‘Tis the season to be sneezing. And I should know. I’ve had three cases of common colds/flus last month alone. That’s right – more often than not, you could find me reaching for the Kleenex or a throat lozenge in December (thank you, Golden Throat Lozenges).
Of course, it’s one thing to come down with a cold – and another to be sick when you’re living in a part of China (rural Hangzhou) that doesn’t have heating in the winter. Consider the following comments I heard one evening from my husband and his parents when I was coughing and sneezing at the dinner table:
“You should wear more clothing,” said my mother-in-law, admonishing me for only wearing three layers of clothing and a scarf.
Then my husband, who shot me a disapproving glance, added, “You haven’t been keeping warm enough.”
It was an echo of the way my mother used to warn us not to catch cold when playing outdoors in the snow. But here I was, sitting inside their home and – by their measure – still putting myself at risk for more sickness.
Like myself, everyone else at the dinner table was bundled up in their jackets and multiple layers — something I would have never seen back at my parents’ home in the US.
I grew up in a little white house in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, a world where every house had insulation and central heating, including ours. As someone with a particular aversion to the cold, I’m pretty certain I was the biggest fan of our household thermostat (much to my parents’ chagrin, since they had to foot the bills). I recall many a snowy afternoon bounding into the home after school, when I would promptly turn up the thermostat and prop myself up against one of the heating ducts in the living room. This, combined with the occasional hot bath, was what helped me through the long and often bitter winters in Cleveland.
Leave it to me to marry into a family in Southern China, where people are used to winters without heating in their homes.
Rural Hangzhou is below China’s “Mason-Dixon line” for heating — Anhui’s Huai River and the Qinling Mountain Range – which means that while folks North of that line enjoy steam heating in the winter, we don’t. Granted, Hangzhou isn’t that Northern overall. The city sits at the same latitude as New Orleans and Houston, and would never have the kind of winters I knew as a child — plenty of well-below-freezing temperatures, guaranteed snowfall every year, and even the occasional blizzard. But the high humidity of this subtropical climate means that when it gets cold, you feel it deep in your bones. It’s days like that when I pine for a thermostat to turn up or a heating duct of my own.
But I know, central heating just isn’t what people do here, including my family. They’ve adapted to the winter in ways that I’m not accustomed to — such as always wearing a winter jacket, even when you’re indoors. That means that sometimes, we don’t agree on what constitutes being warm enough inside the house, or how many layers you need to wear to prove that common cold wasn’t your fault.
Through my family, I’ve come to accept that this is what people do here to survive the winter. It just works for them.
For me, it’s another story. I’d love to say I’ve completely embraced how people manage the winter here, but I haven’t. I still fear those one or two days of the season when it’s zero degrees Celsius outside, causing the indoor temperatures to plummet.
I have learned, though, that it’s possible even for me to survive with the right preparations, like a good electric mattress pad and a space heater. (In fact, most days in the winter you’ll probably find me tucked in bed under the covers, staying warm!)
And while I’ll never have the same courage before the cold as my mother-in-law, at least she understands that I need extra preparations to make it through. A month ago, she gifted me with another heavy winter quilt that I never asked her to buy for me. Now that’s love.
Meanwhile, my husband is proof that anyone can change their perspective on heating. He may still side with his mom when it comes to whether I’m wearing enough clothing or actually kept myself warm these days. But he always sides with me about the electric mattress pad and the space heater. “Ahhh, a nice, snug, warm bed!” That’s what he always says when he crawls under the perfectly preheated covers.
I think it’s only a matter of time before I convert him to the “dark side” of central heating. 😉