China: an olfactory journey

I read an article today about our sense of smell and how it is generally undervalued. Mentioned briefly, but not expanded upon is the fact that smell plays a bigger role in non-Western cultures. I immediately was reminded of China, which is truly a country to be experienced by all 5 (or 6 if you have them) senses. A day experienced through the nose would be something like this:

About 50% if not more of Chinese eat their breakfast outside. Especially if you have gruelling 996 working hours, but that is something to discuss in more detail another time. You can find the food by smelling it. The small food carts and stalls where jianbing, youtiao and baozi are fried and steamed right in front of you. Even if you have had something at home, you may grab something extra, just because it smells so good.

Morning at the office
Because so many people get their breakfast on the way to the office, in the morning it is often a combination of different foods, hanging in the air. Combined with the damp office where everyone is inside most of the time and not always a window open because of pollution outside, this can be a less fun olfactory experience though.

Just as you’re starting to smell the warmed up, home-cooked meals of your colleagues, you can often slip outside with some others to go lunch at a restaurant. A restaurant always has a strong smell of something being prepared, some spices hanging in the air if it is a good one.

Afternoon shopping
I do not know how they do it, but many shopping malls have the same smell. It is a slightly sweet smell, mixed with cleaning products and makes every mall you enter vaguely familiar. Maybe you will get something sweet, almost all cafes have a flowery, sweet scent that makes your teeth ache without eating their cakes. Looking for a toilet? You will smell it before seeing it, which is not always a good thing of course.

Grocery shopping
Many groceries can be bought at wet markets, but even super markets often have a ‘fresh’ section. This means that there will be many fishy, meaty and fruity smells pointing you to the right aisles. And for good measure, if you do not have the time to cook yourself, you will undoubtedly smell the oil and garlic of the instant-cooking section where you can get a snack or dish fully prepared to take away.

Garlic, ginger and oil. Many Chinese dishes require a combination of these 3, and plenty of other spices and sauces of course, promising to have your kitchen smelling fantastic (if it all goes well) and your stove a mess. If successful, Chinese food is the kind where everyone will be taking a few deep sniffs of every dish before actually eating it.

I need to come clean

So, let us talk a bit about hygiene today. China is a very two-sided country to live in with regards to this. On the one hand, no one will put bags on the ground and restaurant staff will be quick to bring you something to put your bag in or on. Furthermore, once you drop something on the table it is deemed to be lost. Contaminated and poisoned for only the bravest to pick up. And of course food preparation itself is something that is under increased scrutiny these years, to make sure no mice, cockroaches or other foreign object end up in your mouth.

On the other hand though, this is the country where people spit freely on the streets. Where people will rather sit on the toilet itself than the seat. And where cleaning is being done to spread as many bacteria as possible, by using the same cloth to wipe counters, tables and the toilet.

All in all, it seems that there is a notion of hygiene, but it is not always very logical. For example, many large shopping malls and office buildings have cleaning ladies. Oftentimes, they are middle-aged and clearly cleaning the building the way they have always done. With age comes this certain tenacity, so you get the feeling that no matter what you say, they will stubbornly continue doing what they have always done.

Putting away the part of people cleaning useless bars, fences and glass panels, I want to focus on the toilets for now. I have literally seen the worst techniques for cleaning toilets being used here daily.

Exhibit A: I once entered a toilet where some mango ice smoothie was spilled on the ground. Not only was it wet, it was also sticky. No problem, the cleaning lady simply got the bin from the toilet (keep in mind that we do not flush toilet paper here in China, it is thrown separately in those bins), emptied it above the mango stain and in a few swipes brushed it away. Needlessly to say, the floor was not clean.

Exhibit B: just yesterday, I wanted to go to the toilet at my office building, but the cleaning lady was doing her rounds. With a familiarly greasy mop (I do not think I have ever seen clean mops being used here) she absent-mindedly swept the floor. When one of the stalls opened, she swiped the floor, put the mop into the bin with all the toilet paper to make it humid and stomped it a few times, swiped the mop past the toilet itself and was then generous enough to let me enter.

A few days ago I saw a cockroach in the toilet which was so large it made me instantly flee the stall. When I came out, another girl went in and went out again immediately as well. We connected on a spiritual level.