Surviving Winter in a South China Family Used to Living Without Heating

IMG_20150218_170729-e1424521588297‘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. 😉

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21 Replies to “Surviving Winter in a South China Family Used to Living Without Heating”

  1. Yes, we are spoiled here in the U.S. Mostly.

    I have the opposite problem. I love cold weather and I hate the heat. Our current little house, built in the 1950s, doesn’t have air conditioning. We live close to the Southern California beach and get lovely western ocean breezes almost every day, and so this wasn’t a problem. Until this last summer, when global warming gave us unheard of temperatures well into the 90s, for weeks at a time!

    Now we’re debating putting in central air conditioning. Andy thinks it’ll be worth it because I won’t be so hot and grouchy.

  2. Did you know that in the States there is a requirement that a house can only be so cold even when the heat is off, and that is one reason that U.S. houses are insulated so well? Obviously, no such standard exists in Southern China!
    I survived 6 and a half years of freezing winters and perpetual colds in Hubei, and now after two years in Hong Kong, I told my husband I can never ever go back to visit his family in Hubei during the winter.
    Stay strong Jocelyn, and no matter what they say, you can put on hundreds of layers of clothes and it still will not protect you from getting a cold. No matter how many layers I had on, my nose was always freezing, but of course the Chinese blame that on my 大鼻子 (big nose). ????

    1. Jessica P, I had no idea there was such a regulation in the US. That explains a LOT!

      Oh my, six and a half years of freezing winters and perpetual colds sounds horrible! I can understand why you couldn’t go back.

      Thank you for the encouragement!

  3. While here in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, I’ve to put up with the heat for the past 2 weeks and it’s getting worst. I would certainly welcome some mild winter.

  4. Well, this winter has been very warm so far. As I’m in Shenzhen, and also from Ohio, it can be hard to get used to. The odd thing is that it’s often colder indoors than outdoors. But I like lots of blankets, and I buy a few electric blankets, and I make do fine. I don’t know how rural people who don’t use heaters could survive though.

  5. I also live in Southern China. Not rural, but in the cities it’s quite the same – no insulation, near-zero temperature outside and inside isn’t much better… I’ve had permanent cold for few winters and I still hate those temperatures, but… Maybe it’ll sound strange, but as soon as I learned my husband’s ways to keep warm, I stopped catching cold every winter. Really! Electric mattress is a nice thing, but we don’t have any other heater at home. I just put on many layers, drink ginger tea, eat lamb and keep my feet warm. And I stay healthy! I feel much better then I felt in warm and cosy home in Poland…

  6. Yeah these Chinese standards are still an amazement for me even though I know it now for years. Considering that in Finland windows are not only double layered but the standard is three layers…
    Thinking now about our wooden cottage in Finland which keeps nicely warm without any electric heating even with -40 degrees celsius outside, only with a central fireplace with the stones keeping the heat for 1-2 days and all that is over 150 years old. Really makes me wonder why they never adapted to it over all those long years already in China

  7. I’m from souther China, I spent four years university life in northern China, I have to say I’ve already used to living with heating. Once i come back home everytime at spring festival, I always feel so code.

  8. Hi Jocelyn, I really enjoyed reading your article! My wife is from South Korea and I remember when we visited Korea last winter, it was very cold so we had to turn the heating on all the time haha:)

  9. Hi Jocelyn:
    I am fascinated by these stories and your and other people’s experiences in China and elsewhere. I had no idea about these conditions. I live near Victoria BC, where most times the weather is fairly moderate. I mean we have palm trees! Basically, I can go anywhere almost any time of the year in t-shirts and regular pants or shorts! However, with global warming, we do have some very hot days in August, and lately some cold days in the winter. It’s Christmas day here with a lovely white landscape and a bit icy and coldish. I bless our thermostat which I can turn up anytime–no one wears a lot of extra clothing!
    One of the reasons I am interested in your blog was for this reason: I teach for VIPKID school on the computer. and all of my students are wearing coats inside and they have colds (ALL of them). They could not explain why that this was the case, so I contacted other teachers online, and they told me what was what. Now I know. Good luck with everything wherever you are. keep warm, and Merry Christmas!

    1. Hi Jeff, thank you so much for the comment and for sharing the situation in your area — Victoria sounds like a lovely place to live! Merry Christmas to you and also hope you keep warm (and your students get better)!

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