There’s one thing that often takes me by surprise when I’m in a country other than Britain, and that’s the smell of cigarettes. Despite being surrounded by it for the first two decades of my life, soon after the smoking ban I forgot what it feels like to walk through a room in a haze of smoke, with the walls and carpets soaked in a stale stench. I never really minded it then and I don’t much now, but it’s interesting how quickly it became a natural thing for me that restaurants and offices should have clean air, and how much it catches me off guard now when I notice cigarette butts on the floor.
In Beijing, this happens a lot, basically anywhere that isn’t a high-end Western establishment. It’s not that you have to wade through a cloud of smoke in every office or restaurant, but there’s often a consistent sour whiff of tar about the place, and a sprinkling of butt ends on every back stairwell. Surprisingly, toilets are the worst. In office towers and good hotels, people seem to take advantage of the fact that the toilets are Western-style rather than Asian squat-over-a-hole style, and they sit back to have a nice long break with a ciggy in one hand and their phone in the other. It’s not an uncommon scenario for me to be squirming desperately outside a row of cubicles and suddenly see smoke rising out of one and hear the soft tapping on phone screens coming out of another, and there’s no other sound or movement from anyone for minutes at a time.
Another amusing sight is my colleagues having a fag in the dark windowless stairwell on the top floor of our building, the 21st, right under a ‘No Smoking’ sign. Every time I pass them I vaguely wonder what will happen if there’s a fire that high up, but under the ‘No Smoking’ sign someone has thoughtfully placed a small bucket of water – another common sight – so I’m guessing, hoping, that’s precaution enough.
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