Dear 8Asians readers, After a long long long hiatus, I’m back! And asking the hard hitting questions I’ve come to be known for. Please send me questions that you want answered! Today’s topic is—drum roll please—“Do Asians Smell?” (This should not be mistaken for my article, “Do Asians have the worst smelling farts?”)
Before I begin, let me be clear: I don’t smell. Never have. At least, I don’ t think so. Any ex-girlfriends out there who can dispute my claim? Speak up now or forever hold your peace. When I was in college, I used deodorant because I felt it was weird that I didn’t use deodorant. But then times got tough (News flash: writers don’t make any money) and I had to cut back on things. The thing I cut back on was buying deodorant that I didn’t need.
I hadn’t thought about my lack of smell until recently when I got into a spirited conversation with a friend. I told her that I didn’t use deodorant and she freaked out on me. It was as though I had told her that I worshiped Satan and ate babies or something. I told my friend to smell me. She refused (which is the proper thing to do when asked to smell another person), but I assured her that I didn’t smell. She told me that if she didn’t use deodorant, she would smell bad after only a few hours. This got me thinking. Do Asians have a smell? And I guess the bigger question is this: Do people of different races smell differently?
First, being the intrepid reporter and researcher I am, I did a Google search on whether Asians smelled. I was surprised to find out that people—many of them—thought that Asians not only smelled, but smelled bad. Here were some of the more common ones I read: rice cakes (cliche), fish (sushi?), Chop Suey (of course we do), Chinese food going bad in the refrigerator (oddly specific), old women and noodles (should be a perfume), sour and malodorous (whatever that smells like), moth balls (a very common answer), feces (this link was found at a bodybuilding website, but they weren’t the only ones), curry (a sad story from Australia), and I can go and on, but I think you get the point.
Needless to say, most—if not all—of the above are racist and can therefore be safely ignored. But then there’s this idiot, who takes the racism to a whole new level. I’ll let his words speak for themselves:
It seems that some Whites say that foreign-born Asians and FOB’s (recent immigrants) smell bad. It’s something like sesame oil plus old socks with a drop of rice wine. It’s subtle, but one woman described it as almost nauseating.
A White man who served in Vietnam said that he could smell differences between Vietnamese and Chinese (the Chinese stunk worse), so there may be national variations in stinkiness.
But to be fair, not all the comments about Asians and smell were negative. There was a lot of Asian men and especially women smell better than that of other races talk. I could list a lot of links, but this was my favorite from a forum for gay men:
I rarely ever meet a bad smelling Asian guy…like when you hug them or something they tend to just organically smell better than other people. They must have better body chemistry or something.
The idea of each race smelling differently isn’t a new thing. This is an exchange from the 1953 John Wayne Classic Hondo.
Angie Lowe: Anyway, I don’t believe a dog can smell Indians. I mean, as different from anyone else. You and me, for instance.
Hondo Lane: Well they can. As a matter of fact, Indians can smell white people.
Angie Lowe: I don’t believe it.
Hondo Lane: Well it’s true. I’m part Indian and I can smell you when I’m downwind of you.
Angie Lowe: That’s impossible.
Hondo Lane: No, it isn’t impossible, Mrs. Lowe. You baked today. I can smell fresh bread on you. Sometime today, you cooked with salt pork. Smell that on you, too. You smell all over like soap: you took a bath. And, on top of that, you smell all over like a woman. I could find you in the dark, Mrs. Lowe, and I’m only part Indian.
And then there’s this:
In his 1971 book The Life of Sharks, (presumably caucasian) author P. Budker states that “When white men and black men bathe together in the ocean, the black men, who smell more strongly than the white, are more susceptible to the ferocity of sharks.”
So what’s the answer? This is the moment in the article where I would usually write that all races have a different range of smells and that to say otherwise is racist. However, to my surprise that’s not exactly true. Apparently, Asians do not have a propensity for body odor while others do. One more time, just in case you missed it: Asians don’t have B.O.
I guess it makes sense because I don’t smell, but why? There are a lot of “rumors” floating out there on the Internet as to why Asians don’t have body odor. The most common is that Westerners don’t bath and eat more meats and cheeses than Asians. In fact, in Japan (and I presume other Asian countries) this is somewhat of a stereotype of foreigners. The following is a typical belief that is purely based on diet:
It has more to do with the diet they eat than biology. Put a Japanese on a red meat diet & their sweat starts to smell just like anybody else’s.
I’m of western heritage myself, but when I lived over there I went straight up wa-shyoku diet of fish & veggies & after a couple months I stopped using deodorant as well.
As far as smell goes, it’s just the diet. However, some east Asians do sweat less in the heat.
The biggest problem with this argument is that it would mean that Asian Americans like myself—who have diets full of meats and cheese, at least more than my brothers and sisters in Asia—would smell. But I don’t.
This is not to say—of course—that the type of food you eat doesn’t have an influence on how you smell. According to this How Stuff Works article there is some connection:
The food eaten in various cultures can also have an impact on the personal incense released into the air through our eccrine glands. That’s why Indian body odor can have notes of curry, and members of cultures that consume copious amounts of garlic can begin to smell like “stinking roses” themselves. Other foods that can impact body odor include red meat, onions and asparagus. Of course foods that make the body sweat such as caffeine, chilis and alcohol can also contribute to the pungent perfume that is you.
But what’s the real science here? Let’s turn to the all knowing Wikipedia for the answer:
East Asians (Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese) have fewer apocrine sweat glands compared to people of other descent, and the lack of these glands make East Asians less prone to body odor. The reduction in body odor and sweating may be due to adaptation to colder climates by their ancient Northeast Asian ancestors. The ABCC11 gene is known to determine axillary body odor, but also the type of earwax. Most of the world’s population secrete the wet-type earwax, however, East Asians are genetically predisposed for the allele that codes the dry-type earwax, associated with a reduction in axillary body odor. The loss of a functional ABCC11 gene is caused by a 538G>A single-nucleotide polymorphism, resulting in a loss of body odor in people who are specifically homozygous for it. The non-functional ABCC11 allele is predominant amongst East Asians (80–95%), but very low in other ancestral groups (0–3%). It affects apocrine sweat glands by reducing secretion of odorous molecules.
In other words, East Asians don’t smell because we lack the glands which makes us less prone to body odor. Here’s a chart that illustrates this:
Don’t get me wrong though. I’m NOT saying that all Asians don’t have body odor, but instead that the percentage of Asians who do is significantly less than other groups of people. And this should not be taken as one group smells more (or less) and therefore is better (or worse). This should be taken as an interesting difference in the human animal.
If you are still reading and interested, here’s a great video from an ex-pat living in Japan who explains it all in this fun video:
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