I live in a place where my definition of “trash” doesn’t work any longer. My definition of “gross” and “ugly” are even starting to suffer under the pressure of conflicting views. I’ve written elsewhere about ethnocentrism, proving that I’m at least AWARE of the tendency to view things inaccurately due to ignorance of local values. But the thing with trash here was confusing me, and I especially invite all of my Indian readers (and your friends; c’mon guys, pass along a link and get some more local readers for me!)… anyway, I was saying, I invite you all to take a critical look at what I’m about to say, and send me some feedback. And please don’t forget: I love it here!

COMMERCIAL SETTING. Here’s what I’m prepared to say: What a person will not tolerate to accumulate inside his living room, or even inside the wall of his yard, he will quite easily and naturally tolerate in abundance less than a meter from his property line. Every morning the owner of the little shop sweeps yesterday’s accumulation of filth away from the doorway to his store. He will not dispose of it. He will, however, make sure it is swept neatly to the SIDE of his entryway (it seems that 1 meter is plenty of distance; and often 1/2 meter will do just fine). If the store has been in business long enough, those little piles of dust and garbage will have grown into mounds (small hills, if you will). Out of these mounds plants can begin to grow as dirt and dust and “trash” are daily added to the top. It matters not that the wind will bring a fair percentage of his sweepings BACK to his doorway throughout the day. He’ll move it out of the way again tomorrow. That’s a commercial setting, and it’s consistent enough to call it “normal”. The mounds appear to become “part” of the “normal expectation” rather than something that must be removed. People aren’t commenting about it or lamenting it; they’re simply stepping around it.

RESIDENTIAL SETTING. When it comes to the residential setting, things get a little more complicated (for the uninitiated, outside observer like myself). Here, if the house has an outer perimeter or wall, the “trash” must be carried or swept to the edge of that perimeter, and then dumped on the outside of that edge. It can grow into quite a nice pile or bank, again providing a place for weeds and plants to grow. It can even threaten to impede foot-traffic into the yard at times. But as long as it can be swept a bit toward the side, it seems to become, just like in the commercial setting, part of what’s expected and normal. It’s not something that bothers people much. If it gets removed sometime; fine. If not; also fine. It’s just as much a part of the place as the wall and the gateway. It’s just “there”. If there’s an empty lot between some of the houses, that lot becomes an acceptable place to throw everyone’s trash. (I’ve read Indian authors also commenting on this phenomenon, so I know it’s not an entirely simple thing to grasp).

DEFINITION OF “TRASH”. So what is “trash”? For me, I’ve thought of trash as something that must be taken away, and deposited in a place where no one has to walk near it or even see it. But can you see how the word “trash” is loaded with meaning? What I’m calling “trash”, when looked at here, actually has the ability to transform itself from “something that must be taken away”, into “something that is expected to be seen near my doorway”. Sure, it’s supposed to be swept a bit to the side so that we don’t have to step right into it. But to walk near it, and keep it deposited close to the doorway…well…that’s pretty ‘normal’.

Educated, uneducated; rich and poor; young and old. We’re all living together here, and there seems to be an agreed-upon view about “what must be taken away”, and “what’s acceptable near the doorway”. What I realize is this: I have attached the wrong meaning to the word “trash”. I have had to modify, a bit, my definition of “TRASH”. I’ve decided that dust, dirt, construction debris, yard and garden clippings, cow manure and “blow-in papers” (i.e. papers that came from elsewhere) should not be considered ‘trash’, but rather as an inevitable, inescapable part of the landscape. That stuff shouldn’t be seen as something we created or are responsible for, but rather as stuff that just “shows up”. “Trash”, then, is a word that must be reserved for things that are definitely more “dirty”, like food waste, papers from one’s own house, and used bottles and cans. If this distinction is held, then we can say that trash is definitely supposed to be carried over to the empty lot (sometimes, just next door) and dumped, while the other types of debris need only be swept to the side of the entry-way.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Have you ever thought about “what must be taken away and deposited out of sight” vs. “what must be swept to the side of the entry-way”? In some places, NOTHING is allowed to accumulate at the side of the entry-way. In other places, there’s a list of things that CAN accumulate there. What do you think? Would you like to try to call any of this “right” or “wrong”? :)

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