Beethoven and the Trash

Taiwanese garbage truck

Beethoven and the Trash

Somewhere in Vienna, Beethoven must be rolling in his grave. To most people in the world, “Für Elise” is a beautiful piece of music written by one of the greatest composers in history. Here in Taiwan, however, this song only means one thing—Bring out your trash!

Whenever we hear the tune blaring in the neighborhood, my mom scrambles around the house gathering up the bags of trash, runs out the door, down the 3 flights of stairs of our apartment building, to the yellow garbage truck waiting at the end of the lane. On her way, she meets neighbors laden with large and small bags of waste, running toward the same destination. They are all running because, like the ice cream trucks of our youth, these guys don’t wait.

The truck is painted school-bus yellow with flaring lights like the kind you see on ambulances. There are 2 large speakers mounted on top of the cab, where an electronic version of Beethoven’s “Für Elise” is pumped out at top volume in a continuous loop. Why “Für Elise” was chosen and not some other random piece of music is a bit of a mystery. However, this practice has been in effect since the beginning of time. For me, this means since the early 80’s and we were told not to ask so many questions at that age.

Running out to catch the garbage truck gives us a rare chance to catch a glimpse of our neighbors, maybe even strike up a conversation or two. Standing by the truck, I quietly judge them by the things they throw out. “Boy, they sure have a lot of beer bottles! Well, at least they recycle.” “This woman is throwing out a huge bag of men’s clothes! She’s either getting a divorce or just had a sex change.” “Here comes the guy upstairs who’s always singing off tune on his karaoke machine!”

As my neighbors and I head back to our separate lives in the world of high-rise apartments in overpopulated Taipei, I think about how “Für Elise” is actually a big part of our daily lives here. This is because the garbage is picked up twice daily: once in the afternoon for the stay-at-home crowd, and once in the evening for the salary men and women. When living in a city that’s crowded with a few million other people, having a chance to come out and greet your neighbors everyday makes this place seem a little smaller and friendlier. For this reason, maybe Beethoven can rest in peace.

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