In the last day, I have been hit with three different smells that strongly evoked my time in China in 2001-2002.
The first smell was of coal. It came from the fire we had in our fire pit in our courtyard last night. We were burning exceptionally hard wood. Expensive, fancy firewood purchased from the home improvement store. The hard wood had burned down to hot, hot embers. And the smell sent me back to wintertime, biking through the undeveloped alleys in Beijing to get to my host family’s apartment. The alleys smelt of the coal burnt by the people who lived and worked in the rough structures that made up the edges of the alleys, burnt to heat their homes and cook their meals. I remember the winding alleys, my host grandfather biking to school with me in the morning and picking me up in the afternoon for the first week to guide me through the maze, at first how scary the alleys seemed at night, how later they were so familiar and comfortable and part of my life in Beijing. How once, I found a (seemingly) coal-dusted Harley Davidson stop tucked back in a corner alley that I rarely traversed. How that seems like a dream now.
The second smell was of home-brewed rice liquor. It came from the red wine on Pretty Boy’s breath. It was cheap red wine that he was drinking with the burritos he was eating for dinner last night. I’ve smelled many different alcohols on his breath, but there was a sharp, sourness to the smell last night that sent me back to the Miao villages I visited in the Yunnan province in southwest China. Walking into the villages, we were often met by villagers dressed up in traditional outfits, who meet us with some form of a welcoming ceremony. I remember walking along lines of people in black fabric, elaborately accented with bright pops of pink, blue, and white. Large silver pieces. Singing. And at the end of the walk into the village, at the end of the line of people, someone standing with an animal horn filled with home-brewed rice liquor that we were offered to drink. I remember the sourness and the bite of the alcohol and the bits of rice still floating in it. I remember seeing the murky rice liquor later in a glass, murky but not murky enough to completely obscure the floating bits. I remember the roughness of the lives the villagers lived. I remember feeling like, at times, they were putting on a show for the tourist dollars. I remember, at other times, the food and homes they shared generously with us. I remember a man laughing at us because we couldn’t shell and eat sunflower seeds as well or as fast as he could.
The third smell was of cold dry morning air spiked with exhaust, wood and coal burning, and food. It came from the path I bike to the office every morning. This morning, the air was the coldest and driest it’s been so far this year. Exhaust came from the cars on the roads that the path crosses. The burning likely came from some of the houses that line the path because some homes in Canberra still use wood or coal fired furnaces or fireplaces for heat in the winter. And breakfast. The combination sent me back to the bustling street on which my school in Beijing was located. Lanes and lanes of cars and bicycles and pedestrians every morning and afternoon, bundled against the cold, going about their daily lives. I remember one of the streets somewhere around my school or host family’s apartment was called Xin1 Jie3 Kou3 Wai4. I remember the grippy, reddish surface of the pedestrian flyovers, like the top of a skateboard. I remember how everything was a little faded, how everything became gray or dark gray: the cars, the clothes, the road, the buildings. I remember pulling my hat low and blending into the rush.
It must be so different now. Almost 15 years later. I can’t believe it’s been that long. I don’t know why so many smells triggered memories of my time in China in such quick succession. Maybe it’s because I was looking at pictures yesterday of my old friend and classmate from China. Maybe it’s because the smell of the cabinet under my sink often reminds me of my time in China, and after two years of living in our townhouse, I still can’t place why the smell reminds me of China, and I had my head in that cabinet two days ago. So many of my China memories have faded, but these smells brought back some memories so sharply, memories that I haven’t thought about in a very long time, memories that I am grateful I still have.