The week my grandpa died from lung cancer was the same week I found out my cousin Mimi smokes. She and her friend picked me up from the train station in Beijing, and after three years, we were eager to assess each other as newly-hatched adults. When we came to the topic of vices, we agreed neither of us drank very much. Then she asked if I qi yan, which I don’t.
“That’s good. We don’t smoke a lot either, but it just happens in groups,” they said, lighting up in the car. Then before our street food crawl, after our street food crawl, and practically before each store we entered. I realized that in China, you’re probably never not in a group. Mimi smoked half a pack that day, which might be considered moderate–I don’t know.
Mimi’s my favorite cousin probably because our fathers are one year apart, and so are we. When the four of us are together, there’s not a doubt that we’re bonded by blood. We have the same senses of humor and the same chins.
And when it comes to the two of us, our similarities amaze me constantly. We only see each other for about a week once every 2-3 years, but we both studied humanities and studied abroad in England. We chose creative jobs over stable ones (and are paying the price). We got tattoos around the same time without knowing it, and we love All Saints clothing and hip hop. Apparently we even argue the same way, despite my broken Chinese. And we’re the only ones in our generation that share the family name, though it might die with us since as our fathers had no sons.
Except, of course, I always thought she was more beautiful. I wished I had her figure.
Most of our family is now dorkishly substance free. I have a pretty gruesome image of what would happen if anyone found out about Mimi’s hobby, including government surveillance, caning and a shaman. So a while after the trip, I casually asked my mom about what it means to be a female smoker in China.
Over half of men smoke, while only 2% of women do, for reasons tied to a lady’s respectability, docility and conventionality, to name a few. It takes determination for a girl to smoke. My mom referred to artists or worldly types who choose to be viewed as rebels, which isn’t what your typical Chinese millennial is concerned with. (But I give it another decade before the masses come around. The tobacco companies will have a field day.)
With all our similarities, I am pretty sure that if I lived in China, I would smoke too. With few ways to assert my individuality, I would cling to that steadfast cigarette.
“Grandma smoked, even back in her day,” my cousin mentioned, during our last dinner together. I vaguely remembered hearing that before, in addition to how grandma refused to bind her feet and was the only woman from her village who learned how to read.
“You know what the women in our family are like,” she said proudly. I did.