Thursday, January 24, 2008

America Smells Like..

I like to read books either about Americans living in foreign countries, or about people from foreign countries living in the United States. The former is the most interesting because it's a way to see ourselves in ways we don't usually think about.

One perception of America that is particularly interesting to me is smell, perhaps because that seems to be the strongest of my own five senses. The smell of a country first aroused my interest when I read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and one of the characters who comes to America says it's the only country that has no smell.

Also, a few years ago, some of the people I work with invited our boss out for a beer on Boss' Day (which he actually insisted on paying for because he said he made more money than all of us.) He is from Korea, but has lived her for many years, and I believe he is a U.S. citizen. However, he makes frequent trips back to Korea for both personal and business purposes. We asked him which country felt like home, and he said it was Korea. he said Korea smells like kimchee, but America smells like cheese.

Last summer, I read John Pomfret's book Chinese Lessons. He wrote that some of his classmates were worried about rooming with Americans, some of them having heard that Americans smell like butter.

The most recent book like this I have read is Ha Jin's A Free Life. He writes that the first time on the plane to the U.S., many Chinese could not eat the meal served because of an overwhelming, sickening smell that so permeates the atmosphere in the United States that one can even smell traces of it on the fruits and vegetables in U.S. supermarkets.

I was puzzled as to what this smell might be. At first I thought it might be store bread, the smell of which Anne Tyler points out in Breathing Lessons. Upon doing a little Googling, however, I have come to believe that the smell Ha Jin is describing is fabric softener. However, various people on various blogs have suggested french fry grease and other theories. And if you investigate, you will discover there is a lot of conversation about the smell of countries

So now I'm curious. Does America smell more like dairy products or fabric softener? Or does it smell like something else?


Dana Watson said...

Interesting. I don't think I've thought about it that much, but I'm not a very smell-oriented person, unless it's really strong/distinctive.

On another note, what did you think about Chinese Lessons? I read it recently for work, and I didn't think it was nearly as good at Oracle Bones, but I was directly comparing them, and it probably made me overly critical.

Mary said...

I was intrigued by most of it because it discussed when China first opened up, and Pomfret was there as a student which offered him a unique perspective. I found certain parts of it more interesting than others. I guess what I most enjoyed was his description of his relationships with his Chinese friends and acquaintances, as well as the nature of their relationships with each other, and the political backdrops and/or origins of those. I think I would like to read Oracle Bones as well to expand my perspective.

Shanghai Laowai said...

Oracle Bones is well worth reading. As are books by Lisa See, Maxine Hong Kingston, and others by Ha Jin. I particularly liked his book Waiting.

Smells are largely missing from American life. I remember last summer driving past a dead skunk and smelling nothing.

Anonymous said...

I believe America smells like gasoline and rain.