The language of smoking in China

It’s 9:30 a.m. and I’m headed to work via my usual route. From my apartment to the bus stop i pass the usual characters. There is the security guard in his uniform which is way to big for him sitting in a leather chair that was once considered nice back in the 1980’s. He is puffing on a cigarette as the hot sun beats on his wrinkled tan face. There are the drivers of the dian dong san lun che ( three wheeled taxisall gathered in front of my building scratching their bellies and passing around cigarettes, waiting for someone to ask for their service. Even though they see me everyday, and i always take the bus, they still greet me with a “hellloooooo, taxi?”. These are the two words they know. Then as I walk down the street toward the bus stop I see a butcher outside of his restaurant cutting raw meat and alternating with his other hand to smoke his cigarette. Then adjacent to my bus stop is a car wash where every single employee somehow manages to give the customers car a wax while simultaneously balancing a cigarette in their mouths. True talent right there.

I’m sure you are seeing a pattern here. Smoking is pervasive in China. But it has a very different reputation than it does in the West. In America its stigmatized and seen by most as a very unhealthy and addicting habit. That’s about where the definition of smoking stops in the West. However, smoking is seen as something much more than an unhealthy past time in China. It’s a way to make introductions easier. It’s a way to make new relationships and even further solidify the relationships you already have. When I witness people meeting up together it’s almost like the cigarettes are coming out of their pockets before their hello’s are said to each other.

There have been multiple occasions in which we’ve met various Chinese people who have offered Billy a cigarette. Just the other day we were looking at apartments and as we walked to the place, the real estate agent offered Billy a cigarette. We’ve been negotiating cab prices in the late hours of the night and upon reaching a negotiation he was offered a cigarette. Rarely am I offered a cigarette because I believe there is still some sense of machismo associated with smoking, even if many Chinese women are smoking today.

In my opinion, cigarettes are also like a type of currency. Smoking cigarettes isn’t perspired to a certain class. Everyone is doing it from the migrant worker to the business executive.However the range of brands in China varies greatly. In Beijing there are hundreds upon thousands of little stores that sell cigarettes in a big glass case where it’s easy for you to glance over the brands. There are probably fifty different brands of them in these cases. It’s seen as a status symbol to have certain brands of cigarettes. As my favorite author Peter Hesler states so perfectly:

“For entrepreneurs, the give-and take of cigarettes represents a kind of semaphore.” Each brand has “a distinct identity and an unspoken exchange rate. Around Beijing, peasants smoke Red Plum Blossoms. Red Pagoda Mountain can be found in the pockets of average city men. Low level entrepreneurs like Zhongnanhai Lights. A nouveau-rich businessman tosses out Chunghwas as if they were rice. Pandas are the rarest and best of all…government quotas make them hard to find.”

Smoking is seen everywhere, I mean everywhere. In my apartment sometimes I glance down and see men flicking open their a box, putting a cigarette in their mouth and lighting up as soon as the door opens. Husbands puff away together as they sit in a circles together and bounce their babies on their laps. Smoking is done before, during and after dinners. My favorite is seeing very elderly men walking around Beijing’s hutongs in their pajamas, having one last smoke before bed time.

Although I have mixed feelings about so many people smoking all of the time, you can’t help but witness some magical way cigarettes seem to bring together groups of people in China. If there is an altercation or a disagreement you can feel the tension melt away as soon as one party offers another a cigarette. If there is a death, attendants will gather together and smoke in honor of their loved ones who have passed. It’s perhaps the most second most used language next to Mandarin.



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