The Filipino sense of smell
AS MANY observers have pointed out, smells are very important to Filipinos, and Filipinos have a keen sense of smell.
Our languages give us a rich vocabulary with which to articulate the olfactory in ways conversational English can never do for us. Writing on a similar theme in his column more than a decade ago, Prof. Michael Tan invites us to reflect and discover what these words mean for ourselves. For me, mabango is “pleasant smell,” but mahalimuyak is “fragrance of flowers.”
Mapanghe refers to the pungency of urine; mabantot is the odor of flatus; masangsang reminds me of rotten fish and decaying bodies.
Even the famous saying “Ang hindi marunong magmahal sa sariling wika ay masahol pa sa malansang isda”—traditionally attributed to Rizal, but this is rejected by contemporary historians—uses an olfactory metaphor that likens someone “who doesn’t love his own language” to being “worse than a stinky fish.”
There are also customs that, like those words, can be seen as part of our “smell culture.” Sniffing food before eating it is one of them. Also, the way many Filipinos—and other Southeast Asians—traditionally kiss each other is called “sniff kiss” because it involves the lips touching the cheek, and sniffing. Perhaps this is why halik (kiss) is related to halimuyak (fragrance), which is in turn also associated with feminine sensuality. In the act of kissing—whether in a familial or romantic context—there is a dimension of the olfactory.
Our smell culture is further reflected in our anxieties about the way we smell. When I was in high school we had so many words to describe someone who has “body odor,” and we were all very careful not to trespass the olfactory norms—lest one be bullied. Thus, deodorants, colognes and perfumes were essential. Even today, whenever I pass through duty-free stores in airports, some perfumes continue to remind me of my high school classmates.
As Ambeth Ocampo pointed out in one of his columns, even historical accounts of travelers point to the importance of smells among Filipinos. He adds: “I also remembered people who would travel to distant places carrying an unwashed hanky or article of clothing from a loved one to counter homesickness.” In my own research I dug up an account of an Englishman traveling in the Philippines in the 1700s:
When the nostril is contracted (as in the act of smelling), and the [Filipino] looks towards a person at a distance, it is deemed an invitation to a closer embrace. Strange stories are told of the exquisite sense of smell possessed by the [Filipinos]; that by it they can distinguish the dresses of their masters and mistresses, and lovers ascertain the state of each other’s affections.
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The act of sniffing food makes sense from a scientific perspective, as the nose is actually our chemical organ. Smells are essentially the language of chemicals, and the ability to discriminate between various odors can allow us to judge if the food is still safe to eat. Scientifically speaking, our mothers’ assessment that the fish is “malansa” is actually determining the presence of ammonia derivatives from the breakdown of triethylamine.
In human physiology, sniffing is also identified as part of the eating process, triggering the “cephalic phase” or first phase of digestion. Even before the food enters the body, enzymes are secreted in the stomach in preparation for properly digesting the meal. Mentally, smells do herald food and is constituent of the dining experience itself, which is why we sometimes say: “Sa amoy pa lang, busog na!” (Just by the aroma of the food, you’re full!)
Sniff kisses, for their part, are part of a broader body language. If you look at romantic scenes in Filipino movies—or if you reflect on your own romantic experiences—the act of sniffing is likewise privileged. We experience each others’ bodies not just with the visual (seeing) or the tactile (touching) but also with the olfactory (sniffing). And from a neuroscientific perspective, this again makes a lot of sense, as the olfactory bulb—the part of the brain responsible for smell—is a component of the limbic system, which is the seat of memories and emotions. Scents, then, allow us to memorialize experiences and bodies in a more sensorial, sensual way.
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My examination of our smell culture is partly in response to those who, in casual conversations and in blog posts, have included “sniffing food” and “sniff kisses” among the “bad manners” and “annoying habits” of Filipinos.
The question is: Who gets to define what “good manners” are? In Japan, it is acceptable to slurp noodles, to show satisfaction, while we, adopting the customs of the West, are trained to be as quiet as possible when eating noodles. There are universal values, to be sure—being rude to others is never polite—but in finer points, we must exercise more open-mindedness to other cultures, including our own.
Of course, cultural sensitivity works both ways and there are situations when we ought to be discreet about our smell culture, as when we’re abroad. But we must be skeptical about the imposition of foreign “manners” or “values” especially when they cast our own customs in a negative light.
Rather than see our smell culture as something to be ashamed of, we should celebrate it as a unique facet of our everyday lives. For indeed, part of our cultural heritage is a keen sense of smell that allows us to have a fuller and more vivid sensory experience of the world.
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.