Saturday, June 01, 2013

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Taking part in Taiwan's plastic bag culture

6/01/2013 Taiwan Explorer
If you've ever stayed in Taiwan a little bit longer, you have probably observed what a big role convenience (or 便利, bianli) plays in people's daily life. That's an extremely important aspect in Taipei, Taiwan's bustling capital of 6 million people. A lot of Taipeiers don't have much time for themselves during the working week, that's why they expect a things to be done fast and smoothly. Most common working hours are between 9h and 18h, but the culture of willingly accepting unpaid overtime work to "gain face" in front of the manager is very common (my French readers must be saying C'est un scandale! right now). If you add the time of going to work (上班, shangban), working overtime (加班, jiaban), and the time you need between leaving work (下班, xiaban) and arriving home, it may very well happen, that you're outside your comfortable living room sofa for at least 12 hours per day, too often more than that, if you decide to eat outside or have a drink after work. Due to the nature of my job I won't be able to escape this kind of lifestyle any time soon, so I'm doing what most Taiwanese do: Accepting things as they are, not complaining, not fighting for change, instead adapting and finding ways to ease the pain (fighting symptoms, not the disease, one could say). And so it happens that I'm arriving home after 20h every day, and because my wife's taking care of our baby now, she's usually not able to buy food in the evening (the baby's very active around that time), I usually buy dinner for both of us and bring it home. Of course eating dinner after 20h is quite late, but believe me, when you have a baby a late dinner is much better than no dinner at all. And so I often buy food when I walk home from the MRT station. There is a street full of traditional shops and stalls in the area, you can get dishes like oyster omlette, milk fish soup, fried dumplings, and other popular Taiwanese snacks (or 小吃, xiao chi). There are always two options when you order food: "Having here" (這邊用, zhebian yong) or "Taking away" (外帶, wai dai). I naturally choose the second option, and that usually looks like this:

The take-out food is on the right, grocery on the left side.

Plastic bags (or 袋子, daizi) are in Taiwan as common as scooters, tea shops, tiled facades, and sandals: They are a quintessential part of the lifestyle here. The ones used for wrapping the take-out food are always free, the ones at convenience shops and supermarkets merely cost 1 NTD (which equals to 2.5 cents of a Euro). They used to be free a while ago, too, but a law was passed, that didn't allow them to be given out "free" anymore, so they cost almost nothing now.

I used to be pro-environment, now I'm just lazy

I was usually someone who was conscious about the environment, and would avoid unnecessarily buying plastic bags. In fact I would always buy a paper bag, if I needed one, or I would reuse old plastic bags. That worked well in Europe, because most people were doing it that way, besides we usually go to hypermarkets and cook at home, but we also have more free time during the working week. But in Taiwan things are different: Plastic is so commonly used, sometimes you can't really avoid it. Imagine, if you buy a soup on the street, it will usually be wrapped in a plastic bag (no such thing in my country). I'm always someone who believed that "When in Rome, do as the Romans do", but this excessive use of plastic bags was very foreign to me. In the beginning I was much more likely not using them, but now in my third year here I'm kind of whatever-ish on the issue. I'm usually short on time, stressed, and consequently too tired to go the extra mile here, but there is a catch: My wife hates it when I bring home more plastic bags, she would murmur and lecture me about mother nature. So I have two choices: Stuff groceries in my notebook bag, which I always take with me to work and back, or try to hide the bag somewhere so she doesn't see it. Both options are troublesome, but that's marriage: You have to go into compromises (I mean wives like to murmur).

The big dilemma

So recently I come home later than usually, and due to the baby and my wife's inability to buy dinner, my evening cargo is much larger than before. In the beginning I tried to avoid my wife's murmuring, so when I bought some additional food and drinks at the supermarket close to our home I would put them in my notebook bag between the iPad and the charger. It was very troublesome, because I usually held take-out in one hand, and an open wallet in another, because they always give you a receipt and coins, and you have to somehow put them inside your wallet, grab your things and leave, there's no time to do things slowly here. Unfortunately I was only born with two hands, that is one short of three, which would be the optimal number. There are some convenience stores where the clerk helps you to put things in your bag, even if you brought your own. Unfortunately the clerks in our supermarket don't bother to do so, I tried it and had to put things inside by myself every time. But one day I forgot to bring my own bag, so I decided to buy one, and the clerk put all the things inside for me. A lightbulb went on! I figured: If I wanted that extra service, I had to buy a plastic bag for 1 NTD. I turned this idea into a habit every time I came to the store loaded with take-out food (which was like... always). I thought my revolutionary solution was something only geniuses could come up with, so one day I excitingly tell everything to my wife. But as wife's usually are, she was not happy about my daily bag purchases. To put it simply: My idea about connecting the dots between the 1 dollar bag and the clerk's assistance has not impressed her, she murmured about mother nature again. I countered with arguments such as: "...but, but... I see hundred obasans every day buying plastic bags, what's the difference if I am caring about mother nature, nothing will change anyway..." - these words fell flat, of course. She continued murmuring until I gave in, and promised to not do it anymore. So I guess I will start to hide them.

When I see our waste collection area in the basement, I do feel a little bad. A little.