How the Use of Improper Garbage Bags Briefly Complicated My Life in Korea

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In the Land of Kimchi, there are yellow garbage bags, and there are white ones.  Both have writing in Korean on them that I don’t understand, and neither seems to come in the size of what I would consider a normal garbage bag to be.  Don’t get me wrong – they come in a variety of different sizes, ranging from small to very small to super teeny tiny.  The yellow one is for food and the white one is for everything else.  I believe plastic bottles are also supposed to be separated, but I’m not sure.  Once filled, a person puts their garbage out somewhere in front of their apartment building, where it is later picked up at some point in time.  By someone.  Possibly a city worker.  Maybe with a garbage truck.  In truth, I really have no idea what the hell happens to the garbage.

This is about as deep as my knowledge on the trash system in South Korea goes.  In America, disposing of garbage made some sense – I had a specific spot where I was supposed to leave the garbage, there was a specific time on a specific day when a company that I paid came and took it.  In Korea, things aren’t quite the same.  I have never once seen a garbage truck or a garbage man, and yet they must come around at least once a day to get rid of all the trash.  There are very few dumpsters or public garbage cans, and trash seems to be disposed of randomly here.  Like what you would generally consider littering seems to make up a good portion of the Korean sanitation system.  Every day when I walk to work I pass about a hundred garbage bags thrown all over the street, some free floating trash, a billion cigarette butts, and usually a nice puddle of vomit someone left from the night before.  It’s messy, sort of like Korea is a teenage boy and the streets are its bedroom.

Another difference between Korea and the US is that a person has to purchase regulation garbage bags in order to throw their trash away.  Obviously this is sort of a fallacy, as I saw all sorts of shit dumped in front of my last apartment building, and the box for a large pizza can’t even fit in a garbage bag unless you cut it up into pieces.  Seriously, I filled two regulation garbage bags once with one empty pizza box.  But I digress – one is supposed to only throw away trash in regulation garbage bags.  My first week in Seoul, about a month ago, I violated this rule, was caught doing so on hidden camera, and thus became the most hated waygook in all the chopstick-lovin’ world.

Finding regulation garbage bags in Incheon was easy.  The convenience store by my apartment had them sitting by the register, near the strawberry flavored condoms.  But in Seoul, the rules of the game are different.  Convenience stores don’t sell garbage bags, and so I would leave with only a few packs of strawberry condoms and absolutely no place to throw my trash.  Only one store had anything remotely similar – they were actual, regular size garbage bags and, subsequently, they were not government regulation.  With no other options, I bought them.  For the next week, my first in Seoul, I threw all my leftover food, empty milk cartons, large pizza boxes, and the vomit I had left from the night before in one big bag.  When the bag was full, I tied it off and then wondered what to do with it.

I knew that I couldn’t throw the bag in front of my apartment.  It wasn’t regulation.  The last thing I wanted was to look like the dumb foreigner who doesn’t know how to behave as the locals do.  So one morning I snuck out into the street with my enormous garbage bag, deviously planning to inconspicuously dispose of it.  I saw some trash bags sitting outside a different apartment building and thought that I would simply toss my bag over with them.  Who would know?  I walked over briskly and dropped my bag with the others.  They looked good together, especially since my bag was so much larger.  It was like a group of friends, and all cliques need at least one enormous fat guy.  Anyways, I went back to my apartment, proud of my work, thinking the entire garbage fiasco was over.

I was wrong.  An hour before my workday ended, my boss, Leah, came into my classroom.  “Bill,” she said, “did you throw garbage-ee in front of an apartment building this morning?”

Her face showed concerned.  I was thrown.  How did she know?  “Um, yeah…” I mumbled.

“Oh!” she bellowed, then stormed off.  She came back later, and when the kids were gone she sat down on top of one of the desks to talk to me.  “Apartment owner had hidden camera set up and has recording of you throwing very big trash bag in front of building,” she said, devastated.  “He came here because he knows there is foreign teacher.  He showed me tape and it was you!  He will sue you for illegal trash dump!”

“Sue me?” I asked, bewildered.  “He can do that?”

“Yes!” Leah said.  “Why did you throw trash there?”

I then had to explain how I knew I had the wrong garbage bag, didn’t want to look dumb, and purposely tried to dispose of it on the down low.  She looked at me and shook her head.  “I will talk to him,” she said.  “He is very angry!”

“Can I talk to him?”

“No!  I will talk.  You can’t speak Korean.  What will you say to him?  Ahn-nyoung-ha-say-o?”

Having Leah talk to him probably was the smarter tactic – despite being my boss, she’s young and very cute.  If anyone could derail the lawsuit I was threatened with, it was her.  Still, I felt angry.  Hidden camera?  Seriously?  How much could he possibly sue me for?  Really, it was all Korea’s fault anyways.  Why had they made garbage bags harder to find than stick deodorant?

The next day, Leah pulled me into the office.  “The government will come to talk to us today,” she said, and an hour later two men in suits came.  They didn’t say one word to me, only spoke in deep voices to her.  Leah kept pointing at me and looking surprised.  Finally there was silence.  Everyone looked at me and I giggled uncomfortably.  The government men, thankfully, laughed too.  When they had left, I asked her what was said.

“It is okay,” she told me.  “I said you are stupid foreigner and didn’t know.  They said this will be your warning.”

“So it’s over?” I asked, in my stupid foreigner voice.  “There’s no lawsuit?”

“Yes, it is over,” she said, kindly.  “I will take you to grocery store tonight and we will buy garbage bags.”

I breathed a sigh of relief.  Even though I have been living in Korea for over a year, the stupid foreigner card still worked.  The trash lawsuit was over and I was able to focus again on my classroom.  I had a few minutes before the students would come and I spent the time straightening the desks, cleaning the board, and throwing away old worksheets in the cardboard box Leah had given me to use as a garbage can.

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3 thoughts on “How the Use of Improper Garbage Bags Briefly Complicated My Life in Korea

  1. Bradd Quinn

    i would just start throwing trash into the street while staring directly into that camera….
    “this is how WE do trash in America muthafucka!!!”

    then find myself sitting in the US embassy in handcuffs mumbling “it’s fucking garbage….no fucking trash bags……can’t they use dumpsters like the rest of the world….”

    • This is kind of off topic, but I think if we invented a remote control garbage can, we would be millionaires. You could sit on the couch, polish off a can of beer and a bag of chips, then direct the trash can to come to you instead having to get up to throw your stuff away. I’ve got big plans for this, Bradd. (Actually, I have no plans whatsoever for this.)

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