“It’s Just a Storm”: The Ebb and Flow of Yangtze River Delta Weather

storm clouds
I never imagined “harmless” weather could look so horrible -- but China’s Yangtze River Delta, where I lived for more than four years, forever changed my perspective on storms.

One late summer afternoon at the office in Shanghai, I happened to glance out the window, only to find the summer sun engulfed in a dark blanket of clouds covering the city. The sky soon became so dark, it looked as if the sun had almost gone down — the kind of darkness that, for this US Midwesterner who grew up with tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings, foreshadowed destruction and danger.

I ran through the office in panic, pounding at the HR manager’s door. “Did you see how dark it is outside? Shouldn’t we evacuate?”

But the manager, after looking away from her computer, smiled the kind of comforting smile a kindergarten teacher might before a worried child, as she leaned back in her chair with her hands calmly laying in her lap. “Oh, there’s nothing wrong. It’s just a storm. You can go back to work.”

Her words seemed so dissonant, spoken before the tumultuous sky framed in the window behind her. I retreated to my cubicle, my mind a cacophony of thoughts — as her reassurances thundered against my experiences with severe weather in Ohio. But, in the end, just as she told me, there was nothing wrong — no building damage, no heavy rain or winds. It was just a storm, a little thunder and lightening that passed harmlessly by.

During some sultry summer breaks at my inlaws’ home in the mountains of Tonglu, my husband voiced the desires of everyone desperately fanning their sweaty brows. “We could really use a typhoon.” A typhoon? I had never lived anywhere even close to the Southern US, but I never forgot the death, disintegration and donation cries that followed in the wake of so many hurricanes.

“But aren’t typhoons dangerous?” I prodded him.

He shook his head. “We’re more inland, so the typhoon doesn’t hurt us — it gives relief from the grueling heat.”

Later, I too would experience the aftermath of a typhoon at his family home, its ferocious winds devouring the unbearable heat, and leaving a cool, late summer salve in its place. I never slept so well, or rested so comfortably during the day.

Still, one typhoon couldn’t blow away every last vestige of my negative bias against storms — especially after I faced a typhoon warning in Shanghai. The storm roared through on a Saturday, whipping the streets with howling winds and heavy rains, and nipping branches off the trees that tumbled violently up and down the eerily empty Huaihai Road, its usual horde of weekend shoppers exiled to their homes. Fortunately, the typhoon left little major damage, beyond some flooding in Pudong and the reminder that not even being China’s financial center can save a city from destruction.

I’ve learned to live with the ebb and flow of the Yangtze River Delta storm patterns — the August and September late afternoon thunderstorms that usher in the cool, clear evenings of relief, the typhoons that sweep away the noxious Autumn Tiger heat. But even today, when I see the blue sky blotted out in ominous black clouds in China, I still feel the same old Midwestern panic, and the school-age reminder of “duck and cover.”

And then I see my husband’s grimace, and hear his admonishment: “It’s just a storm.”

How has being in China — or other countries — changed your perspective on the weather?

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2 thoughts on ““It’s Just a Storm”: The Ebb and Flow of Yangtze River Delta Weather

  • September 6, 2010 at 11:57 pm

    I used to live in Hurricane territory — South Carolina — and was 9 years old when Hurricane Hugo, a massive storm, completely devastated my hometown. Then I moved to Texas, where we had to worry about tornados. I think the weather in the US is more extreme than in China. Not that weather related disasters don’t happen in China, but they tend to be less violent. In China you’re more likely to be killed by flooding than by having a tornado rip through your home or a storm surge wash away your house.

    I did experience a couple of those dark as night days in Beijing though and seriously, I’d never seen anything like it before, not even during the hurricane. Those clouds were so. freaking. dark. The streetlights actually came on during the day! Once I was in an office of the internet company I used to work for and once I was teaching at the school where I work now. Both times people got so worked up about the sky being so dark that they couldn’t concentrate on anything else and kept going to look out the windows and check the sky. 😛

    • September 7, 2010 at 12:18 am

      Thanks for the comment, Jessica! Wow, after surviving Hurricane Hugo and then moving to tornado alley (in Cleveland, I only experienced a tornado once, and it actually ripped well South of where I lived), I bet China weather has been a relief to you. Those dark days are frightening, though, aren’t they? I still cannot believe that nothing ever came of that one day when I looked out of the office (or, that I was only one genuinely panicked by the whole thing)!


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