In China’s "crackdown-of-the-month" culture, we seem to have hit upon something that cannot be cracked down against: smoking. A government official recently proclaimed his fear that too many restrictions on smoking could lead to serious social instability. The basis of his fear is that a shortage of cigarettes, or too many restrictions on when/where people can smoke them may lead to the sort of riots that broke out when the former Soviet Union collapsed. He may have a point. This is a society that smokes. Big time! To the tune of nearly 70% of the male population.
When foreigners, particularly from the US or Canada, arrive here, it’s one of the biggest things they notice and have to adjust to—being around smoke. In the US now, a non-smoker can pretty much live his/her life without ever being exposed to second-hand smoke. Not here. Smoking and eating go hand in hand, so restaurants are filled with blue smoke.
To be fair, it’s tons better than it was 20 or even 10 years ago, when there were absolutely no restrictions on where to smoke. People smoked on busses, in subways, in airplanes, in tiny closed-up train compartments, in hospitals. There was absolutely no escape.
Things began to change in the mid-1990’s, with the imposition of smoking bans on airplanes and in airports. Gradually it moved to train stations and sleeper compartments on trains. That was the most exciting one, because there’s nothing worse than being in an 6X8 train sealed up train compartment with one, two, or even three smokers. At the most, it was a near-death experience, and at the least a cultural clash as the gasping foreigners would try in vain to get the Chinese to not smoke. We had all kinds of tricks. One favorite was to open the windows (this was back when train windows could actually be opened), which was not appreciated by our Chinese fellow travellers because they don’t like to sleep with fast-moving wind hitting their faces (that’s a topic for a whole other blog post!).
So you can imagine our joy when smoking in the compartments was banned. Notice I say in the compartments, because smoking was still allowed, but only in the entryways and connections between the cars. I’ll never forget my first train trip with this new ban in place. I was travelling from Beijing to Changchun. This was back when that trip took 15 hours (it’s 11 now), and the train left Beijing early evening. When I boarded in Beijing I was lucky to be the only person in my soft-sleeper compartment (very rare). I was very tired from a week of over-indulgence on burgers and fries and pizza in Beijing, so I climbed onto my upper berth, pulled the quilt over my head (no heat then, either) and went to sleep.
Three hours later, we stopped in the port city of Qinhuangdao, and took on passengers. I heard the door to my compartment open, so I knew the luxury of this compartment to myself was coming to an end. I could tell that it was three men. Not wanting to engage in conversation, I kept myself hidden under the quilt, pretending to be asleep. They could see that someone was sleeping in the upper bunk, so were quiet, and quickly they all turned in as well.
At 6, the loudspeakers started playing sweet music, which is the signal that it’s time to get up. I wasn’t interested because I knew we had several more hours before arriving in Changchun. I also didn’t feel like getting up and engaging in small talk. I’m not a morning person and I’m not a small-talker, so the thought of doing small talk at 6 in the morning in Chinese had no appeal to me whatsoever. I remained buried under my quilt.
And when I say buried, I mean buried. I was sure that it had not occured to these gentleman that the perpetually sleeping figure in the bunk was a foreigner, much less a woman. I was fine to keep the mystery alive. They commented on how "that person" was still sleeping, then headed off to the dining car to get some breakfast. I was thrilled to be alone again!
But it didn’t last. About an hour later, they came back, and much to their dismay "that person" was still sleeping. Or so they thought. Within 5 minutes, they decided to have a smoke. I heard the tell-tale sign of the match-strike, and caught a whiff of the smoke. But this time I was ready, with all of the backing of the Chinese regulatory system behind me. It was time to make an appearance. I pulled the quilt from over my head, sat up, leaned over my top bunk railing, looked at them and said, in Chinese, "excuse me gentlemen, but it is now against the regulations to smoke in this compartment. See, it says it right on the ticket. Please either put your cigarettes out to the car entrance to smoke. Thank you. " Then I went right back down under my quilt, only this time with the looks of sheer terror and shock on their faces burned into my mind. I can assure you that the last thing they expected to see was a foreign woman with bed-head speaking their language. They looked like they were seeing a ghost.
When I laid back down under the quilt, the room was dead silent. They were stunned speechless. After a few minutes one of them spoke: "Ta shuo zhongguo hua shuo de bucuo" (She speaks Chinese pretty well). More silence. Then another one said, "A foreigner who speaks Chinese? I’m not staying in here," whereupon they all got up and left and never came back. I chuckled the rest of the way into Changchun.
Ok, back to the official who has warned of social instability if the government imposes more curbs on smoking. Did I mention that he is the deputy chief of the State Tobacco Monolopy Administration?" Do you think there might be a conflict of interest here???