As an avid nonsmoker, I was determined to have a smoke-free wedding in China. But my brother-in-law, Hao, had already bought one of the finest Chinese cigarette brands, and everyone in the family — even my mother-in-law — insisted on distributing them at the banquet. How can you ask your guests to refrain when you’re essentially inviting them to light up free smokes?
Tobacco has become so ubiquitous in China that sometimes it seems carbon monoxide will edge out oxygen. And when you see people smoking in places such as hospitals and offices, you’ll begin to wonder yourself.
According to the good folks at Lonely Planet, China has 20 percent of the world’s population — yet they smoulder through 30 percent of the cigarettes in the world. Not surprising, considering how tobacco has quietly singed itself into the table of Chinese culture. Unsightly? Perhaps…but tobacco isn’t going away any time soon.
And it’s not just weddings. Take dining out, for example. When Chinese men sit with their male friends — who often are considered “brothers” — at the table, handing out cigarettes has become a symbolic gesture of friendship and goodwill. To NOT share one’s cigarettes with the other men at the table would be…well…rude.
Note that this is only a custom shared among men. Women who smoke are often thought to be loose with low mores (if any at all, in fact) — this very stigma makes the vast majority of women shy away from the pride and joy of Phillip Morris.
Still, surprisingly, many women do not realize the dangers of secondhand smoke — even to the point of defending their chainsmoking husbands.
I recall an afternoon at a restaurant in Hangzhou, where my husband politely asked the fellow at the table next to us to put out his cigarette. He gladly obliged without question. But it was his wife who continued to probe my husband. Clearly no one had ever clued her in on the whole cancer-tobacco link — even as researchers now have strong evidence that Chinese women married to chain-smoking husbands are in for some trouble.
In the end, our wedding went on — cigarettes and all. And of course, there were the maverick smokers, those people that dared to light up during, say, my dad’s speech. But just as times have changed in the US, so will times change in China.
In the meantime, what’s a nonsmoker to do? Just do what you always do — ask them to put it out. Don’t worry; foreigners get a sort of “reprieve” for odd or out of the ordinary behavior in China. They’ll just think it’s a strange foreigners’ custom…and you’ll score yourself a smoke-free meeting/dinner.