I smell American. I don't just smell like myself, with my sweat and pheromones. I actually smell American too, which surprised me at first, but made sense once I thought about it more. If you were blind, and I was next to you, and we were in a foreign country, you would tell me that I smelled American, regardless of how I look.
| During the past week, my friends and I had been kicking around the idea that certain areas of the world have certain smells.
During the past week, my friends and I had been kicking around the idea that certain areas of the world have certain smells. But to hear that you yourself have such a smell can be a pleasant or unpleasant reminder of where you came from. We had wondered how America smells like, but determined we couldn't figure it out. We lived there, making us immune to the scent.
I never really thought about places or people belonging to a smell until our conversations. When characters in books said things such as "smells like China," or "smells like an Indian," I always thought they were being metaphorical or derogatory. But what my friends had said made sense, because even now, I can't forget the unusual scents I had encountered in North Africa four years ago. I remember that when I first opened the closet of my friend's house, this overwhelming foreign scent, like mothballs, blew over me. I just assumed they used a different detergent. But when I returned to the U.S., my dog smelled my clothes suspiciously while my mom made me air out the suitcase.
Eastern Europe has a smell, according to my friend who spent a semester in Budapest.
"Yup, smells like Budapest," Leah said, as we were walking around the streets of Kyiv, Ukraine. We were there as part of a volunteer project affiliated with a church back in Boston. I tried to sniff the air myself to hunt for aromas, but couldn't detect anything beyond a pungent yet dulled scent of rotting garbage. We continued to take whiffs.
What makes a place smell like it does? You have spices, yes, as well as freshly cut grass, car exhaust, and people's perspiration. But those are what I call tangible scents: you smell them and an object pops up in your mind. The best definition I could come up with is that the smell of places is a mixture of all these scents. If you could imagine each scent belonging to a color, the smell of a place would be black, because it was a mixture of everything.
| It doesn't matter how you look like or what ethnicity you are, if you live in a place long enough, you can smell like that place too.
Thanks to soap, laundry detergent, the food we eat, the way we put away garbage, the way we clean up streets, and the way we transport ourselves, among other things, we can carry part of our nation's scent. It doesn't matter how you look like or what ethnicity you are, if you live in a place long enough, you can smell like that place too. So even though I look Asian, I smell American, because that's where I live. If I stayed in North Africa, where it's over 95% Arab, I could smell like an Arab. If I lived in Nepal, I could smell Nepalese.
And that's what tickles me about this smell theory. Although it has been used in derogatory ways, there's an irony present to the trained nose. Local smells are colorblind. People who don't look like they belong there can carry that nation's characteristic scent, if they consume that nation's products and food. What would happen if people were solely classified by their smell, as opposed to their ethnicity, tribe, or value system? Would there be a fight going on between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, Muslims and non-Muslims in Mindanao, Serbs and Croats, Indians and Pakistanis, or even Indians and Brits? I know I'm trivializing their histories and identities, but it's interesting to think of how one could draw the lines differently.
I smelled American because of my soap. I was riding a subway in Kyiv, when Grace, an American working in the Ukraine, took my hand that was holding the subway bar, and put it up against her nose. She closed her eyes and took a nostalgic whiff.
| According to Grace, Ukrainian soaps are more flowery, whereas American soaps are more of a combination of citrusy and flowery scents.
Naturally puzzled, I asked her what she was doing. She replied, "I was smelling something different, and I looked around to figure out what it was. Then I realized it was your hand." After smelling it, she was satisfied with her conclusion.
I was trying to figure out what was so special about my hand (I took a whiff myself and couldn't detect anything spectacular), when I remembered that before going on the subway, I washed my hands with Dial anti-bacterial soap, an American brand. According to Grace, Ukrainian soaps are more flowery, whereas American soaps are more of a combination of citrusy and flowery scents.
I told Grace about the conversation I had been having with the others, and she agreed. She said that when she comes home to visit, her father and siblings say disgustedly (unaware that it's her), what's that smell?! That's me, she says proudly to herself.
Because people often make arbitrary assumptions based on my race, the knowledge that I smell American has become a little triumph for me. It's not so much smelling American that matters, as opposed to smelling Ukrainian or North African, or some other nationality. But it throws a curve ball to people who assume things based on my ethnicity, like believing I don't speak English. Because I smell American, your assumptions of me not being American start to crumble. And even if I did smell like the home country, what does it matter? In the end, it just shows that the assumptions and characteristics people place against other people are just as invisible as the color and shape of smells themselves.
© Joanna Franco
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