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Smells Like Home

When you grow up feeling out of place everywhere, it’s the most ephemeral reminders of where you’ve been that make you feel at home.

On a quiet, tree-lined street in Quebec City is a modest red-brick bungalow with a patchy lawn, the address of which I still type into Google Street View late at night. My parents bought it around my 12th birthday, when they, too, got tired of leaving. About a year into our lives in that house, at the end of an unseasonably cool August, we came back from a two-week camping tour of Prince Edward Island to find our front and back doors left ajar — what my father would later call "a smug thief's signature."

The details of what the robbers took from us are blurry now, but what I remember with sharp clarity is the scent of intrusion they left behind: a green freshness where the stale, oily traces of my parents’ Chinese cooking used to hang. My house didn’t smell like my home anymore, and I was gutted — robbed of something irreplaceable. That loss hit me harder than the day they sold the house.

Everything feels like the end of the world when you're 13, but this was different. The idea of “home” had just taken on an emotional, even physical dimension within me, a tight pinch where the heart meets the throat. I relished that feeling — the way it just appeared, fully formed, in my chest, how it seeped into the bones. Having moved around for most of my childhood, it was something I had no idea I was missing, an emotional myopia suddenly corrected. What I didn't realize is how quickly that feeling of home could be taken away — the trace of it vanishing, quite literally, into thin air.

I curse in French, write in English, dream in Mandarin, but every tongue feels foreign in my mouth.

Five years later, I moved to Montreal for college, and soon after that, the house belonged to someone else. In the years since, I’ve tried to locate that feeling again in different apartments and cities and relationships, desperate to assign meaning to my environments. But I never could. I felt perpetually restless, the product of a nomadic childhood marked by constant uprootings and botched cultural transplants. Parts of the person I am today were formed in different cities across China, the United States, French Canada, and English Canada, but I can’t quite claim any of them as mine. I curse in French, write in English, dream in Mandarin on occasion, but every tongue feels foreign in my mouth.

So it is to be in between. Part of trying to navigate these new worlds meant learning to be shapeless; I adopted their customs, absorbed their pop culture, learned their histories at the expense of my own. Instead of learning to make stinky tofu and chili fish heads, I made grilled cheese sandwiches and Waldorf salads. And since we were never allowed to watch television in my house, I’ve never caught up on all of the formative movies and TV shows of my generation. To keep up, I have learned the broad strokes, the offhand references — hoarding cultural knowledge as a means of strengthening my sense of self in these new environments. But a collection of artifacts does not an identity make, and I found myself aching for that feeling of belonging everywhere I went: forever the hound on a ghost trail.

This might explain how I’ve found my sense of home in smells. It sounds counterintuitive: The concept of home is rooted in stability, the comfort of things that stay the same, while scent is inherently ephemeral and volatile. But the fleetingness of scents — the bread in the oven, fresh shampoo in someone’s hair — is also what commands our attention. It’s the rare instance in which change can bring a profound serenity, too.

During the formative years of my life, fleetingness was all I had. In the same way that some people accrue postcards and souvenirs from their voyages, I’ve amassed a mental collection of smells from the countries and cultures that my family and I wove in and out of. They were places I could have wanted to call home, had I been given the luxury of time; places that I never chose to leave. Like postcards, these smells summon the feeling of being present in a space: Wish I were still there.

First, there was the heady sweetness of jasmine flowers, which my grandfather grew in terra-cotta planters on his balcony in Chenzhou. My parents left me in his care when they first emigrated from China, so that I could sit out the tough years. I was 3 then, and in their absence my grandfather became both a father and a mother to me: my person.

I didn’t know the names of flowers for a long time, but I knew the scent of jasmine by heart.

In the summer, after the rainstorms, the wind would carry the smell of his jasmines into the room where we slept. I didn’t know the names of flowers for a long time, but I knew the scent of jasmine by heart; it evokes a feeling so strong in me that it tightens all of the strings in my chest, the purest form of love I know. It makes me think of my grandfather, whose dialect I no longer speak, whose face I haven’t been able to touch in a decade. If home is where the heart is, jasmine’s it.

Then there were the Sichuan peppercorns that my mother ritualistically roasted with hot chilis, which she stored in large jars and paired with almost everything we ate. Inhaling their prickly, citrusy scent never failed to make me sneeze, but I did it anyway. Even now, a decade later, I experience homesickness as a subdermal ache that I can only relieve by ordering copious amounts of food from a Sichuanese restaurant.

Only recently did I realize the important part this ingredient played in the scent that gave my house its sense of home. It’s the same odor my friends would pick up from my clothes in high school, to my embarrassment at the time. Now I look for it in perfume descriptions, getting excited when that familiar tingle hits my nostrils. It’s short-lived and punchy, but with just enough character to highlight the whole composition.

I bought my first official fragrance the year I moved to Montreal for school: a bottle of Burberry Brit eau de parfum from a discount beauty website. It was my introduction to the world of overpriced smelly water, and the gateway drug to a lifelong addiction. I wore that scent throughout college; its cozy combination of lime, almonds, and tonka beans will always remind me of Montreal winters, writing essays on the couch in the apartment I shared with my best friends, swathed in blankets. If a memory is a place to return to, perfume is how I get there.

The bottle of Brit now sits dusty and uncapped on my perfume shelf, too old to be worn but too symbolic to throw away. Occasionally I’ll spray it on my sheets before bed, which never fails to make me feel loved, coddled, and luxurious. (This is my best lifestyle tip.) My best friend bought a bottle and says it reminds her of me, but it will always remind me of my time living with her — the best reciprocity I could wish for.

I have never chosen a scent as much as it chose me. Some smells I’ve loved in theory and on paper, but they’d turn on me as soon as I sprayed them onto my skin. Others surprise me with an immediate sense of emotional intimacy, like a foreign language I forgot I knew how to speak. The last perfume I bought came from a closet-sized shop in Barcelona’s gothic quarter; the owner had shown me 30 of his favourite compositions, none of which left a lasting impression, until this one. It hit me ripe with nostalgia, although at the time I couldn’t say what for.

Later, I realized it was kismet. Made by a perfumer from Istanbul, that scent was called Wū Lóng Chá, which is “oolong tea” in Chinese pinyin. It contains notes of mandarin, lychee, musk, fig, and the toasted milkiness of oolong from my childhood. It smelled like finding my way home.

I carry these scents with me as emotional buttresses, temporary cures for those moments of restless longing. We’ve all practiced some version of this therapy — just think about how hard it is to pry a baby away from her blanket. It’s not so much about the blanket as it is about the fabric as a vessel for her own odor.

The way I use fragrance is a survival tactic.

That is the comfort of home at its most primal: The smell we emanate into the world is also what connects us back to it, anchoring us in a sea of unknowns. As adults, we substitute the blanket with our partners’ sweatshirts, with candles, with signature perfumes. It’s a hard habit to shed.

The way I use fragrance is a survival tactic. It’s how I’ve built a sense of belonging in spaces where I do not fit, where I have never felt quite like myself. Armed with a collection of treasured smells and the ability to return to the places they summon whenever I want, I am constantly rewriting the narrative of the nomadic immigrant child that’s haunted me for so long.

Permanency is no longer where I seek comfort; instead, I am finding meaning in those bright, fugitive moments I can never fully capture. Rather than looking for a sense of home in a place I have yet to discover, I am creating it for myself, over and over again.

This essay is part of a series of stories about the meaning of home.