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Lost In Translation–II

May 8, 2010

This post is part of the Lost in Translation (LiT) series.  A light-hearted narrative of random first-impressions and encounters in a new culture.

香煙. xiāng yān. cigarette.

Beijing, February 2009– in the heart of winter

A lot of people here smoke cigarettes—in restaurants, and a plenty other of unexpected places (like public trains).  It was only the first week living in Beijing and a fuse had broke in our apartment.  We had no power.  I was doing some work when someone came by later to fix it.  About twenty-minutes later a man came into my bedroom saying something in Chinese that I could not understand.  I nodded my head and he lit up a smoky butt about one foot away from me, in my room, at about 8:30am.  I suppose I couldn’t really complain because he did offer one and insist on taking it.

Reflection: Cigarettes are as much a part of the Chinese culture as is rice wine or maybe even tea.  It’s a fascinating truth, and it’s addicting.  One of the warmest gestures a man can have is to offer another man a cigarette, insist, and light it for him all in one motion.  ‘Man’ is no oversight in this sentence as it’s very uncommon to ever see women lighting up stogies.  Although the youthful generation seems to be more accepting of girls smoking.  Still, this is a social phenomenon is unique within the culture.  Intimate conversations start and end over a cigarette, as do sudden mutual realizations of a problem or common concern.  A pack of cigarettes is as common of a sight on the dining table as a tea glass. Many of the millions of migrant workers find relief in each drag—putting out their butts halfway through to save the rest.

If you meet someone for the first time it is not uncommon to be offered a cigarette.  Of course not every male in the country puffs away religiously, but it’s more of a norm than anomaly.  It seems that the only place where smoking cigarettes have been banned are school grounds, government entities and most forms of public transportation (aside from domestic train rides).  Actually, maybe not all school-grounds as I have been with a science teacher puffing away in the teachers lounge of a public school on several occasions.

And when you combine cigarettes with alcohol and a group of men at dinner, forget about it—the conversations and interactions are magnified and the show begins.

Yinchuan, Ningxia -- Vegetable Market

15 yuan = $2.20
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