In college, I always ran cross country and track and field. Therefore, smoking cigarettes, or anything for that matter, was always off limits to me. Truthfully, I never saw any appeal in smoking. One girl in 9th grade once told me that I would look really good smoking cigarettes when I was chewing on a white pen, but besides that added sex appeal, the smoke smells horrible, it turns your teeth and fingernails yellow, and well, it kills you. So I never wanted to smoke.
But then I went rogue. I failed at doing anything worthwhile in my final track meet, and immediately turned to cigarettes. When I say I immediately turned to cigarettes, that means, I smoked about 2 packs-worth over the next 3 months–mostly when drinking. The main point is that, I was no longer completely anti-smoking which is something I had been, especially during my high school years.
I arrived in Changsha, Hunan on August 4th (I think…either the 3rd or 4th). One thing that became apparent immediately was that every man in China smokes cigarettes. I don’t really know why, but they do. And with my new-found appreciation for smoking, my addictive personality, my need to fit in, and the inexpensiveness of cigarettes, I foresaw myself as becoming a smoking addict. The price of cigarettes in China ranges from $0.15 to $10.00 at any average cigarette stand. The first pack I bought in China was $0.15. They were terrible.
I spent 3 weeks living in Changsha for orientation, and later moved to Cili, a smaller town in the ZhangJiaJie district, where I would be teaching at a high school. It was here that I learned most of “中国的方式“ – the Chinese way. And gosh, who would have thought that smoking cigarettes was such a large part of Chinese culture. Let me rewind a little, it’s not so much the smoking of cigarettes that is part of the Chinese culture, but just cigarettes themselves.
At meals, upon meeting someone, entering someone’s office, bumping into someone in a public vicinity, watching a basketball game, taking a break from playing basketball, and any other act that puts you in contact with other human beings is an opportunity to offer cigarettes to other people. It’s just a way of showing respect and gaining a little guanxi. If you host a dinner, it’s especially important to have cigarettes to offer your guests. People who don’t even smoke cigarettes will often carry some on themselves to offer to others. There’s a specific type of system to it. It’s like buying rounds of drinks at a bar, but done in a nonverbal way. No one says, I got this round, you get next round. It’s more like, one person offers cigarettes to everyone. Then when someone wants to smoke again, if they pull out their pack, they will offer to everyone. At a dinner though, people often leave the packs on the table and it seems to become public property.
It’s unbelievable how many men smoke cigarettes in China (Chinese women rarely smoke). In America, we say “Innocent until proven guilty.” In China, they say, “Smoker until proven non-smoker.” So, I began my time in Cili saying, “Oh, I only smoke when I drink…” And luckily, most times people offered cigarettes to me, we were drinking and so I was able to appease them and accept their gracious gifts.
But then something odd happened. Something that could have destroyed my reputation. I stopped liking cigarettes…completely. I never really “liked” them, but I was able to smoke one here or there. But then, one day, I can’t even put a finger on the specific time, I just couldn’t do it anymore. People say cigarettes are addictive, but they did the exact opposite for me, even with my addictive personality. It was as if I had used up all of my smoking cards and had nothing left in the deck. I would no longer accept people’s offering of cigarettes, to the dismay of the giver. I would deny them the opportunity to connect on a special level with one of the two foreigners in our town. At first, it was a bit of a difficult process. “But you said you smoke when you drink!” But I guess, one day, I had proved myself non-smoker, and finally, it became common-knowledge that I, Frank Hoban, was a non-smoker.
This meant that I would no longer be offered cigarettes. I was not part of the smoking cult. Sometimes, I would carry cigarettes on me to offer to others as a way of saying, “Although I do not smoke, I still respect your customs…” People were okay with this, of course. It mainly meant that I was the “drinker,” the “jiu liang da,” the “jiu gui.” I no longer had to smoke. But I would always have to drink.