“Rank Ranking” System

If China was a scratch and sniff sticker, it would smell like rotten fish, sour perspiration and brief whiffs of roses and fresh bread. There is no other way to explain in more complex adjectives the smell of China. Basically, it smelled. It didn’t always smell badly, but it always packed a powerful scent. And unlike taste, sight and sound, smell is not an easy sense to disband.

My roommate, a fellow China study abroad participant, told me I was being too negative about my Chinese experience in my past blogs. I meant to be sarcastic, but I guess that didn’t get emphasized. So, as a disclaimer, by no means am I putting down the country. The people were always welcoming and the scenery was beautiful, but there are some smells in the country that are foreign to Americans. It is just my goal to prepare future visitors for an unbiased smell of the country.

So, this is going to be a pretty blunt entry. I figured I would give the worst cases first and end with the best. To provide a neutral description of the country’s odor, I created a ranking system to rank worst to best smells of China. Shall we call it the “rank ranking” system? 10 represents the most offensive smells, 5 represents a neither appealing nor appalling scent and 1 represents the most pleasing aroma. After all, there is no reason to Febreeze the entire country.

Rank Ranking #10

The only bad thing about climbing a 6900 foot mountain and ingesting two liters of lukewarm water along the way: finding a bathroom. Not just any bathroom. A Western bathroom. Sure, there were plenty of “natural” places along the way, some occupied and overly well-lit. But, after watching numerous other adventurers’ adventure off into the commonly known, I opted to hold it until we reached base camp. After six hours of this bladder control, we finally reached the bottom and I was directed to a freestanding 20 x 10 concrete building, with little holes for windows. The local “squat pot” appeared to have been around since the mountain was a hill. With urgency in my steps, I shoved toilet paper in my bag and up my nose. However, I forgot that smell can also be tasted. {A little side note to future China travelers: Toilet paper is a luxury and should be bought in bulk before embarking. Wet naps work the best, but camping rolls also played a large role towards the end of the trip. See Rank Ranking #6.} Upon entering the room, I was hit with reasons against resting in this room. There is no need to get explicit with the smell description, but it had not been cleaned since the Cultural Revolution and the Xi An heat and humidity had crept in among the door-less stalls. Get my drift?

Having been in China for three weeks at this point, I had perfected the squat pot technique. Basically, set your footing, squat, wish you were a guy and hope you don’t topple over. But, as I looked around and wondered how certain smears had made it to the ceiling, my body ached for me to leave. I had gotten my britches to my knees when I started to topple. I stepped backwards to catch my balance and immediately realized my mistake. The hole may not have been deep, but its 45 degree trough-like slope opening to the outside swallowed my foot. As I tried to grab my senses from either vomiting or crying, I cursed having changed into flip flops after the mountain climb. I hastily ran outside, amidst screams of terror from the men’s side. My current roommate was simply experiencing the male equivalent of what I was hobbling away from. Now downwind of the building, I removed my shoes in one swift kick and in the same motion smeared my remaining Purell on my little piggies. I feared a good douse of Febreeze and some bleach would not resuscitate my flip flops, so I left them. Now barefoot and staggering to the bus, I figured I had held it for six hours. What would another two hours hurt?

Rank Ranking # 9

When I was packing, I kept worrying that I had left something. Shirts. Check. Disposable Flip Flops. Check. My Pharmacy. Check. It wasn’t until I quadruple checked my luggage hours before my flight that I realized I had forgotten to pack jeans. However, upon arrival, I learned that if I was about two decades younger, my forgotten pants wouldn’t matter: Children in China do not wear pants. Well, they do wear a type of pants, just crotch-less and for everyone to notice. But, NO ONE else noticed. I felt terrible thinking I was staring at these half naked little children. I grabbed my professor, hoping that this wasn’t the latest toddler trend.

“Why no pants,” I asked, gesturing to the bouncing two-year-old. I could see I had perplexed my professor. “But, they are wearing pants,” she replied, cocking her head so slightly to give me the “are you okay” non-verbal cue. She then caught my drift as I caught a whiff of something not so pleasant. The same child I had been watching had squatted in the middle of the sidewalk and was relieving himself of his midmorning bottle. My eyes grew large as my professor giggled. The child’s parents turned towards me and I blushed hoping I wasn’t creating another international incident. According to professor, diapers have only recently been introduced to China, starting in the 1980s. As with any new Western inventions, diapers are expensive, so parents continue the old fashion way of potty training. The only difference: no potty. Our Chinese textbook explained that parents whistle like trickling water, which encourages children as young as 4 months to start going potty. It is not a bad idea for saving money, but just be careful of the little puddle outside your doorstep. It didn’t rain last night.

Rank Ranking # 8

I am blessed to be 5’2, a traditionally average height for Chinese people. However, with the introduction of McDonald’s and other Western foods, not only the Chinese waistline grew, but also their height. On my first day on a Beijing subway, my short stature blessed me directly into the unshaven armpit of the woman next to me. She was my language partner, but I learned more than her name and where she was from that day. I learned Chinese, especially the older generation, do not typically wear deodorant, nor do they shave their armpits or legs. I smiled, not wanting to show my utter shock or utter my condolences. I wiggled my nose like Samantha on Bewitched and looked down at the floor. This was a hairy situation where no comment was safe.

Rank Ranking # 7

Smoking is widely popular in China and allowed in hotel rooms and restaurants. Besides being terrible for people’s health, it also creates a terrible residual smell. Our first hotel in Beijing, though recently built, allowed all hotel patrons to smoke in their rooms. Because of air conditioning restrictions, these patrons would leave their hotel room doors open, ventilating the hallway with their cancer stick smoke. Restaurants and bars, like Propaganda, would also smoke out patrons like a beekeeper to his hive. But, surprisingly, public transportation restricted lighting up. They had signs in English and Chinese saying “No Smoking.” Perhaps the cabbies should have allowed smoking in their cabs. It was the one and only time I felt the utter urge for one.

Rank Ranking # 6

Fish. It is a staple of Chinese culinary tradition. And it is not just any fish, but fresh fish. Nearly every restaurant boasts fish tanks, complete with live catches of all varieties. Once we reached Qinhuangdao, the stench of fish had dulled to our noses. However, the floor to ceiling fish tank in our hotel revitalized the smell. This same hotel also ran out of toilet paper for four days, quickly diminishing our provisions saved for other squat pot occasions. The second floor restaurant brought in so many options that they even had Styrofoam boxes filled with frozen or sometimes live crustacean catches. One morning while gathering for class in the lobby and wiping away my sleep, I noticed something red scampering across the floor. Was Ariel’s little friend Sebastian attempting to escape? I nudged Nikki who giggled. Our giggling attracted Sebastian’s captors, who picked him up by his tail and tossed him back, closing the lid to prevent further escape. I kind of felt guilty eating little lobsters the following night, knowing that I may be eating Sebastian. He may not have smelled great, but he sure tasted fabulous.

Rank Ranking # 5

Vendor food was bittersweet for me, but the smell was also bitter and sweet. Because of the lower sanitary conditions and lack of adequate trash removal, food and rubbish usually cook next to each other. As the cooks cooked the meats, it smelled like a backyard BBQ for Fourth of July. However, with the sun beaming on the proteins, it cooked the rotten trash situated next to the grill. Smoke rising from simmering steak cuts added a smoky flavor to the meats, but the taste of the day old fish in the trash can also infused. I guess there was no need for artificial flavoring.

Rank Ranking # 4

One of my favorite sites in Beijing was the Summer Palace. Situated on 2.9 square kilometers of land and water, it was recognized by UNESCO as an “outstanding expression of the creative art of Chinese landscape garden design, incorporating the works of humankind and nature in a harmonious whole.” The main focal point and the best view of the entire Palace is from the Tower of the Buddhist Incense. Rested on the peak overlooking Kunming Lake, the Tower of the Buddhist Incense houses an image of Amita Buddha. Imposing at 41 meters high, the shrine provided a place for the royal family to worship and burn incense. Unlike the smoke in the hotel, incense releases a flavored smoke used in many religious ceremonies and for medicinal purposes. The burning incense trend later reappeared along the hike up Hua-Shan when we ran into little shrines. The smell of cinnamon, jasmine and sandalwood would waft down the hill, announcing the temple before we even reached it. I never have been a big fan of Bath and Body Works, but this country knows how to work manufactured aromas.

Rank Ranking # 3

According to a popular song by Outkast “roses really smell like poo.” Well, if this is true, then Qinhuangdao has some smelly roses. During a stroll through the Dong Bei Da Xue campus, I took time out of my Chinese classes to stop and smell the roses. While cliché and often ignored, it really relaxed me. Brilliant colors of reds, whites and yellows like the Chinese flag dominated the garden landscape. Bees buzzed around and pollinated to keep the roses flourishing. The smell wafted in and out of our classroom building, allowing me a longer rose appreciation moment. I am sure grateful the gardens did not smell like the Xi An outhouse.

Rank Ranking # 2

In Qinhuangdao, the hotel offered an American-style breakfast. Looking forward to being rid of chow mien, fried rice and hot Tang, I actually got up before class and ventured to the café. But, an American style breakfast I did not find. Placed before us were fried eggs, instant coffee and SPAM. Instead of returning to World War II era rationing, we found a local bakery aptly located next to the Happy Café, a true American-style restaurant. Aromas of freshly baked breads and cookies mixed with ice creams of foreign flavors like green tea, pea, green bean and corn, and filled the crowded, uneven sidewalks of Qinhuangdao. In rows of Plexiglas display cases were sourdough, cakes and sweet pastries. From that point, the bakery became a staple of our breakfast. It was something we recognized and even if we did not, we could assume it was good. In addition to a breakfast haven, we used the bakery for our birthday shopping. When one of the guys on our trip turned twenty-two, we bought a birthday cake. It was so hardened by chocolate and excessively sweet, it could only be eaten in petite pieces. But, after blowing out candles and starting to eat, it reminded us of the home we would soon see. Just a little piece of chocolaty home.

Rank Ranking # 1

I was beginning to grow homesick by the end of the trip, so it is no surprise Qinhuangdao was my favorite stop. A beachside village with sweet people and salty air. Being from Florida for the last six years, it felt a bit like home. After being landlocked for three weeks, I just wanted to see the beach. I ran across the tan, gritty sand and tip-toed into the Pacific Ocean. The beach smelt crisply of salt and fish. The air carried whiffs of tanning lotions on the visiting Russians. Their skin was near transparent or tomato red and they were the only people wearing bathing suits on the beach. Though atypical everywhere else, most Chinese will go to the beach fully dressed and wade in the water up to their knees. A fair complexion is prized so tanning is shunned. But I soaked in the sun. And the smell. Nothing is better than the smell of home.

The smells were as diverse as the people who produced the smells. From the squat pot fiasco to the intoxicating smell of the Pacific Ocean, I tremendously looked forward to my “normal” aromas from the East Coast. Now back in the United States, I actually miss the smells. But, it sure was nice to get a new pair of flip flops.