A Whiff of Progress and Pad Thai

A Whiff of Progress and Pad Thai

MB:  I want to introduce to you a young lady who will be guest blogging here every so often; Shiloh Lane.  I started reading her blog and realized this young lady had a talent and passion for words. I think you will become a fan of hers as I have.

A Whiff of Progress and Pad Thai

Considering the fact that you have no idea who I am, I’m not exactly sure how I should begin this post. I guess, to be completely cliché and obvious, I’ll start with: Hi, my name is Shiloh.

I’m a writer and photographer who’s lucky enough to be working in and traveling through the world of rice and geckos known as Southeast Asia. Matt asked me to contribute to his blog.

I love it here.  The landscape is exotic and gorgeous, the people are generally kind and I can get an hour-long massage for $8. I never thought I’d say it, but I’d pay an Asian woman to dig her knuckles into my calves any day.

However, four months ago when I first landed, I wasn’t a fan. Believe it or not, Asia is different than America. No, really. I think there might be 30 public trashcans in my city, which kills me because, as a twenty-something programmed by liberal media to think the fate of the world depends on the ultimate destination of my plastic water bottles, I don’t litter. I also had to get used to paying for toilet paper in public restrooms and prying the Chaco’s off my feet every time I walked into a house.

What really got me, though, were the smells. I never thought they would bother me so much, but you learn a lot about yourself when you uproot your life and move to the opposite side of the planet. I learned that I’m a picky smeller.

Asia has a smell, just like a person’s house has a specific odor. It’s a mixture of spicy food and pungent incense with a slight tinge of musk. It’s not bad – just strong – and it made my roommate throw up on her first day.

There’s also an absence of smells such as the warm, comforting fragrance of cinnamon candles like the ones my mother burns around Christmas and the scent of vanilla body wash. Apparently, Asian people prefer flowery bath soaps. Therefore, my apartment smelled weird, I smelled weird and the country smelled weird.

Strangely enough, though, my hypersensitivity to odors has become a testament of my acclimation to this place. Flower-scented soap isn’t such a big deal anymore, and I haven’t smelled the continent since the first month. It’s like I’m practically Asian, except for my curly hair, pale skin and propensity to prop my feet on furniture.

But seriously, my dulled nose is a sign of progress. It means I’m more comfortable in this country and with this new, world-traveling version of myself. I’m an overseas writer who has just learned one of her first lessons in a foreign land: that a place is home when you can’t smell it anymore.

-Shiloh Lane

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  1. gavingough

    I never know why people do that thing with their feet on furniture but especially in Asia. As for commenting on how Asia “smells”, I think that might be considered a little offensive too. Especially the “it made my roommate throw up” line. Sorry, there's something about the tone of this that grated with me a little – but I'm probably being over-sensitive. Maybe replacing “the country smelled weird” with “the country smelled different” would be a bit more respectful?

  2. Matt Brandon

    Gavin, I think she was being honest as a new traveler. Come on, did you not feel some of this when you first went overseas? The last paragraph says it all, she no longer smells the “smells” she see it as home.

  3. gavingough

    Sorry if that came across a little harshly. It is quite possible that I'm being over-sensitive and I did enjoy Shiloh's writing but we both know how hard it can be to overcome stereotypes and so that's probably what I tuned in to. It was wrong of me not to be more encouraging and I look forward to Shiloh's next guest post. Perhaps, for balance, it would be interesting to hear about some of the similarities she's found rather than the differences.

    Just so long as she keeps her feet off the furniture 🙂

    Truly, no offence intended and I hope none taken.

  4. sabrinahenry

    I think I can understand where Gavin is coming from on this. I have heard others express this in the same way and I might even think it but it wouldn't be how I would say it for fear of offending people. Like Gavin I may be too sensitive perhaps because I have spent the last five years as a champion of diversity striving to promote understanding and eliminate stereotyping.

    We all start out somewhere so I am looking forward to more posts as Shiloh explores Southeast Asia and hopefully eventually embraces those smells as something treasured and meaningful as they are for me.

  5. brucewatson

    Shiloh – I appreciated your humor and honesty. You're only new to a place once and I hope you continue to capture all the magic, frustration, delight and challenges through your journey. Looking forward to hearing more from you as you keep your eyes, heart (and nose) wide open.

  6. Ray K

    Excellent post. Gavin and all you don't eliminate stereotypes by avoiding honesty, observations on the differences and then acceptance is how real bonds are formed. I know how it feels when people try to ignore the different and pretend it isn't there to not 'offend' it makes trust a real problem. You don't learn acceptance by avoiding the things that make others unique or different.

  7. gavingough

    I really don't want this to run and run but I'd like to clarify a couple of things.

    Firstly, let's agree that there are various ways of interpreting things and that we're all entitled to our opinion. It's how we choose to voice it that has the potential to be upsetting.

    Ray, nowhere did I suggest that we avoid honesty, I was simply saying that it's possible to be honest while maintaining respect. Not that I think Shiloh was being consciously disrespectful and, yes, she was certainly being honest.

    It's great that she was moved to write about her experiences and I'd always support that. However, let me put it into another context to illustrate my point. If Matt came to my house then I wouldn't expect him to put his feet on the furniture. In fact, he'd be welcome to and I'd want him to relax but I guess he wouldn't do it. And if he thought that my house smelled “weird”, which, with the odd mix of incense and tea brews that I concoct is entirely possible, then I'd be upset if he told people that my house smelled so weird that it made him throw up. I'd be even more upset if he posted that opinion on the Internet.

    Sure, he's being honest but how would that have helped our relationship?

    I've been made so welcome in my travels across Asia that I'm perhaps a little protective when I think somebody might be reinforcing the stereotypes that can divide people. Sure, Asia can be dirtier and smellier than many western countries but that shouldn't be what defines it – it's far richer than that.

    I don't think that was Shiloh's intention for one second and I can see that she's appreciating her travels. I do look forward to her future posts and this conversation is really moving away from what she wrote.

    My response was spontaneous and I hope I didn't do her a disservice. But Asia is my home and so I guess I was a little offended that the gist of her post was that she thought it smelled weird and that she's putting her feet on the furniture.

    That's all. As I said, no harm intended.

  8. Ray K

    Gavin you are correct in this, so many misunderstandings are fostered in the delivery. I was speaking in the general sense and well understand the defense of ones home. Tact and honesty should go hand in hand as people keep reminding me.

  9. gavingough

    Ray, good on you, people keep reminding me of the same thing!

    I suggest that we – well, most of all me – give Shiloh the benefit of the doubt, which she certainly deserves and which I probably should have given her to begin with.

    I hope that she continues to find joy in her travel experiences and encourage her to post some more of her writing soon.

  10. mariomattei

    When I worked at an ESL school my Asian friends told me that many Americans smelled like sour milk to them. And some Arabs chimed in saying, “No, no, like strong floor cleaner.”

    Anyone who is familiar with Asian cultures knows they had to feel very comfortable with me before expressing that–for fear of offending me. I mentioned the strong perfume that a couple of our Arab women students wore. It was delightful but could be smelled a mile away and knock you over with its thickness.

    We all laughed b/c of our context of friendship. In that context honesty is the best way to deal with our impressions and experiences of difference. It's a safe place to explore our stereotypes & have them corrected by the very ones we're trying to understand (with discernment b/c they often have their own stereotypes about their own people.)

    I would imagine–giving Shiloh the benefit of a doubt–that she has friends in Asia and feels a sense of belonging, enough that she could write the above.

    However, the blogosphere is NOT the context of friendship. So while I admire the craft of her writing and the content, an important balancing piece was missing.

    I think by acknowledging the flip side she could have presented her honest crosscultural experience with more tact.

    I mean by asking her friends if they've been to her home country and smelled it, or her house. Or if they think tourists have a smell. She could express her experience of the smells there and get their opinion (maybe she has done this). And include these in the article.

    If Shiloh would have said anything even close to “my friends think I smell like sour milk,” then I think the lop-lopsidedness would have leveled out. The piece would have been less offensive, and maintained it's humor–even been a powerful testimony for how different people can talk about differences and except them, whether eventually appreciated or forever uncomfortable and mysterious.

    I was really waiting for that the whole time.

    The bottom line theme: “a place is home when you can't smell it anymore” really is brilliant though. Bravo, Shiloh… keep up the good work, keep taking risks, and take away what you can from these comments.

  11. Jeffrey Chapman

    Shiloh, my first reaction to reading this post was (and sorry, but I feel a need to be sincere) that you don't deserve Southeast Asia – a land and people I dearly adore. You remind me of an American I knew in Heidelberg who complained that he couldn't buy peanut butter. He failed to see the wonder and beauty around him because of a lack of peanut butter. Familiarity breeds myopia. A place is home, when it's home. Smells and all.

    Fortunately, I trust Matt's judgement. My guess is that something different will eventually come out of you – as a writer in Southeast Asia.

  12. Jeffrey Chapman

    OK, perhaps I should have read the comments before I thrust my own into this. Now I feel a need (yes, again!) to add additional observations.

    I think the post comes across as rather superficial. As Gavin points out, Southeast Asia is so much richer than Shiloh has described. The post comes across like complaining about a beautiful girl's choice of shoes. Yes, a bit petty and superficial. I'm sure that Shiloh did not mean it that way. I'm sure she meant it to be both funny and sincere. However, I think that it missed the mark a bit. We've all done that. Unfortunately for Shiloh, due to the nature of Matt's work, many of the readers of this blog are likely very sensitive to cultural issues and stereotyping in general. Maybe too much so, but there is a reason why we end up digging our feet in to fight against such things. At any rate, Shiloh, I like Matt's idea of having you guest blog. It should be interesting to see Southeast Asia through your eyes. Just remember that not only is Southeast not America, it's not trying to be America. I love Southeast Asia for what it is as well as for what it isn't. I wouldn't want it to smell like the food court of a shopping mall in Texas.

  13. Alan F

    This is an interesting thread to follow and I'm amazed how much this flack Shiloh is getting.

    Seasoned travelers are not born. They learn through their experiences and engaging with the culture and consequently change. Like good seasoning, the longer the process, the deeper the effect.

    I think we tend to forget what it was like the first time for ourselves or if we do choose to remember, I'd guess we cringe with embarrassment (or shame) at how we responded/reacted in our naivety.

    She's just shared her thoughts. It may not be particularly 'pc' but in her naivety shes been honest and shared what many people may have just internalized. She shows a willingness to learn and engage and I'd commend her.

    We should be encouraging people to get out and close enough to other cultures to 'smell them' and hopefully allow the same processes that changed us, to work on them. Let's avoid the potentially elitist attitude that we're the only ones 'qualified enough' to travel and be the eyes and voice to the masses through our photo's and blogs.

    If a picture is worth a 1000 words, what value can you put on an experience?

    Shiloh, go for it!

  14. ian furniss

    Hi Shiloh, nothing for me to add to what's already been said so instead i'll just say “good to have you here & looking forward to reading more of your words & experiences” 🙂

  15. Mitchell K

    Shiloh has a way with words, but come on, generalizing all of Asia like that? What have you seen in the four months since you “landed in Asia”? Where in Asia are you talking about? It's huge and diverse. “The world of rice and geckos known as Southeast Asia” – that's sorta like saying “The world of fast food joints and cowboy ranches known as America”. You get the point.

  16. garyschapman

    Wow…Shiloh…I pray you have thick skin and I can't wait to hear your heart in a reply. Hopefully, you are already crafting it. But seriously, I think if we are all honest, some things about other cultures bother us, some only at the beginning, and some forever. My wife, a northerner, still can't stand some of my southern cultural idiosyncrasies. Yet, she loves me none the less. I was encouraged by your last phrase, “that a place is home when you can’t smell it anymore.” These words reveal a heart of, not just acceptance, but of sincere embrace. Keep writing and reveal your journey.

  17. prashant

    this sounds so very american…extremely insensitive way of writing. Words should be chosen carefully while writing about such issues. While I do not doubt the intentions, the way it has been written/presented just shows…. immaturity.

  18. Anonymous

    Btw, if I can offer my take based on this article, her writing skills are ok when I compare her with Lindsay. Her style or writing and flair lacks capturing her audience regardless of the content. I confess that I have not read her other articles nor seen photographs she posted but I have read some other travel blogs and her’s does not capture me. Another aspect that seemed to be overlooked is “who are her audience” bcos if it’s an internet audience most would not be american per se therefore her slant has to be more to a broader audience, hence the proper consideration and to a certain extent “pc-ness”. Secondly a writer should not just give a title but does not deal with the subject matter mentioned in it…ie like “A whiff or progress & Phad Thai”, my question, why was Phad Thai mentioned and what is that connection for her progress OR was that just about how Phad Thai is a smelly food in her perspective that she overcame and now loves it???? Left me wondering….it was like an article that had a capturing title but the content didn’t justify it. I hope my critique makes sense.

  19. sabrinahenry

    I am going to step into the fray once more because I feel this conversation is degenerating and we should all respect that this is Matt’s house 🙂

    Let me first say that I have a great deal of respect for Matt, Gavin, Jeffrey, and Mitchell. They are hard-working professional photographers whose work has touched the lives of many people. I am not a professional photographer but I am Asian and I’ve done a fair little bit of work with diverse cultures. Here is what my experience has taught me. Humour is very difficult to pull off successfully in a cross-cultural environment. It is almost impossible without a pre-existing relationship between the parties. What usually happens is that someone says something that offends someone of another culture and it all goes to Hell in a hand basket very quickly.

    Once we start to work though it, the person who is offended begins to realize that no offence was meant. The other person realizes that what they have done is not conducive to building relationships. They talk about how they can communicate better in a cross-cultural environment and so begins the process of learning to understand each another.

    I will be honest and say that at first I was offended by this posting. Then I gave Matt and Shiloh the benefit of the doubt and so did everyone else. There was no elitism here. I do hope that Matt or Shiloh will respond to the comments, for if there is another thing that my experience has taught me is that when there is silence, people will fill in the blanks with their own conclusions. That road is fraught with even more potholes than the one we are on now.

  20. Peter Pham

    I am an expat and now living in Vietnam and have become so used to the surrrounding and the (smells) that now have made Vietnam my home. While reading the post, I was a bit irritated at the wordings, however, I really believe Shiloh is honest as this is true experience for most first time traveler.

    Matt: I just move your blog bookmark higher on my list of things to read. 🙂

    Shiloh: Continue the good work (I wish I can write like you, then I can run a blog). When you are traveling to Vietnam, look me up and I will take you around to experience all the smells that Vietnam has to offer 🙂

  21. Matt Brandon

    I guess it is time for me to chime in.

    Honestly, I am very disappointed that several of my more seasoned and traveled readers have shown little compassion and interest in mentorship. I have tried to make this blog a place of discovery and honesty. Someone once said, “Love without truth is hypocrisy. But truth without love is brutality.” I think there has been some brutality shown here over the past few days. I had hoped that by asking Shiloh to share her struggles about culture and adaptation to a new world we would be reminded of our own past and mistakes; that her witty yet honest writing would allow us to laugh at our past and to take the time to encourage and guide her in her journey, not beat her up. Some of you have been spot on and deal the encouragement with honesty. Others have not.

    Surely you haven't forgotten what it was like to be new to a foreign place? I sure haven't. I remember hating India; really hating it. I hated the smells, the crowds, the attitudes and more. I hated being laughed at and told I was wrong when I knew I was right. I stayed in that bitter frame of mind for a long while. It took time and patience with me to get through that stage. Ask my wife. But I did and am better for it. Shiloh is at a much better place after four months than I ever was. By the way, living in a place like Asia is a lot different than just visiting it. I think we could use a little more grace around here. I expect some of you to be leaders who encourage people to try and even fail. We learn from our failures. Where is the freedom for a young traveler to do this? Shiloh has never written for a blog that has this size of readership and diversity. I will accept responsibility as the admin I should have looked more closely at her words. My fault, I accept it. But when I read her words, she said what I once felt in a way I could never have expressed and I personally loved it. It wasn't very pc, but it certainly wasn't elitist. It was the beginning of an honest journey to a place she now calls home and feels much more comfortable in. I hope I can count on you all to be a little more encouraging.

  22. kamalazandee

    Hi Shiloh, thanks for yr writing and honest feelings that so many other non-Asians goes through and deal with as they adopt Asia. I am from Southeast Asia and not the least offended by your writing simply bcos the context in which you wrote…ie.abt yr personal journey & experiences. We are most aware of smells good, bad and pungent in our part of the world. In fact the most “smelliest” king of fruit is the most loved amongst our people. And I do empathise that women do have a stronger sense of smell and at times in adjusting to a culture such realities are inevitable and I am relieved to hear for your sake, it's not longer a bother and you have stepped over it. Another important aspect of Asia is food and I wished you had followed that up in your article though it was included in your title. Wish you all the best in your exploration and discoveries of beautiful Asia as you continue taking others with you in this journey as a travel blog writer.

  23. Pam

    I have just recently discovered this blog and absolutely enjoy it. I have lived abroad for about 13 or so years now and when reading Shiloh's post, I didn't find it at all defensive. I found myself saying, gosh I wish I had kept up with my journal back when I first moved to Istanbul so I can remember those thoughts, feelings, smells and experiences. My husband is from another culture, and in addition to this experience, I think I am a pretty culturally sensitive person and I did not find Shiloh's post offensive at all. Perhaps because I have become thick skinned from living and working with cultures where people have been what I feel is overly honest and its not always filtered as we do in the West – and I'm not implying that Shiloh's post was anything like that – it wasn't for me.

    Perhaps its because I am not was well travelled in the Far East as others here that I wasn't as offended? After reading all posts, I think its a good thing – you got everyone's attention. Maybe not what you intended, but it happens. And thank you, your post did remind me of the long forgotten smell I experienced when I first went to Istanbul back in 1995. It was November, rainy, clouds heavy. Coal was still used much more than natural gas…the smell of smog/pollution. That combined with the heavy jet lag I felt on that trip, it did make my stomach turn. Now when I go back, after having lived there for 8 years, I realize I miss that smell. Regardless, blog on Shiloh. I look forward to reading more about your experiences.

  24. Pam

    …Sorry, I meant I didn't find it offensive, not defensive 🙂 Sometimes the fingers go too fast for my brain!

  25. shilohlane

    Wow, I don’t usually spur controversy, so this was pretty unexpected. To all of you who were offended, I am deeply sorry. Please forgive me, and to all of you who offered advice or kind words, thank you.

    I think my biggest mistake was misunderstanding my audience, but I don’t particularly think I “don’t deserve Southeast Asia.” I truly love it here, and I know I should have emphasized it more. I merely meant to talk about the culture stress of being a brand new traveler, and the differences in environment that I never anticipated.

    Trust me, I have not missed Asia’s beauty or allure. I look out of my bedroom window each day and see buildings rising through the trees in a majestic way that I would never find in the States. The people are also incredibly sweet and the food delicious.

    I feel naive, and I guess, I am naive. Isn't it an unavoidable stage you have to go through before you become experienced, right? Doesn't everybody? And, I'm learning over and over that when you go through this unavoidable stage, you will at some points, unavoidably, look stupid and do stupid things.

    Of course, I will keep writing as long as Matt will have me, but with this experience underneath my belt, my writing will change some. I won’t pretend, though, that everything is easy and that the differences in cultures aren’t surprising or difficult to get used to. Everything is not easy, but I will try to balance those difficulties with stories about what I love in Asia. And, I do love Asia.

    Also, I do sometimes forget myself and put my feet on the furniture, only to catch it and quickly put them down. But, dang it, that’s a hard habit to break! However, Gavin, I want you to know that I am working on it.

  26. Jeffrey Chapman

    Shiloh, my sense from your original post was that you were ridiculing the differences in Asia (as compared to America). From this well-worded reply of yours I now understand that you had no such intention. Write from your heart, and everything else will fall into place.

  27. Amber

    I'll be the first to say I don't have nearly the cross cultural experience of most people who read this blog, though I have racked up my fair share of months in a dozen countries or so, each of which I absolutely adore. I have also spent years immersed in the Asian sub-culture in Texas, and I thought this blog post was witty, humorous, and honest. You're lying to yourself if you pretend culture shock doesn't exist, or that it doesn't change when you are living somewhere for months versus just visiting for a few weeks. And this denial will set you up for cosmic failure. Things take getting used to. Normal everyday things like the way a place smells or the way the air tastes or the way the cars sound. It's not “home” and there's nothing wrong with that. To be able to express that is what makes us human, and what makes us able to survive. To be able to laugh it off and keep going is what makes living in a foreign culture possible. I don't take any offense at all when Chinese people tell me they hate Texas BBQ (which is as much a part of my culture as wearing clothes in public). It's not home to them and that's okay. Anyway, Shiloh, I loved this post and thought it incredibly witty and funny and it was a joy to read. I made the mistake of reading the comments before the post and I was shocked when I finally read the post and I wondered if maybe the original post had been deleted because what you wrote doesn't in the least strike me as offensive but rather a humorous and ultimately honest view of someone struggling to adapt to a non native culture. I hope to have the privilege of reading more from you.

  28. Marryam H Reshii

    I'm Indian. I've visited parts of Asia often enough and fought an urge to wince at smells of dried fish, fermented prawns and the like, and some of it is in my own country! God help us all the day political correctness takes over the world and nobody can say what they feel because they're scared it will hurt some minority! Shiloh, that was obviously a post from your heart and it came through. Speaking for myself, I loved it. Do visit me in my home someday. My feet are ALWAYS on the table, by the way!

  29. Shiloh Lane

    Thanks for the encouragement, Marryam! I'm glad the post was something with which you could identify, and it's also nice to hear I'm not the only one who likes a good footrest. If I'm ever fortunate enough to travel to your part of India, I'd love to meet you.

  30. shilohlane

    I will! Thanks, Jeffrey.

  31. Brian Hirschy

    Ah – culture, what an interesting thing.

    I know I'm late to this conversation, but I must say that I've found this post and the coinciding comments incredibly interesting. My first thought was “Man, I miss wearing my Chaco's!” Living on the Tibetan plateau comes with 9 months of non-chaco-suitable weather.

    With my first visit to this area in 2004, I remember thinking many of the same things, much the same way many of my Asian friends have felt overwhelmed when visiting America. My mother growing up in Thailand and Vietnam always stressed “It's not wrong, its just different!”… and it is different now, isn't it?

    I still get annoyed weekly at all sorts of things while living here, but thats part of MY cultural response to this place and and it's hard to undo my previous 24 years of cultural influences… still, not wrong just different. Let's be honest, learning culture and dealing with cultural stresses can be maddening and very difficult.

    Two other points, hopefully not to add to the fire by any means.

    Firstly, I think its incredibly healthy for Shiloh to point out that its her who has to change and obviously not the culture. It's the things we aren't aware of when dealing with culture shock that get us and Shiloh seems well aware of where the stresses are coming from.

    Secondly, there are so many different culture exchanges happening just in these comments and responses to Shiloh's post. Being a Westerner at one point in my life (can I say that?!), I relate to the “bad” smells vs. “warm, comforting” smells comments, though we ALL have to know that contextually, on this blog, we are speaking to people who span multiple cultures and contents and who have different ideas of “bad/uncomfortable” vs. “Comforting” – I'd have made the same mistake and likely even worse if I were writing this!

    I've eaten enough tsampa for the entire Southern portion of the U.S and have had gag reflexes even 6 years after having my first taste. Similarly, my Tibetan friends think spaghetti is the worst tasting thing on the planet.

    It's culture and its differences, similarities, semantics and utterly beautiful and often frustrating nuances have been well illustrated here.

    Thanks for your post and your follow up comment Shiloh, well written indeed. Thanks to everyone else for weighing in on this as well – great comments.


  32. gavingough

    Hi Shiloh, thanks for taking the time and trouble to reply – I think you've experienced a “Baptism by ire [sic]” here on Matt's site and I'm pleased to see that it hasn't dampened your enthusiasm.

    I guess we're all “working on it” in various ways and none of us, myself more than most, can lay claim to getting it right all the time.

    I look forward to the next installment.


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