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.
We live in an age abound with mesmerizing performers, whether of musical prodigy, the physically daring or bizarrely inventive. There was a busker I once saw, for instance, who composed impromptu symphonies with only the use of his voice. It was indeed a marvel to behold. I also once had the fortune to be riveted by a third-generation daredevil who walked the high wire between two water towers. And then there were the four contortionist sisters from the Far East who intertwined into never-before-seen shapes, a geometric choreography both freakish and delightful. From lands far and wide such talent ceaselessly bedazzles. But there is one who stands alone. Yehuda the Juggler is the most fantastic performer of them all.
While it is true he is a juggler, he does not belong to any order or guild, nor is he well known amongst his peers. In fact, he would not even call himself a performer. But make no mistake, his skills–and indeed they are skills–are unparalleled by the even the most renowned within the craft.
Unlike other practitioners of the art, whose performances spellbind by increasing the number of objects thrown or who toss death-defying items like torches and swords, Yehuda only juggles three common balls. And Yehuda doesn’t perform for an audience either. Rather, individual passersby might choose to pause just long enough–though few do–to be captivated by his unorthodox style. Unorthodox, so it seems to the untrained eye, but nothing short of physical genius is his juggling in fact.
Lacking all grace and showmanship, Yehuda crudely propels the three balls one after the next to oft dizzying heights and at haphazard distances from his center of gravity–for he has none–the balls flung far from one other in all directions. It looks as if a child merely hurled the spheres in the air without the slightest precision or care. But with desperation and acute intent, Yehuda races back and forth along the ground, his neck bent skyward, panting and sweating as the falling objects accelerate on their descent back to earth. And while appearing totally out of control, lunging and stumbling this way and that, at the final split second he incredibly saves each of the of the balls before they crash down. And then just as hurriedly, he chucks each ball wildly aloft again.
It is the most dizzying and nerve-racking dance. Yet to most of those walking by they take no notice. Yehuda does not feign a street player’s charm or prop a collection tin by his feet. For the fortunately curious eye, however, one has the privilege of bearing witness to one mini-miracle performed upon the next.
Yehuda is always there, day or night it seems, at the same intersection of paths in the city park. I once watched him for 40 minutes during a midday reprieve, and he did not stop to take a drink or rest for breath. He has become a fixture in my life. And in all these years I have never seen him drop a ball.
Once I asked him why he juggles the way he does, for surely it would be easier to employ a more conventional technique. “I do not do this,” he annoyingly barked at me, “to keep, as you say, the balls in the air.” Rushing to and fro and without pause he continued. “I do this, you see, to keep myself from falling down.” And with that not another word.
Let me tell you about my older half sister Rachel. Rachel is Sybil and Dads old kid. Dad left Sybil because she was a drunk and then he met Mom and had me.
Rachel is going to be sixteen on Tuesday but we’re having the party this Saturday in our new basement. Dad said he’d let me go to the party if I get an A on my algebra test tomorrow. I’m not going to get an A because now I’ve got all this stuff on my mind to worry about. And tomorrow’s Thursday. And I hate Thursdays because you’re always thinking about Fridays. And they say it’s gonna rain tomorrow, too. God, seventh grade sucks.
But he’ll let me go to the party anyway. Dad always makes these threats but he’s really not too hard about them. Though he did punish me last Saturday for ripping my shirt playing football. But it was no big deal. He said I couldn’t go to the movies with Scott that night. I went anyway. I can climb out my window using the tree in the yard. It’s got this one great branch that passes just within reach of the sill. He’s never caught me yet. But the movie ended up sucking. It figures.
But this time, I don’t know. I think I’m gonna really get it good this time.
Rachel is usually the one who gets the raw end of the deal. Like last night. She was on the phone with Bob when she was supposed to be asleep, and Bob’s twenty. Scott told me that Tracy (Tracy is Scott’s older sister, who goes to the same high school as Rachel) saw Bob dealing drugs in the school park. My sister’s a druggie.
I could hear her talking through the wall, the way she always talks to guys, laughing at the all the stupid things they say. I was still awake beating off so I was listening real good so I wouldn’t get caught. Then I heard Dad come up the stairs. I could tell it was Dad cause he always walks extra soft when he comes up here, but he always ends up creaking the top two stairs. It’s so funny that he hasn’t figured out yet to just step over them.
I rolled up the sheets to pretend I was sleeping.
Dad sometimes comes up and checks on us late at night. He usually peeps in my room first and then goes back to Rachel’s room when he thinks I’m asleep. I can never really hear what goes on in there, but you could bet that Rachel is gettin’ it real good if Dad’s got to talk to her at that hour.
But last night he just stopped outside Rachel’s door. She was so busy giggling she had no idea he was there. It was so funny, both of us listening like that and only me knowing what was going on.
Then, Dad opened the door. I had to bite on my pillow to keep from laughing.
Rachel said, “Oh shit, Bob I’ve gotto,” but Dad disconnected the phone from the wall before she could finish. He closed the door behind him and walked over to her bed. Then Dad said in his pretty serious voice, “You shouldn’t be up so late playing games when everyone else is asleep.”
“What games?” Rachel said.
“Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talkin’ about,” Dad said. “Games!” he shouted. “Games with boys! And I know all about it, what you and your ‘friend’ Bob are up to. Don’t think that I don’t know what’s going on here.”
“Nothing’s going on,” Rachel said.
“Don’t you talk back like that,” Dad said and slapped her.
Rachel was so busted.
“What are you, too stoned on that dope your smokin’ to listen? You think it’s all fun and games being a junkie? Being a whore? I’ll show you what fun it is. Get out of your clothes,” Dad said. “You can’t go to bed dressed like that.”
“Dad,” Rachel whined. Dad slapped her again.
Oh, man. Rachel was so dead. I couldn’t believe it.
It was pretty quiet after that except for Rachel’s crying and Dad’s heavy breathing, and that annoying squeaking that Rachel’s bed sometimes gets, but it was loud enough for me to finish beating off and go to sleep.
So today I was real curious. I raced home from school to make sure I was back before Rachel. Mom was cooking downstairs and watching T.V., so I was clear to go up and check out Rachel’s room.
I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, I guess that green leaf you see on T-shirts at the mall. That’s what Scott said it was. When I opened her door it smelled real funny, like something had gone bad.
I wonder if that was the stuff. But no, it couldn’t be. Dad would have gotten it from her last night, and anyway, I don’t even think she’s dumb enough to smoke it in the house. Mom would have noticed, besides. So what was it? It was gross in there. The bed was all messed up and there was clothes and junk thrown everywhere. Mom never makes Rachel clean up her room and she’s got much more stuff than me, too. That’s what the smell probably was, dirty underwear!
But I guess it doesn’t matter. If she was hiding it, I could never find it in that hole. And I knew if I asked her to show me it she’d only yell. That’s how she gets with her stuff. But I asked anyway. When she came home from school she headed straight for her room, like she always does, and I caught her in the hall.
“Hey Rachel, “I said, “I was just wonderin’ if-”
“What do you want, you little brat!”
“Hey,” I said, “I just wanted to-”
I didn’t think of how to put this.
“-see what it looks like.”
Rachel was totally shocked.
“Fuck you, you pervert,” she said and pushed me. “Get a life! What do you think your Mom would say if she knew what you just asked? Huh?”
I knew she wouldn’t tell Mom but she would never show me the dope either. And why did she call me a pervert? What a freak. I ran downstairs and told Mom that Rachel said fuck you. Mom looked annoyed and yelled for Rachel to come down for dinner.
Mom cooks dinner early on Wednesdays because she plays bingo with Sam’s Mom at the center. Dad usually gets home around six fifteen.
At dinner, Mom scolded Rachel for swearing at me and asked me what’d happened. That’s always the way mom deals with things. Dad’s the one you got to watch out for. But if Mom’s real pissed she’ll tell Dad and then you’re in serious trouble. So I thought I’d try to settle the whole thing without him. Bad idea.
Rachel gave me her desperate “don’t-you-dare” look.
“Rachel’s a druggie,” I said.
This made Mom freak out and Rachel call me an asshole.
“What on earth are you talking about, Kevin?” Mom said.
Rachel gave me her “you’re dead” look.
I didn’t say anything.
“So, Kevin,” Rachel was putting on her psycho voice, “what are you talking about!”
I looked over at Mom, who was not looking pleased. Her legs and arms were crossed and she was shaking her head. I was quiet.
“This is bullshit,” Rachel yelled.
“Don’t swear at the table,” Mom said.
“Well, I’m not going to sit here and listen to this loser call me names.”
Rachel stood up and threw her napkin on the table. She looked like she was going to kill me. Then we heard Dad’s car pull up. Rachel calmed down real fast and sat back down. Mom asked me again what this was all about, but I didn’t answer.
“Well,” Mom said, “we’ll get some answers from you in a moment.”
Then Dad walked in.
“Bill,” Mom said, “I think we’ve got a problem here.”
“Jesus Christ,” Dad said, “I just walked in the goddamn door.”
I know it’s going to be trouble when Dad says Jesus Christ.
“I didn’t do anything,” I yelled.
Dad told me to keep my mouth shut until I was spoken to. He was real pissed. Mom was looking up at him and Rachel was staring at her water.
“Kevin?” he said. “Rachel?” We didn’t move. Then Dad just sat down to dinner.
“We’re going to have a nice dinner first and then we’ll deal with whatever has to be dealt with.”
Mom looked kind of surprised at this and then said, “Dear, do you know what Kevin called his sister?”
“Whatever it was, Claire, I’m sure it doesn’t have to ruin your nice dinner right now, does it?”
“A druggie,” Mom cried. “Kevin called Rachel a druggie. Now that’s serious, Bill.”
Dad was now quiet, too. Everyone was quiet.
“Oh?” Dad said and looked at me and then at Rachel.
I knew this was going to be serious. Now I could definitely not go to the party, and maybe worse. So what do I do? I get real nervous and like a wimp I panic and start talking.
“Yeah Dad,” I said, “I heard you call her one yourself last night.”
“What?” Mom shouted. “What on earth are you talking about, Kevin!”
“You asshole,” Rachel yelled at me. “You’re an asshole!” Rachel threw her fork on her plate and ran from the table crying. It splattered tuna casserole and peas all across the tablecloth and even got a noodle on my glass.
“Bill,” Mom said, “what in God’s name is going on here, Bill?” Mom sounded real worried.
I was shaking. I knew I had blown it this time and in the biggest way too-drugs! So I couldn’t keep quiet now. They were going to find out everything sooner or later: how I knew about the drugs, how I was snooping in Rachel’s room. I should never have gotten curious in the first place. They even tell you that on T.V. So, I guess I figured to tell them what I knew right then instead of putting it off. Maybe I thought they wouldn’t punish me as bad. But I don’t really know what I was thinking because the whole thing happened so fast.
So anyway, I spilled my guts.
“Mom,” I cried, “I didn’t do anything. I never smoked it. I’ll never touch the stuff, I swear. Dad?” Dad was sitting quietly, fiddling with his dinner. I couldn’t believe it. He didn’t even yell at Rachel to come back.
“What do you know about all this, Kevin?” Dad said to me. He looked real serious. He was breathing real loud.
“Dad, I wasn’t spying, I swear. I just heard about it from Scott, who heard about it from Tracy, who saw Bob…”
“That’s enough, Kevin,” Dad said.
“But Dad, I was just up cause, cause I was thirsty and I heard something about drugs, and Bob, and I don’t know, then I went to sleep. I don’t know anything about drugs. I probably wouldn’t even know what they look like, I don’t think.”
“Enough!” Dad said.
“Bill?” Mom was totally freaking. I was scared.
“What is this, Bill? Is Rachel involved with drugs? What do you know about this? Bill? What was going on last night? How come you never said,” and then she stopped.
“Honey, I didn’t want to bring this up until later.” Dad was pretty calm now.
“What do you mean, you didn’t want to bring this up? If Rachel’s involved with drugs…”
“Listen! She’s my daughter. I’ll deal with her the way I feel is right.”
And then I guess I really blew it. I was just trying to get everyone back together again.
“Yeah, Mom. Dad was up there last night for a long time. I could hear them talking. Well, I guess they were talking.”
Dad was now picking on the edge of his napkin, staring at the corner. Mom was looking straight at him, her hands together in one big white fist.
“Bill?” Dad didn’t look up. “Bill?” Mom said again. “You said you were just getting up for a glass of water. How come you never said you went upstairs? Bill?”
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Mom looking so pale.
“Kevin,” Dad said, “go to your room and study for your algebra exam.”
“Dad,” I pleaded. “I never touched the stuff. I swear. You know yourself, it was Bob. I’d never-”
“Go to your room, Kevin!” Mom said.
“Go the hell to your room Kevin,” Dad said.
And that was that. I’m sure to get punished even though I never really did anything. And there’s definitely no way I’m gonna get to go to Rachel’s party now. There might not even be a birthday.
But I sure as heck wasn’t going to study for this exam, so I sat in my room a while and played Nintendo. It’s so boring when you get in trouble. I could hear Rachel crying next door. I needed to get out of here, so I thought that maybe Scott would be up for something. I snuck out my window with the tree, no problem, and headed out.
Scott turned out not to be around. He was probably down at the schoolyard playing ball. It was starting to get dark out but I still kinda walked around for a bit. It was real nice out. You could see the moon and stuff.
I ended up losing track of the time and didn’t get back to the house till it was really dark. I came around the front yard to see what was going on. Maybe the cops would be there. Rachel was probably going to jail. Mom’s car was still in the driveway, which meant that she never went to her bingo game, and Dad’s car was gone.
I was so busted. They were probably out looking for me. I was gonna get killed for this. I figured I’d just give myself in now, so I walked in the front. Mom was still sitting in the dining room and Mrs. Blauman, Sam’s Mom, was sitting next to her with her arm around her. Sam was in the kitchen watching T.V. and eating an icecream.
“Mom,” I was so dead now, “what’s going on? I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t do anything. I won’t be curious about drugs again. Mom?”
Mom was crying. The table was just as it was when I left. “Mom,” I said, “I said I was sorry.”
“Why don’t you just go up-stairs now, dear,” Mrs. Blauman said. “You can take Sam with you and show him your video games.”
Then Mom turned towards me and reached to me for a hug.
“It’s going to be alright sweety, it’s going to be O.K.”
“Sure it is Mom,” I said. “I know it is.”
“Now, go to your room,” Mom said.
“Sure Mom,” I said. “Is Dad going to kill me when he gets back?”
Mom started crying more.
“No, Kevin. Just go to your room and get some clothes together. We’re going to stay at Grandma’s for a while, O.K.? Can you do that, sweety?”
“Sure Mom,” I said. “But what about Rachel?”
“Rachel’s going to be alright, Kevin. She’s already gone to Grandma’s. She’s going to be alright.”
I figured I shouldn’t ask about Dad. Maybe he took Rachel over. Anyway, I can’t imagine why we’re staying at Grandma’s. I hope there’s still a party on Saturday. Probably not. Not as long as Rachel’s still alive and causing trouble.