Wednesday, April 27, 2011

a new favorite

This might be my new favorite restaurant in Hong Kong...

Sunday, April 10, 2011


I know this title implies that I’ve hit the bottom of the blog barrel; but this is actually a subject that preys on my mind from time to time.

I once heard a television character say, “You can learn a lot about a person just by studying their trash.” I’m not taking this up as a hobby, but I do concur.

The floor on which I live contains four flats, one of which is mine. Each floor contains one large garbage can, located in the stairwell, for the residents of that floor. Thus, I share this receptacle with an elderly couple, an older single woman who owns a cat, and a young family with one child and a domestic helper. A caretaker for the building comes to empty this barrel each morning, weekends and holidays included.

I am an American. In the case of rubbish disposal, this means I have a large trash can in my kitchen, complete with a sizeable made-for-trash-cans plastic bag, which I empty a few times each week. I gather up my garbage and haul it to the stairwell, where I see the tiny plastic sack filled with my neighbor’s refuse. They have discarded a few vegetable scraps, a handful of tissue, and maybe a few other items—all in a bag smaller than the average Walmart grocery sack. I have filled my enormous trash bag with granola bar wrappings, tin cans and cracker packages, ridiculous amounts of soiled paper towels, juice cartons and cereal boxes, empty bottles, and plastic wrappings from everything imaginable. (Before you label me an infidel, please note that I separate recyclables, which are also taken out by the building caretaker.)

This rubbish assessment is indicative of where we shop and the products we purchase, which are, in turn, evidence of our cultural backgrounds. My neighbors likely buy produce, meat and dairy at a local “wet market,” where food is not pre-packaged. I pick up groceries at a Western supermarket, in which all food—including vegetables and fruit—comes enveloped in Styrofoam, plastic or paper. Locals shop often, maybe even daily, in order to have fresh food, while I shop once a week and stock up on canned items and dry goods.

So what?

Well, a trip to the stairwell rubbish bin makes me keenly aware of how wasteful I am. Why can’t I re-use Ziploc bags? A rag or sponge works, in most cases, equally as well as a paper-towel. Can I not be more intentional about carrying my own water bottle, rather than buying a beverage in a can or plastic bottle?

Moreover, I encounter the building caretaker each morning as I head out to work. She speaks no English, and I’ve never had a successful conversation with her in Cantonese, yet she has this way of looking me up and down and talking at me every time we encounter one another. I smile sweetly and greet her, but I sense her disapproval and tsk-tsk-tsk summary of me as she continues to speak to me. She could be saying something benign, such as, “Lovely day, isn’t it?” or “I like your blouse.” But over the years of running into her, I’ve begun to imagine her thinking (and even saying aloud), “That dumb foreigner throws away so much rubbish! From one person, huge bags of trash!” Furthermore, I have greeted this woman, only to find that she is pointing at me and speaking to another tenant or building employee in Cantonese, presumably talking about me. Talking about me behind my back, and right to my face!

I have personally witnessed this caretaker’s habit of sifting through the building garbage, perhaps to separate out recyclables, maybe to salvage useable items or to simply consolidate bits and pieces. I find it profoundly humbling to know someone is looking at the worst of what I have and am.

So after living in Hong Kong for so long, I am more mindful of what I buy, how I use it or re-use it, and how I dispose of it. I’d like to say I do this out of concern for the environment, as a caring citizen of God’s earth. But maybe it’s more a matter of pride and an odd desire for approval from the custodian of my building.

And I should really learn Cantonese.