Father-In-Law on the Roof? Strange Scenes During Extreme Cold in Southern China

There are things you never expect to see in a lifetime. Like watching a grown man whack snow off the roof with a bamboo pole.

My father-in-law standing on the roof of the house, whacking snow away with his bamboo pole.
My father-in-law standing on the roof of the house, whacking snow away with his bamboo pole.

I still couldn’t believe it when I caught a glimpse of this. Was that really my father-in-law balancing himself up there, pole in hand? Or was I having a strange hallucination induced by the bitter cold?

Nope, that was him all right. My husband even snapped a photo to prove it.

Then again, I’m still in shock over the thick white blanket of snow covering my husband’s home village these past few days. And the -4 degree temperatures outside my window.

IMG_20160122_162048I have to admit, the weather is messing with my head. It’s completely turned upside down my perceptions of winters here in the Hangzhou, China region. Everyone (including my husband) has always assured me that winters here are mild and, generally speaking, that’s what I’ve experienced in all the years I’ve lived here.

But now arctic cold from the North Pole has invaded China as far South as Zhejiang Province – our province – and it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced here. Suddenly I feel as if I’m back in Cleveland, Ohio all over again, where I grew up. Except, instead of the things I’m accustomed to having in the face of freezing winter cold and snow (like indoor heating and insulated plumbing), we have to manage without them.

Strange things have happened too – beyond just seeing my father-in-law on the roof of the house. For example, the window in my bedroom won’t budge because it has frozen itself shut. We’ll have to wait until the temperatures rise above zero (which we expect tomorrow, according to the weather forecasts) before we can open them.

Shoveling snow in the front yard with my niece.
Shoveling snow in the front yard with my niece.

I’ve always said I never knew the winter cold until I lived here in Hangzhou – which is ironic for a woman who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, a city renowned for its bone-chilling winters complete with heavy snowfall and even the occasional blizzard. But in Cleveland, Ohio, we are well-armed against the winter, comfortably tucked behind our insulated walls and indoor heating. Here in Hangzhou, we have none of that – and instead just make do with electric blankets, space heaters and hot coals.

These days of extreme winter cold, however, have felt like an intimate introduction to the most frigid and forbidding side of the season. I’ve never felt more grateful for the warmth of my electric blanket and my sturdy space heater.

We will survive.

IMG_20160121_085748And fortunately, the weather forecasts promise a business-as-usual winter to resume in the next few days. The temperatures will once again hover above freezing. We’ll be able to open the windows again. And with the melting snow, my father-in-law will no longer need to visit the roof with his sturdy bamboo pole.

I expect this won’t be the last time we’ll have some unusual winter days here. Global warming is wreaking havoc with weather patterns around the world, which means the season could become as unpredictable as my five-year-old niece’s mood swings.

Still, who’s to say it’ll always be like this in the family home? After all, the family has plans to rebuild the house in the next few years. And just the other day at lunch, while discussing the new home, my husband couldn’t help but ask, “What about adding in a little central heating?”

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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. 😉

Photo Essay: Walking in a (China) Winter Wonderland

Okay, don’t hate me for saying this, but…here in China, I actually look forward to the winter.

I know, I know. This is winter after all. The coldest season of the year!

But here in the Hangzhou region, winter happens to be one of the best seasons for hiking. And ever since we’ve discovered a beautiful little hideaway in the mountains, it’s become our own private “winter wonderland” for evening walks.

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When John and I happen to stay at his family home in rural Hangzhou, the best part of our afternoon comes when we pull on our fleece (or nowadays, down) jackets and head for the hills.

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The first time we discovered this corner of the mountains, I think my heart stopped. I couldn’t believe how utterly beautiful the scenery was. Or how it was literally just a short drive from his parents’ home in the countryside.

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It always feels like these hills are filled with treasures, even in the winter. Just look at the Persimmon trees just behind me. They may have lost their leaves long ago, but those ruby-red persimmons still cling to the branches, just daring you to pick them.

1444284656697Mountain springs flow down the hillside, creating lovely little waterfalls like this one.

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There’s even quite the waterfall running straight through this gorge — and it’s best viewed in the wintertime.

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Sometimes the clouds even put on a show for us.

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Wishing you a a very happy holiday season! And may you too find your own private winter wonderland, wherever you are in the world!