Smells of a Chinese Pharmacy

(image source for featured image, Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas)

As a species we are over-reliant on the sense of sight, which is shown by those who appreciate the world in a vastly different way once one of those senses’ acuity begins to wane. Blind, deaf, taste-bud-less.  Songs sound prettier. (I’m told.) Smells more fragrant. (I’ve read.) And pillows are comfier. (Totally guessing.)

And as I’m abroad I can only relay information via sight (and occasionally audio) as I can’t transmit an aroma, flavor or feeling over the internet, though I’ve dreamed of this constantly. My ability to convey my experiences is severely hampered by my ineptitude of putting pen to paper and borderline-Parkinson’s trigger finger on the trembling camera. Taste and touch I can somewhat accurately portray. Some tastes need to be tasted to believed, but by and large we understand: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. (Okay nobody understands umami.)  Touch, you can imagine soft and a smooth, rough and coarse. Audio? I send video and conceivably could send an audio clip.

Surely these are all replications, but they do the trick. The one sense that cannot be even remotely replicated is smell. I can’t even begin to construct a sentence to describe a smell. That “China smell” I became addicted to is really not as ubiquitous as I thought, and I’m starting to think that it’s a combination or fresh and rotten food in alleyways behind restaurants that produces that haunting aroma/stench. It’s a simultaneously addictive and repulsive waft that I just can(‘t) get enough of. However, I’ve experienced it very little.

credit to user:Kwz

A smell-thought is shockingly personal. They say we can store 10,000 smells in our brain (how many terabytes is that?) and that we most strongly attach memory to the sense of smell. It was strolling through the Paris Chinatown that a scent-filled breeze dragged me through a time warp, back to the hutongs of Beijing on study abroad, and finding dollar-or-less priced treats in the back alleys of the Northern Capital. I haven’t had the strong New England autumn air that has consumed writers for centuries fill my nostrils in many more moons than I wish to believe. A journal entry cannot encapsulate a scent, and for the limitations of my writing and our noses, I apologize.

Anyways, one scent I’ve come to notice is that of a Chinese pharmacy. It certainly doesn’t smell like a CVS – meaning the BO of the fat guy in front of you, or the smell of a ripped-open bag of Twizzlers at the cashier. Because of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it smells herbal, earthy. But even the pharmacies that sell mostly pills and Western-style drugs have an identical air to them. I’m not sure what it is, and I pretty much never have to use pharmacies here (thank the lord for a run of good luck/health). But the supermarket on campus has a pharmacy out front and a got a whiff of it every time I stock up on fruit.

So yeah, that’s 500+ words containing my thoughts on smelling things. I’m sure dogs can elaborate.


Let me know what you think in the comments below!

Like what you’re reading on China? Check out some other related articles in: The China Chronicles!

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