8/11/19

&: Talking about smoking and a translation of a very brief Jia Pingwa essay

I just stood and went to the kitchen, lit a cigarette off the stove, went out the front door into the hallway to pace, trying to think of something to write. The building I live in is hollow, a cube with a central column completely open to the sky. I usually see a few red embers burning on the upper floors.

I rarely smoke, past couple years, but I usually pick up a carton in China, or sometimes at the duty free in Haneda. If I'm meeting writers or publishers, people I know, they know a carton is a nice welcome gift. I rarely smoke, but I smoke when I'm in China. That's what I tell people when I'm there: "Well, I only ever smoke when I'm in China." That's not true. But it's mostly true. Here, I might pick up a pack of American Spirits, usually before going to a bar, or if I'm traveling, or maybe a soft pack of Lucky Strikes, if I'm pissed off and feeling self-destructive. That's rare, though. I usually only smoke in China. It's hard to say no. The cigarettes are good, too.

I had my first cigarette at twelve or thirteen, but I started smoking when I was seventeen. When I went to China for the first time, I was in my early-twenties and I smoked Zhongnanhai. When I went to Dalian, I think I was still smoking Zhongnanhai, but I might have switched to the five milligram version, and most of the time I was too broke to afford anything but Hongmei (so, I do recall smoking Hongmei when I was broke, but it might have been another cheap brand when I was up north). When I was in Guangzhou, it was imported Vietnamese Marlboro Reds, which everyone told me were fake and could only be bought from magazine kiosks or a few shops out in Panyu. In Guangzhou everyone smoked Shuangxi, which has a flavor like dried plums and peppercorn, nothing like it, and then for a few years it was Hongtashan, which I think are still the cheapest pack in most of the country. Hongtashan burn like a tire fire and taste like roasted sweet potatoes. Every time I get passed one of my former brands, it's a two minute nostalgia trip. A hit off a Shuangxi, I'm back in Tianhe, sucking one down after a pork cutlet sandwich from Queen's Bakery, sitting outside Yangcheng Center, waiting for Fifi to get off work, or—and always this particular memory!—sitting on a recliner at a massage parlor on Yide Lu, right near Haizhu Square, watching a Tyson fight on the built-in flatscreens with *** from ********. Hongtashan, I think I first smoked them on a twenty-four hour no-seat train from Shanghai to Guangzhou, after I ran out of my Zhongnanhai, and they always take me back to that hellish trip or to smoking in bed in my apartment in Datong, ashing on the floor. I wish I knew what cigarettes the guards at the juliusuo passed out, I'd like to go back there, just for the amount of time a cigarette takes, standing out by the hole we dumped our shit buckets in, feeling light-headed, freezing...

Part of it was cultural, of course. The ceremony of passing out cigarettes. I like the hometown pride, when someone says, like, "Oh, you're smoking Zhongnanhai, huh? Try one of these! This is what we smoke in Nanjing!"

I wrote a novel once called Chinese Cigarettes. It was okay, I think, but I ended up losing it, trapped forever on an Acer laptop with a malfunctioning hard drive. That was a long time ago, five years ago now, I guess. I still have pieces of it, spread around various notebooks and hard drives. I had two pieces of it published, one online and one in a more serious outlet. I'm too self-conscious to even edit them into something now. That's the problem with self-awareness, maybe. But the novel was about smoking cigarettes, mostly, and girls, being a slacker in early-to-mid-2000s Nanjing and Guangzhou. Part of it was meeting people I had known long-distance, having them refer to things I had written, and feeling deep shame. The same goes for this. I don't want anyone to read this blog. I have to write it, but I hope nobody reads it.

I smoke rarely but I'm still deeply addicted to nicotine. I discovered mint Skoal while working at a slaughterhouse in Moose Jaw, the first time I dropped out of school. It's more convenient than smoking and I swear to God, it doesn't cause cancer. So, I mostly dip Copenhagen now, usually wintergreen, and straight when I want to give my lip a break. Every so often, I fall asleep with a chunk in my lip and experience lucid dreams. That is one of the side effects of nicotine. I don't know if lucid dreams are real, but they feel lucid, maybe because I can remember them for longer than regular dreams. My pillowcase is stained with tobacco juice, drooled out while I'm dreaming my possibly lucid dreams. Brown dots, all over. Nicotine helps me focus. Skoal and self-help books are the reason David Foster Wallace managed to finish Infinite Jest. Copenhagen and sugarfree cola is the reason I got through the translation of Qinqiang.

I miss smoking, and the tobacco is good, so when I go to China, I smoke. It's hard to turn it down. I'm mostly meeting writers, editors, academics, and degenerates. Even during my chaste girls night in with some editors from Writers Publishing House, one of the young editors called for a smoke break. At my hotel in Xi'an, the boy manning the door caught me a few times coming outside to smoke, and took pity on me. "You can smoke in your room," he said, "I'll get them to bring you over an ashtray."

The cigarette I went to the kitchen to smoke was from a carton passed to me by Jia Pingwa, who must be gifted several dozen cartons a month, judging by the towers of tobacco in his studio. On his writing desk, which is dominated by carvings and piles of books, he has just enough space to work, a few pens, sheets of clean paper, a candy box to put completed manuscript pages in, and an overflowing ashtray.

Wandering around Xianyang International on the same trip, I picked up a copy of Walking Alone《自在独行》, one of dozens of collections of Jia's essay. I had spent the previous week turning down books from authors and publishers, not wanting to lug them home in the overnight bag I'd brought to Xi'an, but my flight was delayed and I needed something to read.

I've always admired Jia Pingwa's brief sanwen 散文 essays. They're accessible, plainwritten, standing in contrast to his novels. The tone is usually confessional and humble. I have translated a few of them (one is translated almost completely at the end of this entry, "Trip to Bijia Mountain," which has the earliest appearance of a scene that appears in four novels: inspired by a mummified holy man, a traveling doctor seals himself in a coffin, and his rotting corpse is discovered later), even published one ("Drinking"), but it's hard to imagine the sanwen having much of an audience in English translation.

Looking through the table of contents, I saw that I had read most of the essays. I am a habitual re-reader, and re-reading in my second language is even more rewarding. I did most of my reading of Jia Pingwa while flipping through a dictionary, trying to figure out radicals and stroke order. It's nice to re-read something I read five, ten years ago, now, for pleasure, and making more connections, not having to research barely-obscure allusions.

In the collection, I found a very brief essay about smoking, which you might have read, if you've read any of Jia's sanwen.

Somewhere over the Bohai Sea, I made a translation on the back of a Korean Airlines airsickness bag, which I carried home, through a layover, on the train back from Narita, but I can't seem to find it now, so, doing this mostly from memory, since it's short and I've read it many times, glancing over at the book if necessary, but taking liberties:
When you eat, you must shit, and when you drink, you must piss. A drag off a cigarette, though, is as simple as breathing in and out. The artist must smoke, of course, but the practice should be restricted to a select group. The cigarette must be to the smoker like the pistol to a policeman or the sleeping pill to the insomniac or the courtesan reclining on yellow bedsheets to the emperor. Unfortunately, the practice has become too popular. This state of affairs is completely unacceptable.
We must begin restricting cigarettes. I suggest that we start with asthmatics. They should abstain for their own sakes, but all the hacking and wheezing they do after a few drags off a cigarette is enough to put anyone off smoking. It gives the noble practice of smoking a bad name! Women should not smoke, either. The reasoning there is quite simple: in fengshui, women have a water nature—fire and water don't mix. And those unlucky souls with cleft lips should be banned from buying a pack, as well. Even if they could manage to clamp a cigarette between their teeth, most of the smoke would be wasted. The same goes for those that wear a long beard or an elaborate mustache. They may go years without incident, but there is a reason that the lawns around smokestacks are frequently blackened, and all it takes is a single stray ember.
Smokes should be a minority, but they are still in good company. We know that the buddha smoke, and so do the bodhisattvas. It might not be tobacco, of course, but they feel most at home in a cloud of incense smoke. What brings a weasel leaping out of his burrow? A puff of smoke, of course. We share the same fate as the turtle, too. The turtle's shell is scorched and stained, just as our fingernails are yellowed and made brittle. And I am a smoker, too. I was born in the year of a dragon, and a dragon must blow smoke.
I have never been much for the custom of passing out cigarettes. I have always thought it better to pass out money. Hoarding cigarettes is not a sin, but hoarding money certainly is. Smoking is an individual pursuit, too. If I want to destroy myself, it is my own business, and I don't need to include others. I have always held to another belief, too: smoke your local cigarettes. The character of a man is determined by the soil on which he was raised; stay true to your native place and stay true to your local cigarettes. For that reason, Chinese people should not smoke foreign cigarettes. That is why I stayed true to Monkey King for so many years. That was my local cigarette, manufactured from Shaanxi tobacco.
I once saw a couplet written above a temple in Hangzhou. It went something like this: "Life and fate both, must move at a gentle pace / For your own sake, spend a moment at rest." That may well be true. Perhaps life does move slowly for some, but it can be difficult to find the time to take a moment to yourself. I can't think of any better excuse than pausing to enjoy a cigarette.