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There are eight lounge chairs at the front of the cigar store placed four in a row. Jeff and Mike sit facing one another both puffing fat stogies. Pete stands behind the counter tending the register with a cigar in hand. From the designs on the ring bands I can tell they’re smoking the same brand.
Mike says, “Pete, is that your favorite fuckin’ cigar?”
“Yeah, I love the fuckin’ Dominicana Fleur de Toros.” Pete looks up from the till and examines the cigar, rolling it back and forth between his fingers.
Jeff says, “Yeah, that’s a good fuckin’ cigaw.”
I enter the walk-in humidor and scan the rows of open cigar boxes, each laid display like a baby dangling its legs. Pete peers in.
“Can I help you with anythin’?”
“Yeah, I’m looking for a Maduro wrap in a robusto.”
“Aw, you know your cigars, ok.” He steps halfway in.
“You tried the Avos?
“You have the XO’s?”
“Aw, you really know your cigars.”
“I used to work for De La Concha in the city.”
“Aw,” Pete shouts out to Mike and Jeff, now joined by a third, much larger man.
“This guy worked at De La Concha. You know, in the City.”
“De La Concha?” Jeff sits up and shouts at us through the glass wall.
“Yeah,” I say walking out with my stout Maduro Avo, “I worked there in ‘96 for the Melendis.”
“Oh,” Jeff seems excited. His mullet bobs, his sunglasses shake in their wiry gold frames. “Lionel sold that place years ago. Mike, when did Lionel Melendi sell that place?”
“Oh,” Mike thinks, “Could have been oh six, oh seven.”
Ten minutes later it would be Dursos, the pasta place on 35th. Then Utopia Bagels. Who owned it; how long it’d been there; when they did renovations. Etcetera. We knock back expressos with Sambuca and slowly sip Black Label while smoking and bullshitting. It is boring and beautiful. This is home.
A critic once wrote about Raymond Carver that he does what any great writer does: he makes the strange seem familiar and the familiar seem strange. Returning to my childhood in Queens, a business errand turns into a philosophical and cultural assault.
I drift through New York like a ghost, dodging remnants from the past like the throngs of tourists at Times Square while en route to wait for 40 minutes to get a lunchtime table at the Carnegie Deli. Or traversing Queens time and time again to midtown on the F Train and walking back and forth to the Pakistani Consulate, which is not incidentally directly opposite Emanu-El Synagogue on East 65th.
A high school friend’s daughter’s sixth birthday house party, where after twenty plus years I reunite with an old childhood friend and an old ex-lover. She’s grown haggard and rotund and is looking after a toddler and married and with his two children half the week. Eric and I have a brief but intimate catch up. And hardly a word spoken with Kim, apart from greetings and goodbyes. “Be safe,” her final thought, spoken after an obligatorily parting embrace. And so, what was a lifetime ago a magically fabricated romance is now a salutation at a suburban Sunday buffet.
But that’s not what any of this is about.
He is sprawled out across the hammock on his back, his wife and grandchildren all watching, one of the girls talking to him while he listens and sways. His face shines as though he has never known such bliss. The day is bright, the park semi-crowded. I can tell from his buck teeth that he works with his hands. He swings like a pendulum, his thoughts drifting from the far past to the grandchildren before him. This man has toiled his decades to the bone, and though weathered, he is not broken. A faint glimpse of consciousness glimmers from within his gaze. He is a child again, a young man; a different life, another world.
On our way out of the park we walk passed the hammock and it is empty. My son and his two friends and their three mothers continue up the path, and I say I’ll meet up with them by the car. I sturdy the wide hammock underneath me before I fall in and look up at the trees. Embracing the jet lag, the fleeting fragments of past days set in. New York, China. And this is where I am.
In China, smoking cigarettes is as common as in the US inhaling Doritos. And like the culture of gluttony in the States, the Chinese can proudly claim to be the world’s biggest smokers.
Cigarettes are major status symbols in China, no different from the cache that luxury cars or designer clothing carry in the West. Unlike in the West, however, where most brands of cigarettes are similarly priced, in China a packet of fags ranges from a few pennies to over a hundred dollars. And soft packs are priced higher than hard packs, a justification for which I have yet heard explained. Cartons of cigarettes are also gifted in exchange for favors, serving as unofficial currency.
Even when the Chinese currency was valued at 25 percent more than today, and not taking into account inflation and salary increases, cigarette prices have always had a huge range from the dirt cheap to the dizzyingly absurd. To put this in perspective, imagine stepping into a 7-Eleven where the cigarette display contained packs from 50 cents to a thousand dollars.
There’s also the starry-eyed, circa 1950’s notion that cigarettes are still somehow beneficial. Even in today’s purportedly developed Chinese society, the common thought is that cigarettes are relaxing and social. Naturally, none of the hundreds of brands sold in China contain a warning label. And at all major functions, like government banquets, wedding receptions, and ironically funerals, high-end brands of cigarettes will be piled around the table on saucers or left in their sealed boxes for guests to enjoy and smuggle into their pockets. At the entranceway to a wedding reception it is likely to be greeted with a cigarette by the bride and groom or child of the family. Everyone gets one, as if a party favor or lollipop after a visit to the doctor’s. People smoke in hospitals, classrooms, elevators, buses, nowhere is sacred.
I remember one brief hospital visit I had in the City of Changchun. I was hooked up to an intravenous drip and laid out on a gurney and left in a bare room that could have doubled for the set of the Saw movies. A well-dressed doctor eventually came to visit and as there were no chairs he propped himself on the edge of my wheeled cot and proceeded to hand me a cigarette. The two of us then shared a smoke and chatted about my medical condition while I laid on my back and watched the IV drizzle into my arm.
One justification I have heard for the prevalence of smoking is that cigarettes represent wealth. They are a throwback to a time not so long ago when smoking was equated with the status of having disposal income. So, sticking a cigarette in your face is literally a way of giving yourself face. And this antiquated “tradition” marches on through modern-day China. Cigarettes are also huge revenue streams for the government, accounting for a reported 7% of taxes and 1% of China’s GPD. These are the “official” numbers so they are probably higher. There’s no question that China’s cigarette industry keeps millions employed. However smoking related diseases also kill over 1% of the population each year, so like the one-child policy smoking also plays a less-than-bragged-about role in population control.
China even has a national cigarette, like the panda is their national animal. The brand is called “Chunghwa,” the very same famed cancer sticks that Mao choked until he expired. And successor Deng Xiaoping’s choice oral fixation was none other than a brand called “Panda.” You can’t make this shit up.
When I used to smoke cigarettes I remember buying a different brand with every purchase. There are literally hundreds of choices available and each box is designed with unique flare. Kid in a cancer store. One night at dinner I was with two well-to-do, loyal Chunghwa smokers. They noticed me toting a camouflage box of cigarettes and proceeded to mock me saying that I didn’t know anything about good cigarettes. I submitted to them that there was actually little discernible difference between most Chinese brands. Apart from there being strong cigarettes and light ones, price was the only noticeable divide. This remark drew only further derision, and with it the taste challenge was on.
I removed one of their soft-pack Chunghwas fags and then one of my own. Simultaneously lighting both, I told one of the guys to close his eyes. The mocking grew more acute and their laughter tightened. This was far too easy a game, it was just childish. And so Mr. Tang obligatorily shut his eyes while I delivered to his lips the first cigarette. It was his own. Following a pensive drag and exhale he nodded in wait for the second. And after a quick draw on my own inferior brand, he then boldly extolled that that was of course his treasured Chunghwa. I said nothing when he opened his eyes to have the embarrassing truth revealed, his friend aghast with hysteria and himself quick to take up the test.
And so we again commenced, again with eyes wide shut but now with cigarettes coyly switched in their order of delivery. I figured that even with a guess one of these two ninnies should toss the 50:50 odds. Add to their chances the strong likelihood that a devotee of one brand of cigarette should be able to perceive even the slightest difference in taste, if even in the feel of the filter. Something! I would have even bet against me. But as events would prove, the second contestant also guessed wrong.
It was a rare moment in my many years in China, a rare one indeed, when proof was served up and force-fed with absolute silence. No excuses were made. Everyone was quiet. It was really something to see. Nothing more of it was said. And I didn’t need to gloat. The cigarettes—as they usually do—got the last laugh.
It’s New Year’s eve 1998. I’m at a party in the capital of Hunan Province, Changsha. The locals say “Fulan, Zahnsa.” Since I moved here in February my world has been quite different, to say the least.
Most of the attendees at the party are English teachers or university students, but there are also two scientists from the World Health Organization. They are a welcome change of company so I am eager to chat with them. After our introductory formalities, they quietly ask me something surprising.
“Don’t you find the people here a little slow?” One of them says.
The question admittedly catches me off guard, especially given from whom it is coming. Without jumping to conclusions I confirm that I am following him correctly and I limp in reply, “What do you mean?”
The other one says, “Well, you know. Don’t you think the people here are kind of dumb?”
I almost cannot believe what I am hearing, or rather that two WHO scientists are opening a dialogue with such a gambit.
The first one pipes in again and informs me how the soil in Hunan is depleted of iodine. Then the second one takes over, explaining how iodine is a key ingredient in the brain’s early development and without which results in notably lower-than-average IQs in grown adults.
I’m still not sure what to make of this though I am now intrigued.
She continues to tell me that they are researching whether an iodine-deficient diet amongst pregnant women leads to giving birth to children with low IQs as well. Their hypothesis is that this known defect gets passed through the fetus.
In a flash my near-year of endless and inexplicable Changsha foibles rushes through recollection: the Asahi tuna wrap I ordered at a five-star hotel restaurant when the chef forgot the tuna; the penne carbonara with bacon and mushrooms that was prepared at another five-star restaurant but delivered without the bacon and mushrooms; the countless store merchants who got my change wrong, like the one just yesterday who amazingly returned two quai on a nine-quai purchase with a 10 RMB note.
As I remember this array of regularly bizarre mishaps, it dawns that I may have been miss-assessing my time here all along. So much of the struggle and joy I have perceived as communication or cultural differences might have, in fact, been due more to simply having to navigate and tolerate idiots.
I ask them whether their findings have confirmed their hypothesis. But then they continue in a wry tone.
“You see,” the man carries on, “according to the sample of pregnant women provided to us by the Hunan government, we have actually concluded that over 80 percent of people in the province are geniuses.”
“That’s right,” the woman chimes in. “Our experimental population was rigged by the State authorities. They cherry picked all the women we were allowed to meet. So our conclusion is now unpublishable, and the WHO can’t take further measures to try and eradicate the problem.”
They both chuckle, and I too finally give in.
The New Year hour soon tolls, and I mingle back in with the crowd for rounds of toasts and good wishes. I don’t speak with the two people again or see them leave.
Fifteen years later I still have a special place in my heart for “Fulan, Zahnsa.” It was my first home in China. And with all of the changes that I have seen across the country, returning to Changsha brings me much comfort, for it is very much the same place I grew to love now so many years ago.