Bodies, belonging and racism: travelling with your senses

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Rudyard Kipling once wrote: “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”
 Amen, brother. It’s not just smell either, in my opinion. Sensory impressions play such a powerful role in getting to know a new place.

It might be the feeling of heavy humidity on your skin, the taste of fruits that don’t have a name in English, or that particular perfume of cooking spices, burning rubbish and traffic fumes.

The strange, wonderful sensory experiences of a new place are key to the rush of travelling. I love trying foods, for example, that really challenge my palette (so far in Cambodia, I’ve tried fried grasshopper, duck foot and chicken foetus eggs. All much tastier than you’d think…)

grasshoppers: cambodian snacks

Crunchy, tasty fried grasshopper

But the flipside of new sensory experiences is that they can really make you feel out of place. Unlike more abstract differences between cultures, these feelings occur in our very bodies. While that can be a fun challenge in the right context, it can also create divides between people.

Amanda Wise, a scholar that I really admire, has written a lot about this. She coined the term ‘somatic belonging’ (‘somatic’ refers to the body). She did extensive fieldwork with elderly women living in suburban Sydney, who migrated to Australia during the 1970s. To protect their identities she simply refers to them as the ‘European ladies of Ashfield.’

She writes that the women speak at length about the changes in their local suburb since a large amount of Chinese migrants settled in the area. They are significantly upset about certain behaviours by the Chinese migrants, speaking emotionally about ‘unsmiling Chinese faces, unfriendly neighbours, pushy bodies, dirty and dark shops’ (Wise, 2010, 920). They complain about the strong, fishy smells coming from the apartments in their building where Chinese families live, and avoid shopping at Chinese butchers where, they feel, the meat smells bad and the shopkeepers are rude.

At the same time, they are keenly aware, and very upset, that they are treating the Chinese in precisely the same way they themselves were treated by the Anglo-Celtic locals when they first arrived in the area. “The group seemed torn that there was no language but seemingly racist language to express the discomforts they were clearly feeling…because of the pain they carried from their own experiences of racism they were deeply affected at having such negative feelings toward the new group” (Wise, 2010, 921)

This is where it gets really interesting to me. How do we talk about the deep sense of discomfort and unease that we feel when faced with sensory experiences that are completely outside our cultural repertoire, without resorting to language that is divisive, or even racist?

And this speaks to a deeper problem. Wise points out that a lot of literature about overcoming racism assumes that what we need is a discursive shift; a change in the way we conceptualize belonging, us and them. But this fails to acknowledge the extent to which “the representational regimes ‘out there’ become, over time, deeply embodied, habituated and sedimented into the very fleshly fibres of our beings” (935).

An example. Every morning, our neighbor spends a good 15 minutes hawking, coughing and spitting. It sounds like he’s trying to cough up a lung, loudly. On an intellectual level, I know that this is considered a healthy practice here- you clear out your body of any expectoration. Still, as I’m sitting in the courtyard with my cup of tea, I can’t help feeling a sense of discomfort, bordering even on disgust. It’s a sound that, for me, evokes a bodily sense of uncleanliness and illness.

It is not enough to change the way we conceptualize race and difference on an intellectual level. We need to challenge our very bodily sensations, because these feelings can, if we’re not careful, create deeply-seated separations between groups of people.


I follow Wise in thinking that it is not enough to change the way we conceptualize race and difference. We need to challenge our very bodily sensations, because these feelings can, if we’re not careful, create deeply-seated separations between groups of people. If on an intellectual level, we completely accept that cultural difference is a wonderful thing, but on a bodily level we feel disgust about the everyday practices of another group, how do we truly break down the border between ‘us’ and ‘them’?

But the thing about these sensory reactions is that they are not fixed. As with any cultural norm, they are learned over time. So that means we can unlearn them, or better yet, add to our repertoire of learned behaviours.

When you first arrive in Cambodia, the heat might be unlike anything you’ve ever felt, it exhausts you, slows you right down. But after a few weeks, you adapt. Your benchmark for what constitutes a hot day shifts. You’ve relearned how to understand your initial bodily sensation. The same goes for taste- the first time you try prahok (a salty, fermented fish paste), it’s probably going to taste like dirty socks. But once you try it a few more times, you might come to appreciate the strong, salty taste (as I did).

As a musician, I think sounds are a great place to start. A lot of expats living in Cambodia are not big fans of the music here. Compared to what they’re used to, the voices are too high-pitched, the wooden xylophones too plingy, the rhythms too loose. By hearing it every day, though, I’ve come to love it- the layers, the intertwined yet independently moving arrangements for each instrument, the ringing gongs and whining wind instruments.

A wedding band playing on my street

It’s not always easy, this process of transition. But with time, patience and open ears the strange can become familiar, the ugly nuanced and beautiful. And this is the joy of travel, whether it be in a foreign place or just by experiencing the music/food/art of others in suburban Sydney.


Wise, Amanda(2010) ‘Sensuous Multiculturalism: Emotional Landscapes of Inter-Ethnic Living in Australian Suburbia’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 36: 6

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    Its great as your other blog posts :D, regards for putting up.

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