“The worst cold I ever knew was winter in Hong Kong.” I didn’t understand those words, spoken by a woman who taught English there before China opened up. She shared her experience in China with me as I prepared for a year of teaching English in Zhengzhou. But as I smiled and nodded, the idea nagged me — how could Hong Kong, on China’s Southern coast, be so cold?
The thing is, any place can feel bitterly cold in China — if there’s no warmth in the home.
John’s family home in the winter was fast becoming the worst cold I had known. The house, with most of its doors and windows cracked or wide open to the elements, had no central or room heaters. We spent our hours huddling around giant woks filled with hot coals to fight off the nip of near-freezing temperatures, which felt even more frigid because of the moisture-laden air of this humid climate, South of the Yangtze River. I wrapped myself my long down jacket all day — indoors and outdoors — just like everyone else, as I remembered how, back in the US, people would have thought me strange or even impolite not to take my jacket off, as a guest.
But, most of all, those parental misgivings of months before seemed to chill my heart: “It’s okay to be friends with a foreign girl, but not to date her.” No matter how many warm vegetarian dishes they placed before me, or how much money they stuffed into my hongbao, I remembered the reality — John defied them in bringing me here. And if I complained or troubled them too much, I might just be left out in the cold, never to be John’s girlfriend, and never to return.
I froze at the sight of my bed that first night in John’s home. It was the simplest bed I’d ever seen, a wide wooden plank suspended between two vertical boards, with an old cotton quilt covered with a sheet as a mattress, a small pillow, and a cotton quilt on top, for warmth. This was John’s old bed, in his childhood room, with a dusty wooden desk covered by abandoned school supplies, a bookcase set in the wall holding a mixture of English novels and English textbooks, a poster of a Hong Kong male singer with an early 1990s crew cut and wide collared turquoise shirt, and a dusty tower of assorted suitcases, some in bland tan or gray or white colors, and one in a deep scarlet tartan pattern with the words “peony” printed on the side. The bare concrete floor felt so foreign to me, a girl who had slept in rooms of warm, carpeted pleasure.
But, to John’s mother, who brought me upstairs, there was nothing strange about any of it. She wore the same mysterious, shy smile as she introduced the room to me. “You will sleep here,” she said, as she arranged the blankets in the bed. I smiled back at this woman, who handled the cooking, cleaning, laundry and even gardening — all without fuss or fanfare.
I knew there weren’t enough blankets. I wondered if I would manage without heat in the room. But I couldn’t let her know. She seemed to be made of metal, like the woks that held those hot coals we warmed ourselves around — as if the entire house relied on her for warmth. I already relied on them too much, as a foreign guest unaccustomed to the life in China’s countryside. I wanted her to see the mettle I was made of — that I could survive a night, the same way she slept.
After brushing my teeth and washing my face, I returned to my room, and burrowed into the covers, leaving only a small hole to breath in the frigid night air. I tossed left and right, nipped by the freezing temperatures, even as I wore several layers of clothing to bed. One hour, two hours, almost three hours — they all passed before I succumbed, reluctantly, to slumber.
When I finally awoke the next morning, with a dripping nose, I resisted rising from bed as long as I could, to delay the inevitable shock from the cold air. It was the first day of Chinese New Year — the day I was to wear my new outfit, a royal green tangzhuang jacket, and long, black wool skirt. After dressing in layer after layer — first the long john nylons, then nylons and long underwear shirt, followed by the jacket and skirt, and then my down jacket — I walked down the stairs, only to find John standing there.
He looked at me quizzically, as if my outfit were from another country. “Are you warm enough?”
“I made this outfit especially for Chinese New Year, and your parents. I have to wear it, at least a little.”
“Well, you’d better come downstairs fast and warm yourself.” He reached for my hand, and motioned for me to come to the dining room, where the wok of coals sat under the table.
As I sat down, my nose continued to leak, perhaps from my rest last night. And I couldn’t help but break my silence. “I was too cold last night. There weren’t enough blankets. And with no heater in the room, it took me hours to fall asleep.”
“You didn’t tell my mother?”
“I felt too embarrassed to tell her. I didn’t want her to think I expected too much.” I reached for a tissue and wiped my nose.
John turned to me and inspected my face for signs of illness, like a doctor. “You caught cold, didn’t you?”
I looked down at the bowl of long-life noodles before me, and then at him. “Maybe a little.”
And just like that, John sent me upstairs to change out of my elegant new year clothing, while he went to tell his mother I needed more warmth.
In the end, his parents never saw my outfit. They also never left me to sleep in such cold. That evening, I found a rotating space heater placed on the floor, and additional cotton quilts piled on the bed.
The winter in Southern China really is the coldest I’ve ever known. But that cold is just a temperature. The people in John’s family were never cold enough to judge me, just because I needed a little extra warmth at night.
As a guest, were you ever too embarrassed to trouble your hosts? Did you end up suffering for it?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.