May 21, 2010

He's on Fire! Smoking and Basketball in China

For the most part, you can bet that someone will grab one of three things when one game ends in America: a phone, a drink or a ball. Here, people light up, sucking down cigarettes instead of gulping down water.

I receive a text today at about noon from my buddy Brince. Brince and I met through a mutual friend, and not once have we done anything besides playing basketball. Sure, we’ve been in taxis together on the way to the courts, and we’ve gotten something to eat after we played, but basketball has been the catalyst for each and every interaction that we’ve ever had. That’s not to say that all of our conversations are mundane rants about the NBA. Come to think of it, we’ve actually talked about some pretty heady stuff considering that basketball is the crux of our friendship. But the fact remains, basketball is the crux of our friendship.

Brince is 27 years-old. He came to Jinan on a six-month teaching contract. That was about four years ago now. When his contract expired and it came time to ask himself what he wanted to do next, he simply couldn’t spurn the lifestyle that he was living. It was an easy decision to rationalize. He works at a university – not a private school like myself – and logs about 12 hours a week, and during the summers he works at a basketball camp that his buddy started. So he has his summers off (save playing some basketball) and he makes a nice salary by working 12 hours a week. More than a few people would have trouble opting out of that for a 9-5.

His text asks if I want to play basketball. It’s one of those days were it’d be hard not to play basketball. The weather is ideal, there’s little breeze, and hell, even the pollution is complying: it’s the first day in a long while where you’d actually have to use your hand as a visor if you were to look skyward. There is generally a smoggy tint between Jinan and the sun that knocks its intensity down about five shades. But not today. Today it’s blue skies. Plus, with the NBA playoffs in full tilt, I simply have basketball on my mind. There is other stuff that I could be doing, like figuring out my life in light of the Northwestern debacle; reconciling the fact that I want to get into journalism even though there are no journalism jobs; deliberating my next move when it comes to re-signing with my current employer or figure out something else to do with my life. Practical considerations abound, stuff that I really need to figure out, but I still can’t help but think it would be a sin not to play.

I eagerly text Brince back that I do indeed want to play, and that I could probably coax my buddy Jonathan into playing as well. Brince calls about an hour later to make sure that we still want to play (we do), and we arrange a place to meet. I suggest Shandong Normal University, where I’ve played with Brince before. “Nah, man,” he says. “I want some competition!” Apparently there is better competition at a different university, and that’s where we’ll play. I couldn’t care less what the venue is.

We get to the university and the competition seems about the same. There is one guy who is exceptionally athletic but can’t hit a shot to save his life. Brince knows him from previous encounters, and says to Jonathan and I, “He’s a tennis player. That’s his love.” I can easily see him darting from side to side on a tennis court, sending balls back whence they came with a ferocity and grace that only a freak athlete like this guy would have. Luckily for us, he’s not that good at basketball.

Brince, Jonathan and I add a Chinese player to our team and begin to play. We lose our first game, sit for about 10 minutes, and then reel off a string of four straight wins. The party doesn’t last forever – the tennis player eventually dooms us – and we retreat to a nearby kiosk to buy some water. Upon our return, I see something that I have become almost immune to: The guys waiting to play in the next game – who have just lost but, because there are four teams cycling through, will have to wait for a few minutes – are smoking cigarettes. They’re getting ready to take the court by sucking down cancer sticks. Nuts.

Between games in the States, people check their phones for missed calls or texts. They scurry off to the water fountain to steal a drink. They shoot around or stretch or sit down and chat. These rituals pervade courts the country over. There are surely variations on these rituals. Maybe people in North Dakota run inside to down some hot chocolate instead of ice water. In L.A., maybe people check for emails on the BlackBerries instead of texts on their phones. But for the most part, you can bet that someone will grab one of three things when one game ends and the next one has yet to begin: a phone, a drink or a ball.

Here, people light up, sucking down cigarettes instead of gulping down water. It’s crazy by American standards, but if you remember this is China, then 18- to 30-year-old men smoking cigarettes isn’t a stunner.

China, after all, has an estimated* 300-350 million smokers. There are more smokers here than there are people in the United States. Moreover, it’s somewhat uncommon to see women smoke. Some do, sure, but there is still a seemingly hardened taboo about women smoking, especially in public. You just don’t see it. Thus, the vast majority of those 300-350 million smokers are men.

* Quick note about that link, from the Telegraph in London. I used it because it had the 350 million smokers stat, but the article itself is about a province in China where citizens were forced to smoke local cigarettes in an effort to bolster the province’s tobacco market. “Three ‘non-compliant’ cigarette butts were discovered by the ‘cigarette marketing consolidate team’ which informed the teacher he had violated the related civil servants ‘cigarette usage rule’ After some negotiation the school was spared a fine, but subjected to ‘public criticism” for ‘undisciplined practices’.” That the government was forcing its citizens to smoke a certain variety of cigarette suggest that there isn’t a great deal of anti-tobacco rhetoric coming from Beijing.

As the numbers suggest, smoking culture is just different in China than in the U.S. For the past few years, from about 2006 to 2009, there was a seismic shift in smoking laws and regulations in the States. During my tenure in college – 2004 to 2008 – the numbers of places you could smoke shrunk and shrunk. During those years I was going to school in Colorado and spending my summer and winter breaks in Kansas City, and I know everything changed in Colorado, Kansas and Missouri during my college years. As a non-smoker myself, I watched the evolution of smoking laws with glee. First restaurants banned smoking. Then bars in Kansas. Then bars in Colorado. Then bars in Missouri, which my smoking friends had viewed as a refuge from the oppressive non-smoking types lording over the other side of the Kansas-Missouri state line. In a way, it still seems bizarre that you can’t smoke in bars. Philosophically, I’m opposed to that: since when are bars designated as healthy venues? Practically, though, I’m all for it. I’d just as soon not be surrounded by smoke.

Well, it’s different here. You can smoke pretty much anywhere. You can smoke in restaurants; parents and teachers alike light up every day in the stairwells at my school; you can buy cigarettes at newsstands, restaurants, anywhere. It’s a little different in Beijing, where the 2008 Summer Olympics prompted the city to take some anti-smoking strides that resulted in smoking being outlawed in some restaurants and common areas like train stations. Still, though, it’s nothing like the States. Smoking is allowed and accepted almost anywhere – including basketball courts.

People smoke here like it’s not bad for you, which, according to my parents, is how people used to smoke in the States in the ’50s and ’60s. But just because people are unabashed about smoking doesn’t make it healthy. Oxford University and Cornell University conducted a corroborative study, discussed here by the BBC, looking at smoking and smoking deaths in China. The hypothesis of the study: smoking may eventually kill one-third of all young Chinese males if the trends continue unabated. According to the study, China has the largest number of smoking-related fatalities in the world. That may seem like a no-brainer considering the population numbers, but the study says that China’s smoking issues transcend the population numbers: “Surveys showed two-thirds of Chinese people think smoking does little or no harm, 60% think it does not cause lung cancer and 96% do not know that it causes heart disease,” the BBC reported said, adding, “Because of a sharp increase in cigarette sales in the last 30 years, around 2,000 people a day are currently dying of smoking in China. By 2050, the researchers expect this number could rise to 8,000 a day – some three million people a year.”

And just as men dominate the basketball demographic, so, too, do they dominate the smoking demographic. According to, “Out of every 100 men, 67 smoke, a higher percentage than anywhere else in the world apart from Yemen and Djibouti.”

There are also an estimated 300 million basketball players in China, and I can tell you first-hand, there is overlap between the smokers and ballers. At first I was shocked by the marriage of smoking and basketball. Basketball courts, after all, are a refuge of running around and sweating and cardiovascular exercise. It is, basically, antithetical to smoking. Just like a smoking ban at a bar – which is a refuge for alcohol and chance encounters with the opposite sex – is a haven for habits that don’t fly in the outside world.

Brince, Jonathan and I end up playing for a few hours. We outlast at least four different Chinese dudes who were acting as our fourth man – maybe because we weren’t smoking – and by the time we call it a day we’re satiated. My life is still in disorder on several practical fronts, but there was simply no way that I was getting through the day without playing basketball. On the bright side, at least I don’t smoke cigarettes.

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