By Shannon Noni Selis
There lived an old, lonely man in a relatively decent sized city in South Korea. He was short like many Koreans are. He was wrinkled like many old people are. He was hunched over a bit like many old Koreans are. He had a little waddle in his walk and a little grit in his talk. This old man (he played one) was the superintendent of a large apartment building in the decent sized city in South Korea. He slept in an average sized room that may have once been an office. His living area blocked the outside world with old cubicle walls. He often wore a pair of gray pants and a grayish shirt. If it was cold enough, he may have worn his thick navy blue jacket.
In the inner corner of the smallish parking lot of the apartment building, one would find the trash area. There were two medium dumpsters with orange tops. This is where you place your specifically white garbage bag. There was a green bin to the right of the dumpsters. This blue bin was designated for electrical goods, such as light bulbs. To the left were two normal looking trash bins. This is where one would dispose of food waste. Along the short brick wall perpendicular to the bins were several large bags that looked like rice bags. Hmmm… perhaps the word ‘sacks’ would be more appropriate. The first big rice sack was used to recycle Styrofoam. Many people ordered food or brought it home and disposed of large quantities of Styrofoam containers. Next to this were two sacks used for glass bottles. In case you didn’t know, beer bottles are plastic and soju bottles are glass…and Koreans in this neighborhood drink a LOT of soju. The next two sacks (or maybe three) were used to recycle plastic: plastic beer bottles, plastic mustard and mayo bottles, plastic containers for paste, plastic this and plastic that. One couldn’t be surprised if a Korean’s plastic surgery was found in this bag. In the corner where the bags and the dumpsters met, all the boxes and cardboard were placed.
Every day, sometimes twice a day, the old wrinkled man would attend the trash area. He would start with the boxes and cardboard. He made sure that each box was flattened properly. He made sure that no extra garbage was found in the boxes, such as a crust of pizza or a napkin in a leftover pizza box. Then he would stack them nicely and tie them up. Next he would go through each bag in the orange-top dumpsters. Please keep in mind that this is South Korea: every neighborhood in that decent sized city had its very own, specifically designated garbage bag. You can only purchase these bags at a grocery store within the neighborhood. Then the old man would go through each bag to ensure that they are the designated white bags for the neighborhood and ensure there wasn’t anything left that was to be recycled properly. After finding his treasures, he would organize the recycle sacks and make sure they are standing up straight. No bottle would touch the ground on his watch.
One day, a lovely young-ish American living in this particular building decided that buying a Costco sized box of trashbags would be easier than constantly running out of short, never easy to obtain bags. She got about 3 bags into the orange-top dumpsters. Then something changed. She threw away the 4th bag on her way to the gym. Upon her return, she found the very same bag sitting outside her door on the 11th floor. It had been ripped open and taped shut. On the front was a message in Korean and a piece of her mail with her name and address attached. After consulting an English-speaking Korean, the American chick found out the message said ‘please use the designated trash bags.’ With a sigh, she took the next three Costco trash bags out to a different building and dumped it there. She would have gotten away with it too if that old garbage Nazi hadn’t found her. He grabbed her by the wrist one night and dragged her to the trash area. He proceeded to yell in Korean about lord knows what while pointing to each area. She smiled sweetly and blew the man a kiss. He laughed and then hit her arm and yelled again.
For the next three weeks, if the old man saw her taking out the trash (this time in the correct fucking specifically white designated bags) he would stop her and check to make sure it was correct. Right after she put the bag into the trash and walked away, he ran after her and dragged her back to the bin. Then he would look for the incorrect bag that did not exist in his OCD imagination. If it was a box, he looked inside. If it were a bottle, he would point to the correct bin and watch with the eye of a hawk.
This old man was so particular about the garbage. He takes his superintending job seriously. He super intends to keep the garbage and recycling on par. Interestingly enough… there are no trash bins on the streets of Korea. So if you need to throw something away… good luck to you.
Shannon Selis is an English teacher and massage therapist currently frequenting South Korean karaoke bars. When she’s not teaching, singing show tunes, or mastering recipes, she shares her experiences at wittylmt and Another Food Thing.