My mother in law recently lent me a collection of articles by Oregonian columnist and author Bob Welch. One article that particularly caught my attention was ‘The sweet smells of home’ (2001), in which Mr Welch celebrates the transcendental power of smells, and their ability to take us from our present state and into a distant memory that we didn’t even know we remembered. If you’re like me, you will have had this experience many times yourself. It’s not always a pleasant or significant association, in fact it very rarely is, but the immediacy of the sensation, as though you have literally travelled back in time for a brief moment, is quite powerful.
During my two years in China I amassed more souvenirs than I can shake a chopstick at: miniature replicas of the Terra-cotta Warriors; propaganda posters from the Cultural Revolution; a traditional Chinese instrument that sounds like a cat violently evacuating its bowels; and of course the thousands of photos I took on my various travels around the country. As the years go by, the transformative force of these mementos will gradually fade, until they become little more than tangible evidence that I was once in China. However, one whiff of barbecued lamb cooked with too much five spice and I will be whisked away to the night market across the street from Jiangsu University, fanning myself with a wad of napkins and shoving watermelon into my face in futile resistance to the 100 degree heat.
Inspired by Mr Welch, whose website can be found here, I’ve decided to compile my own top 5 China smells list. These are the smells that, for me, most vividly capture the essence of living in China. Most of them, you will notice, are pretty rank, but that doesn’t mean I will cherish them any less. A crucial part of experiencing a foreign country is to accept both the good and the bad, and not to pretend that one or the other doesn’t exist. The inescapable truth is, China is smelly, or as my brother once put it, “China has a pong to it – a ping pong”. Here is the list, in no particular order:
Fermented soybean. Supposedly this food has great health benefits. I’ll never know personally because the smell is enough to make me want to gouge my own eye out, just to have something to distract me from its noxious assault on my nostrils. It’s one of those smells that seems to hit you right in the gut, as though it’s being funneled directly into your small intestine. To make matters worse, it has a habit of striking you when you least suspect it. Like a stealthy assassin, one minute it’s not there and the next, BAM! Fermented soybean just ruined your day.
Five spice and farts. If you’ve ever been to a night market in China, chances are you’ll be familair with this delightful concoction. Anything that goes on the barbecue – meat, fish, vegetables, tofu – is absolutely smothered in five spice, presumably to mask the inferior quality of what’s being coated. The smell is so strong that it’s caused me several coughing fits just by being in my general vicinity. Oh, and the farts – don’t worry, that’s just the poorly drained sewage coming up from the ground and finding a new home at the back of your throat.
Firecracker smoke. We all know that the Chinese are famous for their fireworks; after all, they had been using gunpowder for about 200 years when the Battle of Hastings was being fought with sticks and stones. However, it may come as a surprise that in any given town in China, explosives of some description are let off several times each day, for reasons ranging from, “I just opened a new shop” to “I just wanna see some shit go bang”. Needless to say, the lingering smell of firecracker smoke is as pervasive in China as bread in Paris or other types of smoke in Amsterdam.
Stale cigarette smoke. Imagine if every person in England and America combined
were smokers, and they all lived in the same country. Well, that’s the situation in China, where unsurprisingly, it reeks of smoke. Park yourself in any taxi in China and, if your driver isn’t already emitting smoke fumes at a rate that rivals the factory in his rearview mirror, then you will at least be greeted by the cumulative effect of thousands of cigarettes being smoked in a space the size of your wardrobe.
Roasted sweet potatoes. Chinese winters can be fierce, even in the regions with
more moderate climates, and so you will often see people cooking whole, un-peeled sweet potatoes in a portable oven made especially for the purpose and selling them for a reasonable price. It may not sound like anything special, but when you’re so cold that your extremities could fall off without you even noticing, the beckoning warmth and rich, smoky aroma of these humble vegetables provide a momentary oasis that never fails to please.
There you have it: my list of quintessential China smells. As glad as I am to have escaped these smells for the time being (all except the sweet potatoes), I have this warped desire to experience them again one day and unearth some long-forgotten memories. In any case, it’s a lot cheaper than flying.