When my family added HBO to our cable line-up, I was one satisfied kid. I liked nothing more than sitting in our shag-carpeted rec room in the basement, watching movie after movie after movie, until my eyes were glossed over. I was a premium cable channel zombie, and proud of it.
But there was one thing that brought me out of that TV stupor, and that’s when one of my sisters came down to the basement, plopped on the couch, opened a bag of Fritos, and started crunching away. One, that crunching sound—like someone chewing river gravel—penetrated my brain like a dentist drill. And two, that aroma that came from eating Fritos was horrifying to me–a mixture of dirty socks crossed with bad breath and burnt popcorn. Even if I was watching Boy in the Plastic Bubble, right at the part where Tod is about to risk death by leaving his bubble for the girl next door, I’d run from the rec room to escape that smell.
I’ve always been acutely aware of scents and sounds, which as a kid concerned me. None of my friends ever seemed to be bothered by these things. Was I part beagle? Alien? Cyborg? Why was I the only one so affected by these two senses? I mean, I can hardly follow the story line of a movie in a theatre because of the open-mouth-crunching popcorn eaters (who seemingly go unnoticed by everyone else). If I’m a half block downwind of a person with body odor or halitosis, I’ll hold my breath until I pass out. If someone within a mile radius of me is doing that thing where they pop 80 bubbles in rapid machine-gun-succession every time they chew down on a piece of Juicy Fruit, I pray for a piano to fall on them from above. I don’t think I’d mind the sound of the piano crashing even one tiny bit.
It’s something I’ve dealt with for as long as I can remember. When I was a high school
exchange student, I was overwhelmed with the general stinkiness of my host country, Peru—so much so that I applied cologne under my nose every time I went outside. It was a tough decision every day: Do I reek of Hai Karate or Aqua Velva, or do I allow the scent of human urine and poo and diesel fumes and rotting garbage to enter my nostrils freely? Now granted, I’m sure New York and Chicago have similar odors, but I was a Midwestern boy from a small town who was used to smelling fresh cut grass, Herbal Essence shampoo, and ham and cheese casseroles in the oven. Aside from the cabbage field by our house that smelled like farts near harvest time, my town smelled pretty good. Even the boy’s bathroom at my school didn’t smell bad, although I did have an aversion to the scent of that sawdust-looking stuff the janitor sprinkled when a kid vomited in the classroom. And that sound of vomiting would make me want to…well, you know.
This sensory affliction does make traveling and living abroad a tricky proposition. When I
backpacked through Europe during a college summer, I remember a 10-hour overnight train ride down the length of Italy in which I shared a small unairconditioned compartment with several very ripe-smelling, older gentlemen. By hour two I had rubbed a full tube of cherry Chapstick under my nose (the only pleasantly scented substance I could find), but I was still inhaling that musty, vaguely chicken soupish, sour-wash-cloth odor. Finally, I chose to surrender my paid compartment seat, and squatted on the floor in the narrow train corridor where every person on the entire train bumped into me at some point. I didn’t get much sleep, but my nostrils were pleased.
When we lived in Mali a few years ago, I recall sitting on the couch in our house one day with the windows wide open, a fresh, spring breeze drifting through the windows. Then before I knew it, an acrid, chemically smell invaded. As I slammed the windows shut I saw a trash pile burning across the road where an old vinyl suitcase had been tossed right on top. I can still conjure up that smell in my head today. We also lived a couple kilometers from the abattoir, which is a beautiful sounding French word for slaughterhouse. Sometimes if the wind blew just the right way, the scent of butchered sheep and cows resting in the warm Malian sun would make its way to our windows. I’m still deciding if that aroma was worse than the blazing Samsonite.
We now live in Shanghai, the world’s most populous city, where my nose and ears get a workout every day. For example, the wet market, a place where vendors sell fresh meat, seafood, and produce, is a stone’s throw from our apartment building. When we first moved to this neighborhood, we thought this would be a real plus—inexpensive, fresh food straight from the farmers and fisherman, right at our doorstep. But on our first visit inside I was sure I’d entered a recently unsealed crypt full of mouldering bodies. The stench was overwhelming. Plus, there were mounds of guts from fish and eels and other bizarre water creatures that were still wriggling. I fled, dry heaving into my shirt that I had pulled over my face. The only thing that would have been worse is if everyone was eating Fritos in there.
Unfortunately, we must pass the wet market daily on the way to the morning bus stop at 5:25
AM. And I can tell you with confidence that the very last smell you want to encounter in the pre-dawn hours is rotting seafood. But fish markets always smell bad, you might argue. But trust me, this isn’t a fresh-fish-sitting-in-crunchy-ice kind of smell one would encounter at, say, Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. That smell is almost pleasant, with a vibe that reminds you of a sleepy fishing village with colorful boats bobbing in the harbor.
But this wet market has no such vibe. Nope, this vibe is more of a “you slipped and fell into the carcass of a decomposing sperm whale that had eaten a tanker ship full of vomit.” It’s a place where the juice from those underwater creatures has run into cracks and seeped into the concrete to fester in the humid Shanghai air, day after day, turning into something that I believe could be used in warfare instead of nuclear bombs. Seriously, this odor would bring anyone to their knees–and yet, the wet market it is crowded with shoppers all day long who are certainly not dry heaving into their shirts.
It’s more than just scents here in ol’ Shanghai, though. For me, the sound that is synonymous with this city is that awful noise people make when trying to clear their throat to gather phlegm for spitting (seriously, just hearing someone say the word “phlegm” is an assault on my eardrums). But hearing the actual expulsion sound is cringe inducing for me. And trust me, I cringe a lot, because I hear it all day long, even through the closed windows of our third-floor apartment. Even when I’m wearing Bose Noise Canceling headphones. Even when we’re inside a restaurant and someone does it outside on the street. And probably even when I’m inside a submarine in the Mariana Trench 35,814 miles below sea level.
It’s horrific, like someone is hurking up a chunk of lung. And everyone does it—young people, elderly ladies, probably famous Chinese movie stars. And as with the wet market experience, this sound causes me to dry heave. Of course, there is the foul aftermath of this sound to contend with as well, which is why the sidewalks here are always dotted with wet spots and why I look down when I walk on the sidewalks here, and why our shoes have never, ever touched the floor inside of our apartment. No lung matter on my shiny wood floors, please.
Regarding this spitting thing, I’ve actually heard people say that it’s “cultural.” Yeah, no. I fully honor and embrace the many cultural differences I’ve encountered here, like how Chinese people avoid confrontation, or have no sense of personal space, or how they talk so loudly that I think they are arguing when they’re just chatting about buying eels at the wet market. But hocking up a big loogie is not a part of any culture—it’s just a terrible habit, like picking your nose or making those loud sounds when you yawn. It’s a habit that one could kick by simply drinking some hot tea, or maybe by not eating slimy, wet market sea creatures that look like they belong in a horror movie.
In the meantime, for the morning walk to the bus stop I’ll be dabbing under my nose a generous amount of Gucci Guilty Black Pour Homme cologne, a scent highlighted by notes of coriander and lavender but also with base notes of patchouli–a combination that creates a scent that’s bold and noticeable without being overpowering (or so the reviews say). As long as it’s powerful enough to mask rotten shrimp and Fritos, I’m good.