Smellscape: Aromas and Stenches in a Very Far Away Place


There’s a lot of fish.

Korea in the summer is a sort of wide, hilly crock-pot. The humidity is high and soupy, and walking is basically no different from swimming. The warmth is incredible and only endurable for the regular and everlasting thunder storms which gush and guzzle for weeks at a time. In such a hot, sweaty apparatus, things start to waft. Summer in Korea is a time of duality, of scents that repel and attract. Down one street, something gently ushers into your nose, calling you forth to embrace it, to eat it, or drink it, or roll in it; down just another alley is an ungodly stench that may as well be personally assaulting you and stealing your wallet.

I knew, moving to a different country, that things would be different. There would be different sights: the neon burning and crackling outside of my window at night, the edges of mountains just visible in the distance. High rises higher than high. Oceans and seas and ports. I knew that the tastes would be different: all new foods and flavours and combinations, spices I had never experienced, textures and cooking styles both unfamiliar and supremely whack. Sounds, too, would shift: the music, the language, the movement of traffic and the screeching of subway brakes and the high octane announcements booming out of every fruit truck.

The change of smells was not something I could completely prepare for. Living in one place for so long, the totality of sensory input become not just the look or the sound of home, but the very shape of the world. Earth just smells or looks or feels like this, because of course it does. You know, in theory, that things might be different in some other country, or in some other dimension. But knowing and experiencing are two wildly different things, and facing down the practical experience worried me.

Because in preparation for Korea, I had done research into the food and the culture and the language. I had watched some Korean films and some television shows, dipped my toe into the quivering, flashy ocean of K-Pop. That I regularly worked just down the street from Koreatown allowed me to experience some reasonable facsimile of Korean life–my very own training-wheels Asia.

But Koreatown was still just a neighbourhood in Toronto, one maybe a ten minute walk from Little Italy and just down the street from the university. While I could see Korea in these streets, while I could hear the songs, while I could eat the food, I wasn’t going to smell the smell.

It still had the smell of Canada. The smell of Canada, for the curious, is pine and maple syrup, of big open fields, of dozens of competing restaurants, of moderately crisp, clean air. People smell, but also rock smell. Grass smell. Tree smell.  And also, if you live in Toronto like I did, sometimes beer and pee and smog smell. Home smell.

To paint you a nosepicture: open road, wheat, and beer.

Asia–Korea– I knew might smell different, but I wasn’t really sure how. I had droopy, half-formed, foggy ideas that most of Asia was essentially an open-air fish market, broken up occasionally by small, tiny restaurants operated by shrivelled, anthropodic husks older than the sun that cooked amazing, unknown dishes. I thought of enormous cities, packed with exactly one billion people, buzzing and spinning around each other like charged ions. There would be regular access to salt water. Kimchi would be everywhere. Things cooked with steam. How could I begin to acclimatize, to inoculate myself against the coming sudden seismic shift in my nasal experience?

I began regularly spending time in Chinatown, which, while not geographically accurate in terms of my eventual destination, provided a more vivid open-air food-n-things feel. Fish and fruit and vegetables baked under hot Toronto summer sun, and bursts of steam belched from the inside of restaurants. I stood in the shade and tried to just be: I tried to acclimate, to grow steadily more adjusted to the change in smell. I stood around for minutes, hours, baking in the sun, mentally dragging myself to an illusory and made-up Every Asia, imagining that the smells on that street would surely be exactly what I would confront in my small corner of particular, actual Asia. I didn’t really know what I was doing.

I didn’t really get a taste for the smellscape of my Korean city until several months later. The winter months choked the air, cutting odours short long before they could drift into my nostrils, which were also fused shut from the cold. In the thaw of spring and the burn of summer, my nose got its first taste.

It was the smell of people, though not smelly people, because Koreans are light on apocrine sweat glands. Thus it is just the smell of hundreds, thousands of bodies, buzzing and sluicing around each other like so many enormous bees. Warm and claustrophobic, and in the summer, enormously soggy.

It was the smell of food, basically everywhere. In most Korean restaurants you simply have the raw components of your dish brought to you at your table, and you begin cooking it there. Your huge wafts of steam and smoke are funnelled through vents or out the open windows onto the street, where passersby essentially bathe in the scent of roasting pork and bubbling, amazing soups. Whole streets become cacophonies of aroma, lurid and twisting mixes of all the different things you can eat. When I would walk to the subway, I would detour down different sidestreets and alleys, knowing exactly which ones would likely smell the most pleasant.

And now for a waft of delicious.

Sometimes it was the smell of sewer gas, though often, and suddenly, not anywhere near a sewer. You can walk down any street, or into a subway, or up an elevator, and be overwhelmed by a noxious, unheralded blast of fart. Sewer gas in Korea is crafty, a lurking presence, a creature of the shadows that thrives primarily on unexpectedness.

Other times it was the smell of construction: sawdust and rubber and metalwork, fresh paint and adhesives and caulk. New things are springing up all the time, and their burgeoning presence is called out every day by the sound of hammers, the sight of sparks, and the smell of new building. In spring there is blossom smell, in summer the scent of coming storms, in fall of changing leaves. Fresh fruit and vegetables off the backs of trucks, roasting walnuts and cans of candy floss off the backs of motorcycles, sauces and fryers and bubbling and crackling things wafting from street food stalls. The sea, and the sky, and the mountains, and great huge forests of pouring concrete and steel frames.

In the end, I found myself pretty prepared for the sights and the sounds, but the smellscape, over and over again, keeps me surprised.

8 thoughts on “Smellscape: Aromas and Stenches in a Very Far Away Place

  1. Just wanted to let you know, although I hardly comment or like I read all of your blog posts…I actually look forward to them. You’re just a great writer and you keep things interesting! Safe travels 🙂

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