No Smoking

Today is potentially a momentous day in China, the day that an indoor smoking ban is supposed to take effect.  I say 'potentially' because I am skeptical about the means and will to actually enforce the ban, especially as it applies to restaurants.  In the run-up to the Olympics in 2008, a similar ban was decreed.  The smoke cleared during the Games, but as soon as they were done and the atheletes had gone home, the whole thing fell by the wayside.

I think it will be especially difficult to enforce in restaurants because in this culture eating and smoking are so entwined. For hundreds of millions of people, doing one without the other is unimaginable.

But I do have a glimmer of hope, and that is rooted in memory.  I've been in China for 27 years, so can remember the days (well into the late 1990's) when smoking was permitted anywhere and everywhere:  classrooms, hospitals, banks, airports, airplanes, train stations, and even train compartments. As bans were introduced for more and more venues, we always thought they collapse in due time.  It sometimes took awhile, but gradually they became part of life here, and the blue smoke that seemed to hang in the air absolutely everywhere began to dissipate.

It was hard having to deal with smoke everywhere, but the worst was being shut up in a train compartment with 2 or 3 smokers.  Whenever we'd board a train and enter our compartments we would often break into tears when we saw the boxes of cigarettes sitting on the table between the bunks. We would try to ask our bunkmates to go into the hallway to smoke, but this was usually met with blank stares. 

Figuring then, that that was a bit too direct, we resorted to more subtle (but not too subtle) means.  Knowing that our Chinese fellow travellers feared moving air as much as we feared cigarette smoke, as soon as they lit up we'd open the window.  They would put out the cigarrettes, we would close the window, and within a few minutes the routine would be repeated. 

Once the ban on smoking in train compartments was instituted, we figured we had the law on our side, so became a bit more bold.  We were to be part of the education campaign!

Shortly after the ban started, I was travelling on the night train from Beijing back to Changchun. This was back in the days when the trip was 13 hours.  When I boarded in Beijing I was thrilled to find that I was the only passenger in my soft-sleeper compartment.  The other three beds were empty as we pulled out of the Beijing Train Station. I climbed up to my top bunk (upper birth, in train-speak), pulled the cotton quilt over my head and went to sleep.

Several hours later, the train stopped in the port city of Qinhuangdao, and to my disappointment (but not surprise), three passengers joined me in the compartment.  Because it was late at night and I didn’t feel like making small talk, I did not emerge from the cocoon that I had made for myself up on my bunk. As they entered my compartment the three men could tell that someone was in the upper berth (Upper Berth Person), but no part of me was visible.  Sensing that I was asleep (I was actually just pretending), they quietly put their stuff away, got into their bunks and settled in for the remaining ten hours of the journey.

When the sun came up, maybe around 5:30 or 6 the next morning, they all got up. I remained hidden. I heard them make comments about Upper Berth Person still sleeping, but they remained fairly quiet, and after a few minutes left to find some breakfast in the dining car. I think they were a bit troubled by the fact that Upper Berth Person wasn’t going to eat breakfast.

After an hour or so, my compartment-mates returned, and once again commented on the Upper Berth Person. But by now the day had begun, so they figured (rightly) that there was no longer any need to be quiet.  It was time for UBP to get up.  Besides, it was time for a morning smoke. They reached for their box of cigarettes and all of them let up.

Then I struck. As soon as I heard the striking of the match and smelled the smoke, I cast aside my quilt, sat up, leaned over the edge of my berth and said to the three gentlemen, in fairly clear and accurate Chinese:  “Excuse me, but smoking is no longer permitted in train compartments. Will you please either put out your cigarettes or go to the end of the train car to smoke. Thank you.” Then a lay back down and put the quilt back over my head.

I will never forget the looks on their faces as I finally made an appearance, because never in their wildest dreams (nightmares) had they thought UBP might be a foreigner. But a foreigner with yellow hair and bed-head and the ability to speak Chinese? This was almost enough to trigger cardiac arrest.

My speech and subsequent disappearance back under the quilt was met with silence, but after a few minutes, one of the guys finally said “Wow….her Chinese is pretty good.”  His buddy wasn’t quite so sanguine about the situation and said, “well, a foreigner who speaks Chinese?  I’m not staying in here.”

And with that the three of them gathered up their things and disappeared for the remainder of the journey to Changchun.