I bought a Mickey Mouse lighter last weekend.
Whether or not Disney officially endorses a tool for a product that kills its customer base is up for debate, but Mickey looks ecstatic. With his outstretched hands and bright smile, he appears ready to do cartwheels across my desk. He welcomes me to pick up the lighter, lift a cigarette and light up inside my apartment.
Inside my apartment, within fifty feet of a building and in restaurants.
Alfred and I ate at a “boiler restaurant” the other day. A “boiler restaurant” is one that has a burner in the table, and they fill a divided pot with water, one half spicy and the other plain. You order, and they bring food you put into the water and boil before eating.
At the end of the meal he pulled a pack of cigarettes and offered one. We lit up, and I looked around. No gasps. No evil stares. No helpful citizen to remind me that cigarettes are unhealthy, just in case I recently recovered from a braindead state. We smoke. We talk. A flame releases smoke streams and burns tobacco down a wrapper, ashes grow. They grow and gather into a loose sphere, and I search for an ashtray.
“Just do this.”
This meaning flicking on the floor. Alfred flicks his ashes on the floor. I try to copy him. He laughs and schools me in the proper way to flick one’s ashes onto a restaurant floor. Grip the cigarette between your middle and first fingers and use your thumb to strike the cigarette as one may strum a guitar string. Voila, the ashes are gone.
Eventually the flame reached the border. A red strip. No man’s land. Where, oh, where do I dispose of my finished cigarette?
Alfred tossed his on the floor. A good a place as any.
Some (well, a lot) blame the French for heavy smoking. They do smoke, but so far in China, I have had more offers for cigarettes than anywhere else. It’s part of the culture to offer one a cigarette — upon first meeting, when you’re drinking or whenever you feel like it.
It’s polite. Want a cigarette? Sure. Doesn’t mean you have to smoke it. Just take it. Keep it. A souvenir.
Chinese cigarette packs do not contain warnings. May cause birth defects. May? So there’s a chance it will not? No need to go cold turkey, honey. The surgeon general has no authority here.
The only thing my pack says, aside from unreadable Chinese characters, is “SELECTED THE FINEST TOBACCOS.” The caps are theirs. A poor bit of Engrish, this pack and the light costs 5.5 RMB together. That’s about 80 cents. Sin taxes? Nope.
Smoking bans and sin taxes are very stupid ideas. Increasing the price or limiting the places where one can practice an addictive vice will not stop that person from doing it. It will not cure dependence on alcohol or nicotine. It will simply persuade them to do it elsewhere.
As far as I can tell, there are no pretentious, moral crusaders in this country wasting space and interfering with people’s personal freedom. That’s the government’s job here, sure, but in some areas, people have more personal freedom than in the States. Land of the free.
But no one’s saying the Chinese have more freedom than Americans. Far from it, in fact. What I am saying is that in a country that many in the West stereotype as conformist and oppressive, in some areas people here have more personal freedom than in the West.
I like that. In fact, I’m going to light up to that. Now if we can just do something about the high death penalty rate, internet censorship and journalistic oppression, we’ll move in the right direction.