Cigarettes and Me
I just came from a taxi ride in which the driver reeked so disgustingly of tobacco that, despite the sub-Antarctic temperature and Siberian winds, I had to crack open the window and press my face up to the freezing and feeble stream of air in order to breathe. Last summer, when I decided to move to China, tobacco was something that had me quite worried. I was afraid of being tempted both by the ubiquity of cigarettes and their ridiculously low price. And those fears were justified.
I never smoked cigarettes when I was young, aside from a few months of experimenting with them when I was in my late teens, a popular way of asserting one’s adulthood. It was many years later, when my friend Roy got sick with cancer (scroll down to my Jan. 20 post for the story — I can’t hyperlink it because of my archiving problems), that I started to “smoke.” (I use the quote marks because I never thought of myself as a “smoker,” since I smoked so little and detested every puff.) Cigarettes seemed to give me an outlet for my tension during those torturous weeks when all we could do was stand around and wait for Roy to die. It started when an older woman at the company became my sounding board. She was one of only two or three people in the office who knew the truth, about Roy, and she would go out with me in the parking lot and I would empty my soul about what Roy was going through. She smoked Parliaments, and I began to smoke with her, maybe one or two a day.
This was totally out of character for me, the former opera singer, but it definitely did something for me, perhaps simply by giving me something to do instead of just waiting. A few weeks into our meetings, she started walking over to my desk with her hands cupped. She’d uncup them, showing me two cigarettes, her way of silently asking me to go have a smoke with her. And thus it started. (It was only months later, after she had gone and Roy had died, that I was to discover she was pumping me for information, which she then transmitted to a rival who would soon try to steal the company away from its dying founder.)
Roy died after three months, but I kept up the bad habit of smoking a few cigarettes every day for the next 11 years. Sometimes, if I was in a particularly procrastinative mood (and yes, I am allowed to create new words in here) I would smoke as many as 6 a day. It seemed to wake me up from sleepy moods, though this “up” feeling was always short lived. I hated it. I hated the smell, the taste, the pain it caused my throat, but I decided the “therapeutic” value made it worthwhile.
Ironically, my cigarette smoking increased with the next tragedy I had to deal with, the death of my older brother in 1996 — from lung cancer, no less. I am convinced the sheer absurdity of the situation, of my ultra-healthy, squeaky-clean brother contracting lung cancer made me so hedonistic, so convinced that nothing mattered and we may as well do what we want when we want, that I moved from one-to-three cigarettes a day to three-to-six. My per-day record was eight.
It took me more than two years to cut that amount back to two-to-three, and at times I felt I was going to burn a hole in my throat. But getting back to China…. Cigarettes here are available for as cheap as 4 kwai — less than 50 cents. There are no health warnings on the boxes. Nearly all Chinese men seem to smoke, even in the elevators, in the bathrooms (especially in the bathrooms), in the fire exits, wherever they go. Many offices allow smoking, and their conference-room tables have ashtrays everywhere. Only Western-style restaurants have no-smoking sections. My own company has four local male employees, all under 30 and all of them smokers.
In Hong Kong, where people also smoke compulsively, my friends were shocked when I would light a cigarette, although very few except my best friends there ever saw me smoke. I managed to stop for about two weeks, but I always found an excuse to buy “my last pack.” Usually it was for an emotional crisis, some problem that necessitated a cigarette. Still, I cut the habit way back and was down to one to two a day when I decided to move to China.
Friends warned me that China is NOT the place to go if you want to stop smoking. Little cigarette shops abound, each selling a dizzying array of brands, most of them the cheap local ones. In the face of such temptation I was fairly proud that I kept to my regimen of about two a day here in smokers’ paradise. Then, after 11 years, something happened. I got a bad case of flu back in November and I remember waking up and going to light a cigarette. With a burning sore throat and cough, the pain was atrocious, and it just struck me: the cigarettes owned me, I had no power over them, even though I hated them and there was no pleasure they afforded me, no benefit. I told myself if I wanted to live I could stop, if I wanted to die I could smoke. Since then, despite many temptations, I have not had any cigarettes. Soon it will be three months, and I can’t describe how much better I feel, mind-wise and body-wise. One of my colleagues started a bet that I couldn’t last three months and on February 10 he’ll have to pay me 100 rmb.
I suppose there is no purpose to this post except to celebrate out loud my victory over a habit that I have cursed and hated for more than a decade. I am happy to say that now the very thought of a cigarette makes me feel sick, as it should. Now I can move onto some other bad habits I need to work on, like drinking too much coffee and spending too much time on the Internet. But those pale in comparison to smoking, the most insidious and most disgusting of all.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.