One of my students, an absolutely delightful girl who lives in San Francisco, emailed me the other day apologising for her absence from the Cantonese lessons - she had been forced to look for a new flat.
"[...] my downstairs neighbor is a cigarette chain smoker and he lights a cigarette every 30 mins starting at 8 am until midnight when he goes to sleep. And he is retired so is home all day smoking, and I work from home and the smell is killing me and driving me crazy.
My next door neighbour in Palma is a back to back smoker, but only of cigars, which smells strangely good considering how awful cigarette smoke is.
It wasn't always thus. Although I was never a ‘suck down the life-giving smoke before getting out of bed in the morning’ type; my thing being ‘drinking without smoking is meaningless’, I still managed to pack in stacks of the packs. Coming to China in 1988 was like coming to a freewheeling smoke filled paradise.
China and smoke are like... lips and teeth. One can exist without the other but it’s a miserable existence, cold and full of longing. Guys (few Chinese women smoke) light up as they walk into lifts. Restaurants, shops, taxis, massage parlours; no place is off-limits for the Chinese fuming male. Smoking is something men do, and the further away you get from big cities, the more any non smoking adult male will be viewed with suspicion.
Not smoking would be like... not paying off your teacher with a carton of cigarettes to give your son good grades! (Yes, like in prison, cigarettes are currency in China.)
I remember clearly the day of my awakening. On an already full overnight sleeper bus to Beijing from Dandong, on the North Korean border, the driver started letting on stray people without official bus tickets soon after departure until every square inch of the bus was full of people, mattresses, blankets, sheets and pillows. The hull on the Mayflower would have been like a ballroom in comparison. And all the men smoked, maybe to allay their fear of death as the overfilled bus careened all over the road for ten hours.
I spent the night in a state of hyper alert, terrified of perishing in a fireball.
That’s when I decided to stop smoking. And only seven short years later, I did. I didn't see it as "giving up" but freeing myself from a terrible yoke. But I had to get down on my knees and ask God to take the burden away from me. Three weeks later I had my last cigarette - ironically on a Christmas trip in mainland China - and never thought of it again.
Now it seems so strange that I have ever been sitting around with a little fire sticking out of my mouth. Smoking has be the strangest addiction - it doesn't taste good, it doesn't change your perception of the world, there are no benefits except perhaps staving off hunger.
(Here is hoping you find a new gaff very soon, delightful girl whose Chinese nickname is a tea! And that it smells as fragrant as said name. 香片，我掛住你)
You must continue to Learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian!
Today's Cantonese 我 唔 食 煙 O m sek yin - I don't eat smoke. That's right: Eat smoke means to smoke.