions on how to represent it. The petition's motives were largely political. In its statement, the petition emphasized how such a change would remove a shared tie between Taiwan and mainland China and position it closer to Japan, which I found interesting because of the colonial history Japan has in Taiwan and the varying attitudes Taiwanese people have towards this era. This reminded me of something I learned in my Globalization & Diaspora class during my last semester at Oberlin; that even time and space are subject to the control of borders and nations. However, societies and nations agree on time zones so that all of the machinations of daily life can function smoothly. For me, it's become a comfort to reliably see my neighbors at the same time and place every day, doing our duty and getting rid of our trash. On the other hand, I sometimes feel unmoored living in as industrialized a city as Taipei because I'm no longer a student and I don't adhere to the standard working hours of the office workers here. Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a parallel universe, stuck in between U.S. time and Taiwan time, a dissonance that is emphasized by the fact that I can only reach my loved ones in the U.S. during the early morning or late night hours. Ironically, the pandemic may have further exacerbated this feeling for other people as well--my Oberlin friends in Taiwan who are still attending school have to flip their sleep schedules in order to attend class. In my G&D class, we read Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, wherein the protagonist travels to Japan, which she refers to as a "mirror-world," both because of the jet lag she experiences and the fact that logos, signage, and branding--the trappings of globalized society--are unrecognizable to her. While spoken and written Mandarin Chinese are familiar to me, it was never something that saturated my life until I moved to Taiwan. Sometimes I forget that I didn't actually grow up here--I've already sprouted an imagined past for myself, one in which I never immigrated to the United States. Moving back to Taiwan has allowed me to engage with this imagined timeline, one where my relationship to Taiwan is completely different.


On the subject of trash and imagination: towards the end of 2020, I read The Man with the Compound Eyes, the most notable work by Wu Ming-Yi, a Taiwanese literary who has risen to prominence in the last ten years (and coincidentally, my cousin's mentor). I can't speak to the significance of the novel for people who were born and raised in Taiwan, but to me it manifested a lot of the environmental, political, and existential anxiety that Taiwanese people frequently contend with. In the novel, a section of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch breaks off and is en route to colliding with the eastern coast of Taiwan. As a subtropical island, Taiwan is greatly affected by any sort of climate change, due to its vulnerability to rising seas and temperatures. Since it is an island, space is limited, so recycling is encouraged to minimize what waste is sent to landfills or incinerators. It seems as if Taiwan has no choice but to implement such strict measures, or else be subject to the consequences of excess waste and pollution. This stands, to me, in stark contrast with the U.S., where for most middle-class people like me, our trash is whisked away to far-away landfills, polluting communities we have no connection to.


One thing I like about the trash system is how equalizing it feels, at least in theory. No matter your class or occupation or gender or race, we all produce waste, and we all have to take out the trash. It's much like my life as an OSCAn, back at Oberlin, where all co-op members worked towards cooking, keeping the kitchen clean, and sustaining our community; however, in Taipei, the reality is that there are many ways to evade the strictness of the trash schedule. Many people who live in apartment buildings have a 代收 service, where the doorman or other worker collects and takes out the trash for all of the people in the building, for a monthly fee. Other people who employ household workers or caretakers have these people (who are an exploited and marginalized group, often migrants from Southeast Asian countries) take out their trash for them.


I suppose this is a convoluted way for me to think carefully about how I fit into my role at New Bloom and in Taiwan. I know that there is a phenomenon of Americans traveling abroad who rely on their nationality and English language ability to navigate new places, and that is something that I want to avoid--it's also something that made me appreciate the mandatory language training that is the first component of my Shansi Fellowship. New Bloom is an important hub for many expat and Taiwanese diaspora people living in Taipei, but those experiences are only a narrow representation of the city. There is the version of Taiwan that someone like me, a diasporic Taiwanese person, experiences. There is the version that outsiders, non-nationals, experience. There is the version that a person born and raised in Taiwan experiences. Taiwan means so much to different people: its 本地人 aka the people who have lived here their whole lives, the Taiwanese diaspora, Taiwanese indigenous people, migrant workers, and so on. How do you even begin to untangle the relationships between these groups? So far, from New Bloom's ongoing event series, reading group, and recent conference, I feel like questions only beget more questions.