The nose knows…

Have you ever thought about the role that the sense of smell plays in our every day experience? Or about how the definition of “good smell” and “bad smell” might vary from culture to culture? Until I traveled to Africa and spent 13 weeks in rural Uganda, I just never thought about it. The following experience, in particular, helped me to realize this important lesson.

One day, as I was waiting in a matatu (taxi van) to be taken out for a bonding experience in a rural village, one of the local vendors suddenly thrust a bottle of lotion at me through the window. He said, (please note that my interpretation of his accent and use of English is not intended to be condescending…it’s just the way English is used there, and the way the memory is burned into my mind) “Hey muzungu! Madame, Are you wanting to buy some nice lotion?” I politely answered, “No, thank you.” However, he was a persistent salesman and continued his pitch. “Oh, but madame, this is very fine smelling lotion. It is smelling very good! You try it, you like!” Again, I said “No, thank you.” He tried another tactic. “You buy it, madame. You will be smelling very nice!” Since I had showered quite thoroughly that morning and even put on a small amount of my own Bath and Body works lotion, I replied. “No, thank you. I am already smelling very nice.” His eyes widened in amazement (or shock, I’m still not sure which) and replied, “No, Madame! You are NOT smelling nice!” I didn’t even know how to reply to that sales tactic, but fortunately I didn’t have to as he stalked off to find a more willing customer. After my visit to the village, I told the story to the missionaries I was staying with, trying to illustrate that this guy obviously needed some tips on how to sell things to westerners. They said, “Well, to him, you probably didn’t smell very nice. That’s probably why he was trying to sell you the lotion in the first place.” Their comment completely reversed my understanding of the incident! In my mind’s nose (I figure that is a more fitting expression than “mind’s eye” for this post), I smelled great…whereas the salesguy, and his product smelled pretty bad. But in his mind’s nose, I smelled terrible and desperately needed some help!

According to “The Smell Report,” The experience of smell is not merely biological or mental, it is also social and cultural. Here’s an excerpt of some of the “Smell Preferences” that they have collected from a number of different cultures.
“Western notions of aesthetically pleasing fragrances are by no means universal. For the cattle-raising Dassanetch of Ethiopia, no scent is more beautiful than the odour of cows. The association of this scent with social status and fertility is such that the men wash their hands in cattle urine and smear their bodies with manure, while the women rub butter into their heads, shoulders and breasts to make themselves smell more attractive.

The Dogon of Mali would find these customs incomprehensible. For the Dogon, the scent of onion is by far the most attractive fragrance a young man or woman can wear. They rub fried onions all over their bodies as a highly desirable perfume.

The most complex aesthetics of scent are to be found in Arab countries, where women use a wide range of scents to perfume different parts of their bodies. In the United Arab Emirates, musk, rose and saffron are first rubbed over the entire body (which must be scrupulously clean). Hair is perfumed with a blend of walnut or sesame oil and ambergris or jasmine. The ears are scented with mkhammariyah,a blend of aloewood, saffron, rose, musk and civet. Ambergris and narcissus are among the scents used on the neck, sandalwood in the armpits and aloewood on the nostrils. Perfumes are only used, however, in private situations, when a woman is in the company of other women, or of her husband and close family. To wear perfume in public or in the company of men is to be “like an adulteress.”

Arab men may also wear perfumes: they use rose and aloewood behind their ears, on their nostrils, in their beards and in the palms of their hands.

The African Bushmen would probably regard the olfactory preferences of almost all other cultures, including our supposedly sophisticated Western tastes, as distinctly lacking in subtlety. For the Bushmen, the loveliest fragrance is that of rain.”

By now you’re probably why I’m posting about all of this and what kind of Taiwan experience would prompt such a long discussion on the merit of smells from culture to culture. First, I ran into this comment on a message board for foreigners living in Taiwan. (Note:If you click on the link, be forewarned that the foreign community here reportedly has a high percentage of odd or socially maladjusted people and some of the contents of the message board reflects that. I usually just stick to the “Buy and Sell” thread, as I try to find some more furniture for our apartment. But when I do wander into some of the other threads, I really have to wonder about some of these people. “Did they come to Taiwan expecting that everything would be exactly the same as Canada, US, South Africa,…etc.?!?!”)

But the comment, in a thread titled “Where can I find deodorant?” said the following:

“I’ve gone native and started using some local stuff. It lasts a long while and covers up the stink pretty well. Trouble is, I’m getting tired of smelling sweet like some sort of marinated pork product. Think Speed Stick, but this is more like (sesame) Seed Stick.”

We also recently ran out of the few bars of soap that we packed with us from Canada, and picked up some more soap at a little bitty shop while we were out getting dinner one night. The next morning, I unwrapped the soap only to discover that it smells (in my mind’s nose) terrible!!! Joel thinks I’m over reacting, but this soap (“Imperial Leather”) really smells like the flea soap that we used to use on our pets! Or, like really bad men’s cologne. Or a combination of flea soap and really bad men’s cologne. Ohhhhhh, it makes my eyes water the whole time I’m in the shower. For a few minutes, I wondered if I really had picked up some flea soap by accident, but then I remembered that the saleslady said, “for to wash body.”

I’m certain that there are some local soaps which I will find quite pleasing to use and to smell. I’ve even seen a few western brands (though they are more expensive). But none of those were available at this particular little shop, leading to our selection of a six-bar pack of “Imperial Leather.”

But here’s the good news: 1 bar down, 5 more to go. Then we get to try again!(=
Until then, I just use a little extra of my Bath and Bodyworks lotion and hope that the locals don’t find my smell too offensive! (After all, why would I cover up that nice smelling “Imperial Leather” with that putrescent smelling American lotion!!!)

6 thoughts on “The nose knows…”

  1. That might make that fragrance line idea I came up with in college a little more marketable. Remember Sense-Less Fragrances? For those days you want to avoid people? We came up with a bunch of aromas. Obvious ones like “Sewer,” “Flatulate” “Perspire” and “Chicken of the Sea That’s Been Sitting out in the Hot Sun for a Week” Then there was some concept ones, like if they had a smell it would be this bad, like “Blister” “Sunburn” and the ever constant and slight annoyance of “Piece of Lunch Stuck in the Teeth with No Toothpick Around”

    So nice to know I may have a great foreign market. I will happily add “Cow Dung” to the line.

  2. Wow guys I can relate to the smell thing and the cultural diffences. Thats why I had my dad bring us multiple deodorants and Alicia asked for a big bottle of body wash. So remember to get someone to bring you some when you have your first visitors, or drop the hint about bars of soap in the next care package (they are light). I still can’t get over how bad garbage can smell after one day here in the tropics. They pick up garbage everyday here, but I don’t look forward to being on the streets around 7 because you are going to get blown away by odor. My teammates tell me its not that bad and that they are used to it, but I think they are just trying to convice themselves of that. How is the garbage situation for you there?

  3. The streets aren’t that bad, and the garbage collection is constant. Taipei is a developed city, and there’s enough foreigners to support a foreigner economy, so you can find most stuff from the West here, if you’re willing to pay for it. We glad that our neighbourhood has very few Westerners, but if you go to certain parts of the city they’re all over the place.

    And there’s stereotypes of foreigners that we’re starting to notice… one being young, single, lonely, aimless ESL teachers with some cash to burn who – well – let’s just say we wouldn’t leave them alone wth our kids! We haven’t met that many foreigners, but the majority of the ones we’ve met seem to enjoy that stereotype.

  4. Hey Guys,

    I don’t have time to read everything that I have missed right now. I’m terribly sorry, but I am in an internet cafe here in a tiny town in Mexico, and in a few minutes Leslie finishes her work in the schools, and I am going to run to meet her. I miss you guys, and I hope to get to talk with you when I get back to gringoland.

    God bless.

  5. If you can respond to this on my blog. I just wanted you guys to know I’ve replied. Joel, I do have Ed’s number the problem is he’s constantly running out of minutes. He’s out right now as a matter of fact. Do you guys still have your old e-mail? Either way I’m trying to see if I can use Brian Hailey’s computer to get with you guys on sckype. If I can and it works out I’ll try to bring along Ed.

  6. OK, Sean. We’ll Skype him if we can’t phone him… would it eat up his minutes if we phoned him, or only if he phoned us? We’d like to phone him if we can.

    Brian – have fun in Mexico. Glad you finally made it after that obnoxious trouble at the border with your car registration.

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