The Only Man in China Without a Lighter
The narrow airlock opens into a greenish room furnished with rows of metal benches and large ashtrays that sprout from the floor. The smokers are all Chinese, staring at their phones or the flat-screen TV at the front of the lounge. I pull out one my Zhongnanhais and ask the guy next to me—a businessman with a neat gray moustache—for a light.
My own lighter is gone, tossed in the designated bin at the security checkpoint in Guangzhou. I’d seen these bins at every airport in the country, and they were always overflowing. I doubted there was a man anywhere in China without a lighter, except at the airports. But I was in luck. The businessman with the gray moustache has not been through security yet. He fishes into his pocket, finds his lighter, and thrusts it in my direction with hardly a glance. I light up and settle onto a bench. The room is pleasantly cool and not nearly as smoky as I’d imagined it would be. I look around at my cohorts: middle-aged Chinese men, sitting alone and smoking slowly, great plumes of smoke billowing from their mouths. Their faces seem to dissolve into the clouds. I force myself to blink, then I rub my eyes, not caring how dirty my fingers are. Zigzagging across the top of the ashtray in front of me are strips of metal that were perhaps designed to hold cigarettes but instead just collect garbage. Crumpled cigarette packs, pieces of plastic and foil, and smoldering butts protrude at all angles. Lines of blue-gray smoke waft from the ashtray itself—a metal column with a wide hole at the top—and the floor is smattered with stray ashes. I flick my cigarette in the general direction of the hole and watch a few of my ashes join the ones on the floor. A couple of young Chinese guys are talking and laughing about something on a tablet computer they’re sharing, almost intimately, their free hands drawing their cigarettes to and from their mouths at alternating intervals. A few others are engrossed by the Chinese gangster–soap opera on the TV at the front of the room. I crush my cigarette on the edge of the ashtray and toss the butt in the hole, overwhelmed by a sudden twinge of giddiness.
Getting Cozy with Cancer
When I got off the plane from Guangzhou, I’d told myself I was only going to have one cigarette, and not even because I wanted one in particular, but rather because I was curious what the smokers’ lounge was like. The obsessive smoking habit I’d developed over the last several months was one of the things about China I was most looking forward to leaving behind. In less than 24 hours, I’d be back in New York City, home of the $12 cigarette pack and an ever-dwindling circle friends who still smoked. Quitting there would be easy.
I glance at the clock. There is still a six-hour layover ahead of me and half a pack of Zhongnanhais in my pocket. The smokers’ lounge is emptier the second time around. No one is talking, just smoking, the silence punctuated by an occasional cough. On the edge of the ashtray is an empty Marlboro White Menthol pack with a giant warning label that says simply, “Smoking Kills.” Undeterred—or perhaps inspired—I smoke my Zhongnanhai with purpose, studying the faces of the Chinese smokers around me.
It’s amazing how smoking remains so popular in China. There are more than 350 million Chinese smokers, including over half of all Chinese men. Forty-two percent of the world’s cigarettes are produced in China, and approximately one-third of the world’s cigarettes are smoked there. Doctors smoke, butchers smoke, cooks smoke—even as they perform their jobs. I look around at the men in the lounge, puffing away with obvious contentment. Perhaps they don’t believe the warning labels, the science linking smoking to cancer. Or perhaps they somehow put it out of their mind, like American smokers must. Unless they do believe it and simply accept it. I like this possibility the most. We all know we’re going to die eventually, but does that mean we have to worry about it all the time?
The Hottest Party in Hong Kong
I am developing a kind of silent camaraderie with the other smokers, at least in my own mind, and on my third trip to the lounge I bring a notepad and start jotting things down, like the presence of a small fire extinguisher in the corner that I hadn’t noticed before. What a nice touch; they really care about us in here, I think to myself, smiling at the guy next to me—my smoking friend!—who remains unmoved. I take note of the way the metal grating over the hole in the ashtray really looks more like a grill than anything else, like you could cook a hamburger on it. Imagine that, I want to say to my smoking friend, who refuses to acknowledge me: a nicotine-infused burger, slow-roasted over an ashtray in an airport. I chain-smoke two cigarettes and am disappointed to see that there are only three left in the pack. That doesn’t seem like nearly enough to make sitting in the smokers’ lounge into the epic project I’ve decided it should be. I need a full pack! Or two, or ten! The guy next to me has come out of his stupor. He is bouncing his knees up and down and has smoked two blue-filtered Baishas in row—a terribly strong brand that I tried but had to abandon for a lighter variety. It occurs to me that our infusion of energy may have to do with all the women in the room. On my first two visits, the lounge had been filled entirely by men, but now there are several groups of airline stewardesses in the mix, laughing and chatting as they smoke. When a couple of trendy young men in stylishly ripped jeans appear, one with a leopard-print backpack and dyed-orange hair, I can’t help imagining that I am at a very exclusive Chinese party—that the smokers’ lounge in the Hong Kong airport is the only place it makes sense to be.
When I return later, I’m disappointed to see that the stewardesses and trendy men have been replaced by three solitary and somewhat unsavory-looking smokers. I ask a young guy at the front of the room for a light. He is conspicuously heavy, like the obese people I sometimes saw lingering inside McDonald’s in China—fat, sad characters who didn’t seem to exist anywhere else in the country. Rather than handing me a lighter, he hands me his cigarette, silently. His face reveals none of the annoyance I imagine he must feel but none of the friendly smokers’ solidarity I hope he feels either. I lift his wrinkled, half-smoked cigarette up to my own. The room is quiet except for the sound of one old smoker in the back row hacking relentlessly. I suppress the urge to cough myself, suddenly aware of how much my throat hurts and how much my hands are trembling. What the hell kind of idiotic mission is this anyway, I wonder, forcing myself to return to this tiny room time after time to finish out this pack of cigarettes with a bunch of other addicts? I want to throw the pack away, call an end to this—but there are still two hours until my flight. And two cigarettes left.
Bidding the Brotherhood Goodbye
Less than an hour till my flight. The scene is lively once again, a mixture of men and women, with more white people than I’ve seen all day. I ask a Chinese man in a powder-blue sport coat for a light, but he waves me away. A sunburned white guy in a baseball cap smiles and extends his lighter. I imagine he is proud to see another member of the English-speaking smoking brotherhood, but after five hours in the airport it’s impossible to muster any conversation beyond a painful, grunted thank-you.
I smoke the second-to-last cigarette slowly, cautiously, my body on the verge of rejecting it entirely. Something obsessive inside me demands that I smoke the final one as well, and I watch myself light up with the burning butt in my fingertips. Smoke gets in my eyes and I suppress the urge to cough. I put the empty pack of Zhongnanhais on the edge of the ashtray, next to a box of Kents, and take a small sip of water. My lungs hurt and the need to cough is becoming irresistible. I stare straight ahead and smoke in regular, calculated bursts, like a little machine, taking in only as much as I think my lungs and throat can handle without betraying me. And when the cigarette reaches the filter, I grind it out and toss it in the smoky black hole in front of me, already wishing I had just one more.