If The Hsu Fits

By • Aug 20th, 2011 • Category: Diary


The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming collection of short stories about living abroad in Taiwan.

Few things seem less practical inspiration for architecture than prison.

A Swedish hotel is carved from ice to pay homage to its proximity to the Arctic Circle, and there’s another in Australia carved underground amid recreated opal mines. England is home to an amusement park fashioned after a working construction site. And in Taipei, there is both a bathroom-themed and a hospital-themed restaurant.

But even the real-life models for such bizarre getaways are comparably posh to the residents of San Quentin Estates, Sing Sing Terrace, and Rikers Manor. There’s the razor wire, the matching jumpsuits, the state-enforced occupancy. Anything to do with the poky is almost as enticing as a sit-in for the National Society for Sandpaper Underwear.

It’s rough.

Yet, like many apartment buildings in Taiwan, mine was influenced heavily by the penal system.

Massive walls stretched their drab concrete toward the sky, with cast-iron bars encasing every balcony and window as the flat exterior’s only topography. Video cameras kept a watchful eye on the underground parking garage when a uniformed guard wasn’t stationed at the entrance. Visitors were required to sign in, and tenants using the rooftop patio did so by climbing over a scrapheap of appliances that cluttered the forgotten stairwell.

The building’s center courtyard was so tightly boxed in that direct light found its way only when the sun was immediately overhead. During the remaining 23 hours of the day, the open-air quad was layered in dreary shadows better suited for lurking than nurturing the wilting garden some residents tried to grow over the sidewalk. Bicycles and potted plants lined its perimeter, the Huffy, Schwinn, Giant and Trek relics sat wedged between browning ferns barely gasping a few final breaths. The courtyard was a place suitable for a shanking.

The western wall offered some respite of variation, albeit only in design, not aura. rainbowWaist-high stones were topped by several stories of chain link, which divided the complex from an animal hospital’s parking lot. This outer wall housed no apartment units, and developers had opted for the same cost-efficient fencing as the architects of Folsom Crossings and Shawshank Heights.

At the base of the wall were three identical, green garbage bins: one for recycling newspapers, another for plastic bottles, and the third for paper food boxes. Not cardboard boxes, though, because those were disposed of in a large net around the corner. There was a knee-high orange can for glass and another orange can for plastic bags, but not for plastic bags with food on them because those got thrown away in an adjacent blue bin. But don’t mistake it for the blue bin intended for plant waste, which sat a few feet away next to a third orange can used for aluminum. There was a third blue bin, as well, meant for food scraps. Finally, a proper dumpster remained outside the complex for whatever garbage couldn’t be sorted elsewhere.

In all, there were 11 receptacles. If the apartment grounds were reminiscent of Attica Hills, then the courtyard’s recycling queue was the residents’ jail-yard system of self-governance. Slip up too many times, get lazy and allow a Coke Light bottle to end up with the non-recyclables, and you were on your own. Adhere to the rules, and the fellas would watch your back.

After a while, organizing the trash came as second nature. Amy and I developed timesaving tips to keep in accordance with the law. The bins in our apartment were tiny to encourage taking out the trash nightly. We had one kitchen bin for non-recyclables and another for things to be sorted downstairs. We made frequent stops in the courtyard’s rainbow recycling zone, never missing an opportunity to dispose of an envelope here or a juice box there. Trips to the grocery store meant bringing a canvas bag to avoid sorting the plastic ones later. We brought as little future garbage into the apartment as feasible.

When all else failed, and the rubbish had piled up for a couple of days so the non-recyclables had mixed with the recyclables, we’d risk it.

“I don’t care what you do, just get rid of it,” Amy would say to me about the garbage. She spoke like a woman who suspects her husband is a mafia hit man with a dead body in the trunk, but thinks remaining willfully ignorant could someday keep her safe in a court of law. “Whatever you have to do, whatever is in there, that’s up to you. I just want whatever is in those bags out of the apartment. Do what you have to do.”

In those instances, risking it meant double- (triple- or quadruple-) bagging the garbage together without sorting. Papers would wrap around milk jugs filled with uneaten popcorn kernels. With the bags no longer transparent, I’d sneak them out of the apartment under cover of nightfall to toss them in the non-recyclable dumpster during the wee hours of the morning. The missions customarily were carried out on Saturday so the bags would be hidden beneath a weekend of trash by Monday.

A chilling sense of confidence exists in knowing your walk to the mailboxes comes under the watchful eyes of gang members who’d be there in a flash should you drop a book or need help holding the elevator door. And there’s an equal and obvious sense of abandonment in the residents who’d fallen out of favor with the complex’s tenant hierarchy. Risking it meant jeopardizing that security.

Risking it meant defying Mrs. Hsu, our building’s front gate attendant.

Prison dramas always feature a character who’s been incarcerated longer than many fellow convicts have been alive. They have nicknames like “Zeus,” “Red,” and “Chief.” They have connections. They have answers. They teeter the line between state’s evidence and jailhouse confidant by ruling inmates as de facto leader and administering verdicts with surprising justice. They’re friendly until crossed, withdrawn until called upon. Everyone knows them. Everyone respects them. Nobody crosses them.

Mrs. Hsu was our building’s character.

Everyone knew her. Everyone respected her. Nobody crossed her.

Mrs. Hsu assumed a post at the building’s front entrance most mornings between 8 and 9 a.m. Her routine was built on militant precision. Upon arrival, she’d sweep the sidewalk in front of the gate. Then, she’d scour nearby bushes for rogue limbs, attacking even the smallest offender with oversized pruning sheers. Standing 5 feet tall – 4’9” if you accounted for the curvature of her spine, but 5’2” if you measured to the top of her curly afro – she needed every inch of her frail frame’s strength to lug around the bulky gardening tools. After clipping the shrubbery into tight, symmetrical spheres, Mrs. Hsu would relocate unauthorized scooters with wheels parked over the designated lines. courtyard

Next, she’d move inside to the courtyard to sweep the concrete floor before realigning the bicycles and lawn chairs. Tending to the vegetation flanking the walls, she’d use separate watering cans for flowers and plants, and hand-straighten their leaves by positioning each toward the rooftop opening in preparation for the afternoon’s hourlong sun spurt. After meticulously treating the wildlife, she’d check each resident’s mailbox to see who hadn’t picked up yesterday’s post. She’d write two reminders. One brightly colored Post-it to stick on the slot in question, the other to keep in her pocketbook in case she bumped into the forgetful tenants somewhere else on the grounds.

Last, she’d check the garbage. I imagine this came at the end of her routine because it (1) potentially required the most effort, but (2) actually required the least amount of effort because my neighbors had been conditioned to follow the extensive sorting regimen. She’d check the paper bin, then the one for glass, followed by the aluminum container, and so on down the line. Occasionally, a sandwich wrapper would need to be fished out of the incorrect plastic depository, but, generally, fearful tenants who’d spent the previous evening scrupulously dividing rubbish between 11 bins had done the work for her.

Despite her due diligence – or, maybe, because of it – Mrs. Hsu never checked the contents of the non-recyclables dumpster. Things disposed of there were tied up in plastic bags, unlike the other bins in which items were thrown away separately. Looking over individual items was tedious, even for Mrs. Hsu, but sorting through full bags of garbage was downright tiresome.

I found out exactly how tiresome on my first Monday afternoon living in the complex.

Amy and I had moved into the building late on a Saturday night, and spent that entire first Sunday unpacking. Aside from one lost box of belts, the move had gone seamlessly. We barreled through almost 36 hours of decorating the new apartment without so much as a nap. By Monday morning, we’d put the finishing touches on the bathroom, kitchen, living room, dining room and office. We’d unpacked at a breakneck pace and accumulated an impressive mound of trash along the way.

When the time came to take out the first load of waste, I did the same thing I had done in every other apartment. I bundled it all together in a 55-gallon bag and headed downstairs to make the drop.

I’d never been overly zealous about by recycling. It’s not that I was anti-recycling; you’d be hard-pressed to find a person with a fervent stance against it. I just hadn’t paid much attention to the supportive statistics because, so often, the New Agers peddling the pamphlets sent me running. Instead, recycling bins felt like salad forks. When presented with one, I’d gladly use it correctly. But in their absence, I wasn’t overcome by remorse or guilt for not seeking one out.

In fact, my disinterest in recycling bordered on ignorant. I once asked a fellow teacher whether gum wrappers should be thrown away in the paper bin, the metal bin because of the tinfoil backing, or the food bin because of flavor residue.

She paused, and then she replied, “The metal bin, of course. It hurts when you chew it.”

I thought for a moment. Barbed wire, saw blades and paper clips all would hurt to chew, and they unquestionably were metal. And just like that, I began recycling gum wrappers with the metal, along with broken pencils, bottle tops, and anything else that would be painful to chomp down on. public

In Taiwan, though, recycling ignorance isn’t bliss. It’s illegal. Mandated by the country’s Environmental Protection Agency, the nationwide policy requires residents to sort things by “garbage, recyclables and food scraps.” Punishments range from NT$1,200 to $6,000 (about USD$40-200) fines issued by government employees after random neighborhood checks. Recycling is such a part of Taiwanese culture that many children learn school jingles to reinforce the benefits of reuse. On countless mornings, I’d woken up humming, “R-E-C-Y-C-L-E / Earth is home to you and me / R-E-C-Y-C-L-E / Pick it up, and use it again.”

So Mrs. Hsu’s obsession with recycling wasn’t idiosyncratic, even if the 11-bin method was a bit manic.

Yet, on that first Monday afternoon in the complex, while lumbering toward Mrs. Hsu’s office and lugging a 55-gallon bag of unsorted scraps, I had no idea what taking out the trash would require. Usually, all it took was about five minutes and enough arm strength to lift whatever junk was wrapped up in the large, black Hefty sack. Not patience and humility. Not a keen eye for detail. Not ample dexterity. These are traits shared by history’s greatest painters. They’re not requirements for residency in Alcatraz Acres, … but they were for the residents in my apartment complex.

I arrived at Mrs. Hsu’s desk around the corner from the recycling area, and waited my turn. She was in mid-conversation with a woman named Yvonne, who stopped by daily to visit her mother yet wasn’t actually a resident of the neighborhood. I had met Yvonne two days earlier while unloading the moving truck, and she politely stepped aside so I could have some face time with Mrs. Hsu. Before I could speak, the feeble woman jumped out of her chair, motioned hurriedly for me to follow, and scampered toward the courtyard. She was faster than she looked. Yvonne tagged along, no doubt anticipating that she’d need to translate into English the messages to come.

We stopped in front of the colorful bins. The rainbow row of receptacles was daunting. Mrs. Hsu opened the lids one by one, gesturing toward each as Yvonne relayed the descriptions.

“This one is for newspapers,” she said of the first green bin. “Glass there. Plastic bottles here. Metal here. Boxes there.”

I didn’t say a word. Not only was I not accustomed to such precise recycling, I was holding a 55-gallon bag of food, paper, toiletries and every sort of waste thinkable.

“Mrs. Hsu is very … respectful,” Yvonne said after thinking a moment to find the right word. “Recycling is important to her. She is very,” she paused again, “ … respectful.”

Seemingly on cue, Mrs. Hsu swiped a pair of scissors off the ledge, and, in one fluid movement, sliced open the bottom of my large garbage bag. It felt like something out of an old Kung Fu movie, as the master cuts a watermelon in half with a quick flick of the blade as an apprentice looks on in disbelief. Two days’ worth of garbage fell to ground, the spill echoing loudly off the concrete walls. In a flash, the 55-gallon bag had gone from Hefty behemoth to a shriveled sack swaying emptily.

“She is very respectful,” Yvonne said a third time.

That was often said about Mrs. Hsu. My neighbors, Pablo and Jocelyn, both had used the word to describe the aging front desk attendant. Our landlord, too, once uttered it as a description. But standing there in ankle-deep garbage, “respectful” felt like a euphemism akin to “big-boned.” Like saying, “That girl must have drunk a lot of milk during her freshman year of college because, after all that calcium, she returned a little big-boned.” I could see occupants of Leavenworth Meadows saying the same thing about their de facto leader. “You had better not cross ole Curly, he’s ‘respectful,’ if you catch the drift, and his brass knuckles are downright reverent.”

A few seconds felt like minutes, and in another single motion, Mrs. Hsu brandished a large pair of tongs like a magician pulling a bouquet out of her sleeve. The two women then noticed a half-full jug of olive oil, which I had intended to throw away. The previous tenants had left the container in my apartment, and getting rid of it should have been as easy as taking out the trash. The women exchanged a few lines of Chinese dialogue while pointing to the jug at my feet.

Mrs. Hsu picked it out of the heap and handed the carton to me.

“She says you don’t want to throw this away,” Yvonne translated.

“But it’s old. And I don’t want it,” I said hesitantly.

“Mrs. Hsu says that it’s still good,” urged Yvonne.

“I don’t cook very often.”

“Mrs. Hsu says you must have put it in the garbage by mistake.”

“No, I meant to,” I said. As soon as the words came out, I regretted them.

The two women looked at one another with despair, and, in unison, each grabbed a pair of tongs off the ledge. Obviously, I couldn’t be trusted to sort the trash on my own.

The three of us spent the next 20 minutes rigorously dissecting my rubbish. Each piece I threw away brought relief that I was one piece closer to ending this ordeal. But with each item Mrs. Hsu picked up, I couldn’t help but feel critiqued. Was she judging me because I hadn’t saved the newspapers for wrapping paper or package stuffing? Did I leave too much meat on the chicken leg I had thrown away? Should I put on the sock to show how big the hole in the heel really was?

This stuff was garbage for a reason. I just hoped the reasoning was good enough for Mrs. Hsu. proper

It must have been because with only a few things left on the ground, she smiled with approval, nodded with respect, and shuffled back to her post at the front desk. My instinct was to bag up the remaining items as non-recyclables and throw them away together in the dumpster outside. Yvonne had gone upstairs to eat lunch with her mother, and nobody would be the wiser if a few paper plates got mixed in with some old salad scraps and taken to the leftover bin.

While I was devising a plan to reuse my shredded Hefty bag, a middle-aged man walked toward the recycling zone with a small bag of his own. His eyes panned up from my feet to the tongs in my hand.

“Mrs. Hsu is very respectful,” I said to him.

He didn’t respond. Chances are, he didn’t speak English. But maybe he just didn’t want anyone to overhear us speaking about Mrs. Hsu behind her back. Bad things can happen to gossips in Angola Ridge.

“Very respectful,” I said again.

He looked on stone-faced, but he understood. He understood that I understood.

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