On Winter Dress Strategy in North China Vs. South China

This sweater served me well during the winter months in Hangzhou — but in Beijing, it’s another story.

The temperature that morning in Beijing had dipped below zero degrees Celsius. Yet there I was sitting in a restaurant that afternoon, feeling sweat moisten my brow. I seriously contemplated taking off my heavy blue-and-gold knit sweater — once indispensible for surviving the winter in Hangzhou — which I had layered over an equally warm long-sleeved thermal shirt. I even wondered if it was overkill to have on long underwear beneath my jeans.

Clearly, I had forgotten about the indoor heating in Beijing, and how it might mean rethinking how I dress for the winter. That I might actually need to wear lighter, more layered clothing under my jacket than in Hangzhou, despite the huge difference in latitude.

This is one of the ironies of the North China versus South China divide.

Down in Hangzhou, it’s not uncommon to see people completely bundled up indoors with their coats on. In South China, you wear your coat so much in the winter that it’s almost more important than your sweater. My mother-in-law once urged me to buy more jackets, concerned that people kept seeing me wearing the same one every day. (After all, they’re less likely to get a glimpse of those nice sweaters I bought, given how cold the indoors can be at times.)

You would think the same winter dress strategy would apply up in more northerly Beijing, with people donning even warmer, heavier layers to survive those bitter winds from Siberia and the Arctic. And while I’m sure this would be true for anyone forced to spend much of the winter toiling outdoors for work, it’s not for your average person who spends most of the day indoors.

I commute between my apartment and the office buildings, each a snug oasis of warmth thanks to the plentiful heating provided here in Beijing. Of course would I never need to keep my parka on indoors in either place. But sometimes, even your average sweater feels like a little too much – just like in that restaurant. This is a world where you might need to peel off that sweater every now and then, or hug it a little closer if a cold breeze happens to sneak through that window or door.

The problem is, I’ve spent years building up a wardrobe to survive winters in more southern Hangzhou. I jettisoned many of my light cardigans in favor of more substantial sweaters I’d wear over thermal underwear. Before we moved to Beijing, I remember feeling grateful I had these sweaters to see me through the season. But that was before I realized Beijing’s heating can be so abundant that, occasionally, the word “sauna” comes to mind.

Oh, how I wish I hadn’t tossed those cardigans. Especially since it is so darned difficult to find things in my size in China. (But that’s another story…)

Eventually, I’ll adapt my clothing to Beijing winters, heating and all. I’m already halfway there with an extra-warm parka to protect me from the frigid winds.

Still, I can’t help but recall another irony of the situation — that I, a woman who grew up in northerly Cleveland, Ohio, a city with a reputation for blustery winters, am having to re-learn how to dress for winter in the North.

What’s your winter dress strategy? Have you noticed a difference between dressing for winter in North China versus South China?

Guest Post: Food Preferences and Dining Etiquette in a Southern Chinese Home

I’m thrilled to share this guest post from Maria Deng, who authored AMWF Couples — A Canadian Perspective, one of my favorite AMWF guest posts on this blog. This time she writes about a topic I’m sure you all love — food!

Do you have a story about dining in your home or another guest post you’d like to see featured here? Have a look at the submit a post page to learn how you can follow in Maria’s footsteps.

My husband’s family is from the province of Guangdong, which is located in Southern China. In this part of China, they speak Cantonese. I have always known dinner to be 吃饭, which translates to ‘eat rice’. When I first had dinner at my husband’s home, I noticed many differences in not only the food served however, in the dining etiquette as well.

Pot Of Apple Soup, Prepared By Maria’s Mother-In-Law
Pot Of Apple Soup, Prepared By Maria’s Mother-In-Law

The Importance Of Soup

I noticed that my husband’s family had a small bowl of 汤 (soup) at the beginning of each meal. My 家婆 (mother-in-law) or 老爺 (father-in-law) would say 喝汤 (drink soup) before drinking. I began searching for the spoon at my place setting however, my husband had told me that soup is consumed by bringing one’s bowl up to their mouths. Afterwards, the pieces of meat or other items in the soup would be eaten with chopsticks once the liquid was finished. After the first few times of eating at my husband’s home, I then realized that this was much easier than eating soup with a spoon. Now, I always drink my soup in this fashion, without even giving the spoon a second thought.

An Entire Fish, Prepared By Maria’s Father-In-Law
An Entire Fish, Prepared By Maria’s Father-In-Law

Fish Eye

I also saw an entire fish being served for the first time at the dinner table. I didn’t know that fish was served in this fashion however, upon seeing it, I was told by my husband that 鱼 (fish) is quite important in the Chinese culture. I was surprised though when I first saw my husband eating the fish’s eyeball with such ease, something that to this day, I have yet to muster up the courage and try.

Pass The Toothpicks

Using toothpicks to clean one’s teeth after a meal was something I had never seen before. I noticed this happened at all of my husband’s family functions. When cleaning the teeth with a toothpick, one would place their hand in front of their mouth, which made it impossible to see the mouth or teeth. It was definitely a cultural difference for me as I had never seen that before however, I have become accustomed to it, welcoming the gesture with comfort.

Steamed White Rice

I always noticed a rice cooker filled with steamed, white rice on the counter-top when dining with my husband’s family. At first, I said to my husband, “is there any sauce or dressing that goes on top of this rice?” My husband then laughed, stating that in the Chinese culture, eating steamed, white rice was normal. I have now learned to eat steamed, white rice at times however, I do tend to slip in some sauce, which immediately brings a friendly roar of laughter from my husband’s family.

Maria ‘Attempting’ To Use Chopsticks
Maria ‘Attempting’ To Use Chopsticks

Chopsticks Or Fork?

Using 筷子 (chopsticks) was definitely a struggle for me. I had used chopsticks in the past when eating sushi however, rarely when eating other types of food such as rice, meat, or vegetables. I often struggled when dining with my husband’s family, which made me feel embarrassed at times. Luckily, I was given a pair of ‘beginner chopsticks’, which helped in making the necessary transition. However, I still struggle to this day when eating certain foods. Luckily, my mother-in-law places a fork on the table in-case needed.

These are just a few of the differences I have noticed, with many more as each dinner passes. However, embracing these differences have allowed me to form a deep appreciation for the food and etiquette one’s culture can bring to the table.

Have you noticed any food preferences or dining etiquette differences in the home of a friend or partner? If so, I would love to hear about them!

Maria Deng currently resides in Ontario, Canada with her husband Joey, who originally hails from Guangzhou, China. She loves reading about AMWF relationships, and looks forward to writing more about her experiences being married to a Chinese man.

Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

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. 😉