You know that they're going to smoke. You know because it always happens, and that's why you don't want to go to these things. Sometimes it doesn't happen for a while, and you actually find yourself having a good time. Tonight, you overhear some others talking about the same movie you saw last weekend, so you join them and wish you could talk about that movie all evening. Before long, it's time for everyone to sit down to dinner. During a lull, the host pulls out a cigarette and lights up. His wife says, "I thought we said that we were going to have a nice dinner and not smoke tonight." The man shoots a glance at her--he's had a few aperitifs already--and says, "What?" like he's not looking for an answer. The cigarette jiggles up and down between his lips. He nudges the pack toward his brother, pointing at it with his chin. Finally, a cousin asks if he can have one of those. And soon enough, a bunch of people at the table are smoking. The room quickly fills with smoke, sending your heart racing. Some of the younger people have chosen not to partake, however. They're rolling their eyes at the smokers or coughing loudly, dramatically waving their hands in front of their faces. But they don't say that they can't breathe or anything like that.
That's when you start to worry about your daughter, who, even from the kiddie table, must be inhaling all this secondhand smoke. "What can we do?" your husband says. These people are his relatives and their friends. "It's his house. If he wants to smoke, he's gonna smoke." This might be happening, you realize, because smoking is more and more a kind of social taboo, and the only safe place to smoke anymore is in your own home. Nonsmokers go off on complete strangers who smoke in public, sometimes just for smelling like smoke. Smokers haven't been able to light up in the office for years and now conspire with each other outside, bonding in the cold. They stop talking and appear a little ashamed when you pass them on the way into work. Tobacco companies aren't allowed to advertise in magazines or on TV anymore, but mass media still makes smoking seem normal. It's not unusual to see popular A-list Hollywood stars taking a short drag now and then, either on screen or in real life. Even the President smokes. Your friends watch Mad Men and laugh at the characters lighting up all day long at their office. They love the glamour of that age. "That's just the way things were back then," you've heard older people say. "That's just what you did." But you know that there were a lot of people who didn't smoke even back then. You just never hear about them.
By now, you're glad that it's almost time to go. Some people you don't know are watching a football game, so you hope to kill a few minutes with them. On the TV, a wide receiver scores a touchdown on a long pass and celebrates in the end zone with some extended dance moves. Before you know it, a guy on the couch makes a face and starts loudly smacking a pack of cigarettes on the heel of his palm. He's the only one smoking, but the woman next to him motions for a drag off it. Almost anything can get people to start smoking around here, you begin to understand, as long as they think that no one minds. Finally, you decide to say something. "Would you please put that out," you say. "The smoke and smell really bother me." It's clear that he didn't expect you to say anything and looks at you like you're crazy. He sulks, making it seem as though his smoking isn't the problem but that your talking about his smoking is the problem. Nobody around the TV says anything, so you assume that they're annoyed at you too for bringing up smoking during a football game. "Why are you making such a big deal about this?" the guy adds. It's then that you realize that these people are used to having the choice of when and where they will talk about smoking.
On the drive home, your daughter has fallen asleep in the back seat. Your husband must sense that you're on edge, because he plays with your hair. You tell him to stop, that you don't feel well. All that smoke will make you feel sick for days. "I'm worried about them too," he says. "They don't listen to us about what cigarettes will do to them. They think they're invincible. They keep saying how they're not like our grandfather, who smoked a pack a day." This is his way of telling you that he's not like them. "Anyway, I'm sorry that this seems to happen so much. I hate it too. Look on the bright side--we don't have to think about these people for another year." But you find yourself thinking about smoking all the time, even on Christmas Day. It's been this way for years. You wonder if the rude grocery store cashier has nicotine-stained teeth, whether your daughter's teachers sneak smoke breaks. Young people smoking deeply saddens you. Even your daughter will smoke when she is older, you know, no matter what you say or do, because she is a part of this world. For that reason and so many more, you don't want to stop thinking about smoking. You have to keep thinking about it, you think about it all the time. You couldn't stop thinking about smoking if you tried.Follow @professorshih