The Politics of Smell
Published on May 16, 2011 http://www.newsbreak.ph
LONDON—A few months after I arrived in England, I worked in a crowded office filled with people of different nationalities. One afternoon, I noticed a foul smell in the air. It was so acrid I thought it was of an industrial nature. “What on earth is that smell?,” I thundered. Everybody froze. I should have heeded the stunned silence but I carried on, making gagging noises and opening the windows.
Minutes later, the manager arrived and took me aside. He explained that the smell emanated from another (foreign) colleague and that I should be more sensitive towards her. He asked me not to complain loudly again in future.
I staggered back to my desk completely mortified. One, I honestly did not know that it was a human odor; I thought noxious fumes were invading the office! Two, I did not intend to humiliate anyone. I was a foreigner myself; it bothered me that I had been accused of cultural insensitivity.
Maybe I should have played the culture card, too, and told my boss, look, I’m Filipino and I have a built-in reflex against funkiness of that magnitude. It’s not about race. We don’t care what color you are, if you stink, you stink.
However, this I’m-Pinoy-I-can’t-stand-smelly-people defense, while arguably valid on the grounds of being a unique cultural trait, sounds lame in a cosmopolitan environment and in the homeland of the stiff upper lip.
Consider this exchange I had a couple of weeks ago at a supermarket:
Pinay 1: Ano ba naman! Ang baho-baho!
Pinay 2: Sino sa palagay mo yung mabaho?
Me: Yun yatang lalake sa may harap ng pila.
Pinay 1: Alin, yung naka-GREEN na T-SHIRT?
Me: Naku, huwag niyo hong ilakas masyado ang boses niyo!
Pinay 1: Eh bakit ba? Kung siya nga, ang lakas ng amoy niya.
This encounter kept me chuckling for days but my (British) husband thought it cruel. What if the man couldn’t help smelling like that? Maybe he had a medical condition. Maybe he was homeless. What was to be gained by pinpointing him? Oo nga naman.
We had previously discussed this Pinoy loathing of B.O. in relation to an odor-related issue at his office (i.e., stinky colleague). It took them ages to address the situation. The British approach: 1) Sit there po-faced and endure the stench. 2) Elect someone to have a “quiet word” with said colleague and offer advice/help.
Very tactful, I admit. But did it work? No. My husband asked me how Pinoys would handle such a scenario.
Well, I never experienced anything like it in Manila but I can guess the following maneuvers will be involved: 1) Making jokes about who’s got the “power.” 2) Relocating the colleague to an isolated nook, away from electric fans and air-conditioners. 3) Spraying Glade in that general direction, even when he’s there. 4) Leaving blocks of tawas on his desk. Bit of an overkill, I know, but how do you deal with someone with an over kili-kili? (Sorry, I couldn’t help it.)
I won’t apologize for this Pinoy olfactory bias, it just is. Antonio Morga chronicled our love of bathing in 1609—this preoccupation is not going away soon.
But while we may not be able to help how sensitive our noses are, we need to moderate our instincts in a globalized setting. I’ve learned to just move away quietly if I can. If that’s not an option, opening windows slightly is okay, though it might be tricky in winter. The most desperate measure I’ve ever tried is to stop breathing through my nostrils by channelling air through my slightly open mouth. It’s just like snorkelling.
The following standard Pinoy reactions to stink will be considered extremely rude in this country: Sounding off (parinig), fanning the front of your nose with your palm (the pamaypay gesture), casting withering glances at the culprit (titig na matalim, sabay irap), making a noisy, graceless exit (pagdadabog), and tying your scarf around the lower half of your face (I know several Pinoys who have done this in various European locations, no kidding).
Of course we could ask who’s more rude, those who complain about offensive odors or those who inflict their odors on others? Then again, what is “offensive?” In some countries, a certain degree of body funk is considered perfectly acceptable. Hereabouts, people do not generally appreciate horrid bodily smells; it’s just that they consider politeness as more paramount.
The reality is that we are defenseless against pongy humans outside the Philippine area of responsibility. There are remedies for almost all other sensory assaults. If neighbors are too noisy, I can report them to the noise patrol. If a stranger tries to caress me, I can call the police.
But I can’t summon the cops when someone’s nasty emanations permeate a shared space. What would I say to them anyway? Officers, arrest this man! He is trying to asphyxiate me with his stench! If they jail anyone, it will probably be me for having a bigot of a nose.
One last tip on this matter: Don’t use or pack powdered tawas when travelling abroad. Customs police will find it hard to believe you use a crystal substance as a deodorant. And when they arrest you for drug trafficking and ask you to raise your arms over your head, it will look like you have cocaine and glitter on your armpits. That will be very, very difficult to explain. – Newsbreak
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