Shakira Sison

The Smell of America

“It smells like The States!” We screamed as we ripped the tape off the large box that arrived via freight. Inside we hoped to find various knick-knacks and chotchkies from our relatives in Chicago –  key chains, theme park shirts, M&Ms, recorded TV shows, my grandfather’s huge log of government cheese, and random clothing items.  If we were lucky, a pair of shoes would fit one of us perfectly, or with a little help from tisssues stuffed into their toes. We opened these boxes as if they contained new lives.

In a developing country on the other side of the world, the thought of America brought about images of abundance, brightly lit stores one walked into and asked for whatever they fancied that day, items that would be brought out in the exact color or size one imagined or saw in a magazine, being worn by a celebrity, or on a highway billboard.

This was all a far cry from what we were used to in pre-globalized  Southeast Asia, where wearing down your sneakers was the only time you’d make it to the store, where you would choose among a few locally made brands and cross your fingers that they had your size.  (It would be a couple more years before China churned out cheap Nike replicas.)

For the longest time I couldn’t identify this smell other than the emotions it would bring. It had a crispness, a sort of newness that represented everything my world was not. My packed school lunch came wrapped in paper napkins my sandwich soaked and tore, or  bags we had to wash and dry at the end of the day. A meal of stew would require the reuse of a glass mayonnaise jar, transported upright so its faulty seal would not get grease all over the books I carried in a hand-me-down backpack. Even Tang juice powder was expensive. We watered it down and added sugar so we wouldn’t run out too quickly. My parents refused to buy us Cheez Whiz or breakfast cereal. We settled for a local farmer’s coconut jam and rice porridge instead.

So imagine the thrill of looking through an American magazine and knowing you had an aunt somewhere who had all of the advertised products nearby. We fantasized about the Hostess Twinkies ads in our comicbooks. We fought over the rare Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bar that found its way into our home.  Once, a pair of white Tretorn sneakers appeared inside one of the shipped boxes and our eyes lit up! After arguing about who it fit best, we discovered they were both left shoes. It broke our hearts.

It is often said that smell is the strongest trigger of memory. I learned this quickly when I moved to the US decades later and stores smelled like all of the boxes we opened with such joy as children. It made me feel like I had arrived in a place where I could buy whatever I wanted, and twice! But after a while I realized that the “smell” was actually a chemical mix I associated with cleanliness and newness – it was an aroma of plastic, detergent, cleaning products and packaging materials, and had nothing to do with the actual smell outside. At that time of the year it smelled of burning wood, crisp fallen leaves, and cold city air.

I also learned that I couldn’t buy everything I wanted, or that I didn’t need to, anyway. I found out that America was a lot more than its mass-produced items and strategically stocked store shelves. The coveted white sneakers meant much less when I could buy them anytime, or when I saw them abandoned on city sidewalks, lightly worn and heavily ignored. I found out that the homes and kitchens of my new country were nothing like the America I imagined from movies and pictures.  And as quickly as I got there, the grass-is-always-greener phenomenon produced a whole new array of smells to bring me back to the land I left – its grilled eggplants, its meaty tamarind stews, its briny coastal air.

Rudyard Kipling said that “the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” These days when I walk out my door, I smell nothing. It’s both happy and sad that it must mean I’m home.

Analog LA. Photo by Shakira Sison


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