Cultural Odors?

Q I am an elementary school teacher and I have a new student from India. The sweet little girl’s clothes smell of masala and body odor. The other kids don’t want to play with her and is ostracized by them. This must be difficult for the new immigrant. I know this can be so easily fixed, but I don’t quite know how to tell her parents about this.

A This is a sensitive topic to address with the child or the parents. If you assess which situation is worse for the child; a) being constantly ostracized and lonely, or, b) being politely told that one’s odor is uncomfortable or offensive. I think in the long run, getting the information would most benefit the child.

I would simply tell the parents at the next meeting or appropriate time that the other children are having this response to their child’s odor. It is probably due to the spices from cooking and eating. Let them know that it’s not a big deal and it often occurs in various students. Children commonly react negatively to cultural differences such as appearance, dress, food choice, or odor. Explain that this simple issue can be easily fixed and the child would be much more accepted by her peers. She will start to enjoy her social time, feel better about herself, and do better in school activities.

Q I recently went to get an acupuncture treatment for my back and neck. I was asked to disrobe and wear an open gown. The acupuncturist began to work on me for a few minutes and left the room. Another practitioner returned and very kindly told me that my acupuncturist was having a reaction to my body odor. I was embarrassed and replied that I had been sitting in a hot car before my appointment. I got dressed and left.

I had eaten Indian food the night before with lots of garlic, cumin, coriander and curry. Although I am quite used to this odor, for people who don’t eat this way it might be offensive. Additionally, having come from India recently, where people don’t seem to be concerned about body odor, I don’t wear deodorant. This incident made me remember other times when people hinted at my odor and I didn’t realize that it truly bothered them. I am now using a soap with a fresh fragrance and some deodorant. I feel more relaxed and less self-conscious about my body odor.

A Thank you for sharing this experience. Each person and culture has differences in habits that might be offensive to others. This issue may be a common one for South Asians and your story will help readers be more conscious of their habits and how it affects others.

Alzak Amlani is a counseling psychologist in San Francisco and Palo Alto. You can reach him at (650) 325-8393 or check out his Website

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