Conference Room B

There’s an emergency exit in the advertising agency that I used to work in that serves as Conference Room B. But there’s an unspoken exclusivity clause among colleagues. A secret code passes through the office every time we’re brainstorming, problem solving, or venting out.

“Hey,” my office mate Colin ribs me, “one stick?” Then, we head off to the balcony, joining a tight crowd as we puff smoke on each other. One stick turns into a whole pack.

Standing Out From the Pack

I never used to smoke before. This is a sentence that I find laughable now, because all smokers’ stories start this way. But I was an intern among a group of ten, and needed to find a way to stand out from the pack. I’d join the copywriters, and the graphic designers, and junior account managers, outside the office without touching a stick. I’d let them puff on me, while they discussed the client’s nth revision in his campaign. Ironically, one of the clients we were handling then was a cigarette company. They never showed the very act of lighting up a stick, of course. It’s an advertising no-no these days. I was told we needed to sell the smoking lifestyle, not smoking itself.

Generational Differences

The smoking culture wasn’t part of my generation anymore. Cowboys and men in alleyways in leather jackets didn’t sell to me. In my mid-20s, I always thought that if I smoked, it would have a more hipster leaning like Vape.

Ambition gets the better of you though. When the junior creative directors would need a sounding board for ideas, I’d always volunteer. When they signaled for “5 minutes”, that usually meant, “See you in Conference Room B. Bring a pack.”

The Art of Smoking

I didn’t light my first cigarette in the office though. I wanted to make sure that I could do it more naturally when I was with the big bosses. I started smoking at home in my room, trying to make the stick feel less contrived in my hand, experimenting with how the smoke is stored in my throat just enough for me to taste it, then releasing. It wasn’t the taste I felt attracted to. There was something about that stick in my hand that made me feel in control.

When I started doing it in the workplace, it seemed more like a resolution. There were no smoking in the workplace laws to rebel against. It became easy to make it second skin. I was absorbed by the agency, and became a graphic designer. I’d join the other artists out in the fire exit, handing interns their first stick. To me, it was the powerful passing of the torch. It was the first time I felt in control of someone.

The Good Early Days

Once, there was a talk by the property managers in the building about preventing smoking in the workplace. It was a joke, especially when the big bosses themselves went out to the fire exit, laughing like rebellious kids.

What the coffee lifestyle meant, I realized, was that a lot of coffee and crackers went with it. As I worked my way up, smoking became a way for me to go all day without feeling hungry. If I was lucky, I would get out of the office long enough to grab a bite at the food stall across the building. I’d get the fast ones – noodles, dumplings, meat buns – so I could get back to my drawing board and laptop in less than 30 minutes.

Problems Developing

I first noticed something wrong when my hyperacidity episodes became frequenter and frequenter. The last doctor I went to told me things I already knew. The smoking lifestyle gave me a fatty liver and frequent throat problems. I had trouble breathing once in a while. Sometimes, from the dryness, my voice would be lost for days. I could feel a barrier at the back of my throat, like phlegm, that I could never seem to excrete anymore.

There was also probably all the secondhand smoke that I was exposed to. Every day meetings took place in coffee shops, or on a patio, or anywhere outdoors where smoking was allowed.

For a month or so, I tried to cut down my consumption like any patient would do. But then there was always work to do, people to see, and places to be in. I needed the comfort of one constant thing in my life.

Something Had to Give

When I became creative director six years after I’d started work there, it was again like another resolution, a dot at the end of a sentence. Six months later, I was diagnosed with Buerger’s disease. The graphic designers under me first noticed it when I could no longer illustrate as well as I used to. My fingers became rigid over time. The doctor later told me it was because of a blockage in my hands and feet directly caused by tobacco in the blood vessels. This led to a partial amputation of my fingers. The other option would have been to let it get infected or give in to gangrene. There was even talk of having my feet amputated too, although thankfully, the disease didn’t go that far.

I joke often that the doctor had to go to extreme measures in order to prevent me from holding a stick. But now, I also lost the other things I wanted to hold on to like a pencil, or a brush, or clicking a mouse.

There is a Way Out

It may seem ironic but now I’m working with a no smoking in the workplace policy, with the property managers of my new office in Beijing. I needed a fresh start, so I relocated as far away from my old life as possible. For those looking for the same thing, Laowai Career helped me concentrate on things that I still had as assets.

I’m not saying it’s a terrible life. All I’m saying is that I could’ve had a far better one had I just done everything the same, minus the smoking.

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