Saturday, December 29, 2007

Taking out the Trash

One of my strongest memories of childhood Christmases were the mountains of presents that quickly became mountains of wrapping paper that pieces to that new toys, trays of cheese and crackers, dogs, and small children would bury themselves under, sometimes never to reappear from. Crumpled paper, ribbons and bows were sorted out, those least shredded put into a bag in the half-hearted attempt to reuse the next year (although they were usually lost or, when re-examined the next year, determined to be far to shabby to put to second use), and needle-in-paperstacks hunts went on for plastic Barbie shoes and Lego men. Then all was bundled up and put into the industrial sized can and hauled to the end of the driveway along with the skeleton Christmas trees to be driven off to the heaven of Christmases past.

Obviously in Vietnam there’s no post-Christmas cleanup, although wait until Lunar New Year and something very similar will happen. But between the nostalgia for Christmases past and cold rainy evenings this week, the culture of trash pick-up has been at the front of my mind…

In America, we scramble once, perhaps twice, a week to assemble all of our unwanted goods, sorted or no, and place them in a designated container as far from our residences and as close to the public way as possible. Then, almost magically, the trash fairies flit through our neighborhoods and with a little banging and grinding noticed only by those lucky enough to be home at a working hour, voilĂ , our problems are swept clean for another week. About the only communal aspect of the whole process is the appearance of containers lined up like sentries guarding each suburban lawn on a magically coordinated day of the week.

For the urban Vietnamese public, trash collection is a daily routine. Each large city employs an army of street sweepers and trash collectors, each outfitted with standard overalls and rainsuits for inclement weather, touched off with the traditional cone hat of Vietnam. Almost every one of them wears a dust cloth tied over the mouth, leaving a distinct impression of an anonymous herd of former-bankrobbers-turned-streetsweepers loose on the city. Twice a day, first in the dark of early morning, and next in the early evening, the army is loosed upon the city, and each dry leaf, candy wrapper and cigarette butt is mercilessly attacked with long-handled reed brooms and collected into large rolling dumpster pushed by members of the squadron.

The evening collection is the one that is attended to by whole communities. During this time the sweeper with the dumpster is also charged with a bell, which she (yes, probably 90% of the trash collectors in this country are women, in contrast to our image of burly men driving a big stinky truck) clangs repeatedly as she moves down the street. As if summoned an ethereal force, representatives of each household make their way into the streets, bringing dustbins and plastic bags full of rubbish. As the caravan of dumpsters on wheels approaches and the clanging grows louder and more insistent, people emerge from their brightly lit houses to make their daily contributions directly or to place the bag along the curb where it will be grabbed by a passing masked agent of the trash.

It is days like this last week, during which a steady drizzle of miserable rain has fallen, that makes me note our own masters of the daily ceremonies. These masked women clump cheerfully down the muddy streets dripping from their cone crowns and trading greetings and gossip with the women and men crouching in the shelters of their small overhangs waiting to dash into the wet to deliver their offering. They drag their brooms made of bamboo and tree branches against the current of water in the gutters and somehow manage to make the wet street look scrubbed in the streetlights. Children and old people shout across the way to each other as each family emerges for the nightly routine. Even with the masks it is easy to tell when the collection women smile as if applauding you for tossing your bag bulging with an oozing mess and thanking you for your generous contribution. Your bravery in stepping out into this damp night to offer up your garbage seems reward enough for their suffering hours in the elements just to arrive at your doorstep.

Everything in Vietnam happens in a communal and ordered way. We could debate whether it is a holdover from the more stringent aspects of hardline communism, whether it is simply an attribute of narrow-streeted urban living everywhere, or whether the Vietnamese naturally tend towards such arrangements. In any way, in Vietnam even trash pick-up is a grass-roots and almost gritty experience, in striking opposition to our American disaffection from our wastes. It is similar with the water and electricity bill collectors, the mail delivery and even the shoe-shine boys here. And yet, nowhere have I encountered such cheerfulness for such little reward as in Vietnam’s anonymous army of street sweepers and trash collectors.

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