Smoke Break

11 05 2010

In Korea, cigarettes were part of the standard rations issued to every soldier. By law, all male citizens were required to serve for two years and most emerged from the experience with a recently acquired nicotine habit.

In fact, smoking enjoyed a broad popularity throughout Asia. From the upper class, suited, hair-parted, heavy drinkers in expensive bars to the grime-faced, blown-back haired motor bike delivery drivers of fried chicken, cigarettes were an ubiquitous presence on Asian lips. College students immersed in a game at Internet cafes, bar goers practicing their rudimentary English with drunk foreigners and old men squatting to gamble at a card game or just the traffic go by, all had packs in their back pockets.

Women smoked as well, of course, but their displays of carcinogen inhalation were less public. Taboo, I was told.

South Korea had its own brands, too. Like a lot of global items of indulgence, a robust number of local companies competed with the overseas juggernauts. I stuck with what I knew most of the time. I guess I didn’t consider cigarettes an avenue of adventure.

There may have been large public campaigns against its dangers, but I wouldn’t really have known. It seemed a relatively accepted behavior. Sometimes I thought it must be wrapped up in that odd paradox of Asia, that blatant striving for Western excess on the part of some and the simultaneously battle to uphold the traditions of their own culture by others, all surrounded by a sense of pride and nationalism to rival American Tea Partiers. I would think that and then wonder if I was being xenophobic, if my train of thought had derailed in its attempt to move out of the station.

I would (in my one bedroom apartment in Busan) look at my walls blank of a degree in Asian studies, realize my lack of anything but foreign friends, consider my occasional indulgence in McDonald’s hamburgers instead of Kimbap and wonder if I really knew enough to know what the hell I was talking about.

Shit always gets backed up on the way to Tamiami Trail

It felt like when you are in traffic and you wonder what those speeding, slowing, stopping, turning drivers around you are thinking, why they are going where they go. You could hazard guesses based on appearance, on expressions, on makes and models, but all you would know is only what you could conjure up. You’d have to stop traffic to ask the question, to get the answer and that’s, after all, a rather impractical course to take. Christ, it’s an easy way to get hit. Door shut, window closed, music up, from one destination to the next.

In this way, It’s hard to feel like I did anything other than skim the surface during my year abroad. I can tell you Koreans smoke in great numbers and with intensive frequency, but I could only guess as to why. It’s easiest for me to just consider it as an excuse to go back or take it as a lesson in the importance of rolling down the car window. The problem with good lessons, though, is that they always seem the hardest to learn.

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