Current Works in Progress

Sunday, April 1, 2012

So, You're Moving to China: The Nose Knows

Dear Imaginary Person,

In my last letter I told you about the sounds of China, and how the first thing I noticed here was the noise. The thing about living in a noisy environment is that you pretty quickly develop selective hearing. After a few weeks you don’t even notice most of it any more. Except for the street washing trucks*. And the laowai** comments. You always notice those. No, what has really made a lasting impression on me are the smells. Food smells, street smells, the smell of animals, the smell of people, the smells of construction and manufacturing, and every so often the smells of natural, growing things. China is a land of many smells.

For example;

For the first six months I was in China, they were working on the sewer near the school where I taught. Every day I’d arrive at the school and the stench of raw sewage would be wafting on the breeze. Strangely, no one else seemed to notice or be bothered by it, and I never saw a hole in the street or even an open manhole cover, but the smell was both powerful and unmistakable. I eventually asked one of the Chinese teachers when they were going to finish fixing the sewer, and received one of the most confused looks of my life. “They aren’t fixing the sewer,” she said, “the sewer is working fine.” We followed my nose outside and to a spot about 40 yards down the street where the smell was at its most eye-watering. “What’s that smell, then?” I asked. Comprehension spread across her face, only a fraction of a second ahead of an evil grin.

This is how I was introduced to something called chou dofu (臭豆腐), literally translated as “stinky tofu”. It is often served fried on a stick by street vendors, and has an odor exactly like a gym-sock that was worn for a week, pooped in, and then left under the bed for a further three months (if all three of those months were August). Oh, and contrary to what Chinese people will tell you, it tastes exactly like it smells, only more so.

Also, and this is a cultural thing, most Chinese people bathe in the evening before bed and not in the morning before work. What this means is that, in the hot humid Hangzhou summer, the bus ride on the way home from work is often an ordeal. Most Hangzhou city buses at 5:30 pm contain between 3-6 people per square meter (9 square feet for you metrically challenged Americans). If you’ve seen video of Japanese subway pushing you’ll have an idea of what I mean. When those people have all been sitting in un-airconditioned cubicles for 8 hours and haven’t seen their shower for a minimum of 20 hours (often longer - they bathe in the evening, but not necessarily every evening)… hoooo-doggie!

I do have a few more pleasant examples of what I mean, though. In the city of Hangzhou, in the autumn, the Osmanthus (桂花) trees bloom, and their subtle and unique fragrance saturates the city. I’ve never smelled anything like it anywhere else and just thinking about it makes me immediately feel less stabby.

Likewise the combined smell of water and willow you find near West Lake in Hangzhou on an early summer evening is one that I will remember for the rest of my life. It helps that the smell is often accompanied by the setting of the sun behind bamboo covered mountains dotted with temples and pagodas, while the covered boats paddle the water with their cargoes of tourists. It helps; but even without all that, the smell is magic.

A sunset picture
Sunset over Westlake

A Poorly Exposed Picture of Westlake

If you know anything about brain geography or how our senses are processed in the brain, it might not surprise you that it’s the smells you really carry with you. Your sense of smell ties in directly to your brain’s limbic system (the seat of memory and emotion), which is why you can often have a very powerful memory triggered by a smell. It is also why smells can be one of the most disquieting and difficult things to get used to when living in China.

It isn't only about what you can smell, though, it’s also about what you can't smell. I started to figure this out when I made my first trip back to Canada in 2008, after 4 years in China. I grew up on the Canadian prairies, and I never realized that “dry” has a smell; it does. Wheat and canola have a smell. Home has a smell, and I’d been missing it without even knowing.

What was even more interesting was that within days of arriving back “home” I started to miss other smells. The smell of the lake. The smell of the guy downstairs from me arc-welding some steel tubing together without a mask (and possibly without a reason). And yes, even the smell of chou tofu.

When you first arrive in China you will be homesick. You will miss your smells. But give it time. It’s amazing how quickly somewhere new can become home.



* I can't speak to elsewhere in China, but in Hangzhou there are these trucks that drive around, rain or shine or snow, spraying water on the roads (yes, even when it's raining). They always play loud, high-pitched renditions of Christmas carols and "Happy Birthday" for some reason. In the summer I assume they spray to keep the dust down, but in sub-zero weather... most people in China have enough trouble driving safely on dry pavement, never mind ice.

** laowai (老外) means "foreigner" and as you walk around, even in large, modern, international cities, you'll hear the surprised cry of "laowai!" as people notice you and point you out to their friends. They don't mean anything by it, they're just racist.


  1. I can't tell you how much I enjoy and look forward to these glimpses into your life in China. This is fascinating. You give us these details in a wonderful straight forward style. Nicely done.

    1. Thank you sir, I appreciate your appreciation.

      I'm actually pretty burned out with China at the moment so the struggle for me right now is to keep the China posts from being overwhelmingly negative.

  2. I love your smells of China. I have to say China is one place I would never even want to visit. I'm sure it has some very beautiful places and The Great Wall would be spectacular. The Chinese don't seem to have an issue with being racists. My son got his M.S. in electrical engineering, so he was the only "white" American. He got really tired to of some of the Chinese students' attitude toward American's. But he did make a best friend who is Chinese; so it's not true for all.
    I was an elementary children for 22 years. I loved it.
    I just dropped by from BPOTW. I've decided to join your site. Hope you will do the same. I love your profile--interest as varied as they are shallow-lol

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. China's not so bad, really, but 8 years is a long time. I'd say that for a visit, especially in the more tourist friendly areas, you can't really go wrong. The cultural differences alone make it a fascinating trip.

      You're absolutely correct, by the way, that the Chinese don't have an issue with being racist - they think it's perfectly acceptable. :)

      I should actually clarify the racism thing a bit. When I say Chinese people are racist I mean the culture in general, not any specific individual. Whenever you make a generalization you are going to be at least somewhat inaccurate; I'm not saying every Chinese person is racist, just that it's a pretty common thing here.

      Also, I don't mean that Chinese people necessarily hate people of other races (although many do) just that they see the world as divided into "Chinese" people and "not Chinese" people. They think of the world racially, which is racist.

      I may have to do a whole post about racism in China now...


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