China Diary, 1988: Subtropical Winter Cold

In 1987–88, the Far Outliers, with their two-year-old daughter in tow, spent a year teaching English at a new community college in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, China. The following is one of a series of articles I wrote in 1988. I sent them to a Honolulu newspaper, but they were not interested. So now I offer them as a retrospective on coastal China twenty years before hosting its first Olympics. At the same time, I am scanning in a lot of our old China photos and uploading them to my Flickr account or to my WordPress blog to illustrate this series.

Zhongshan lies just below the Tropic of Cancer at almost the same latitude as the Hawaiian Islands. Bananas and sugarcane, hibiscus and bougainvillea, mango, papaya, and palm trees are abundant. But the continental weather makes the winters much colder than Hawaiian winters—unless you live halfway up Mauna Kea or Haleakala.

The first time we got a real winter monsoon, the temperature dropped from 25 degrees Centigrade (77F) to 5 degrees (41F) in 24 hours. During winter, the southerlies and sunny weather can give daytime highs of 20 degrees Centigrade (68F), and the northerlies and cloudy weather can take overnight lows down to 5 degrees.

Houses are unheated, with no hot running water. The floors are mostly bare concrete or tile. The universal building material is plaster-covered brick and mortar. The doors and windows fit so poorly in their frames that houses are drafty. So the temperature inside is almost the same as it is outside, except for a slightly lower wind-chill factor.

The average is 22 degrees Centigrade (72F)—11 degrees (52F) in the morning, 11 in the afternoon!

Our apartment sat on a hilltop, fully exposed to the north wind blowing down over the flat delta. The kitchen, bathroom, and toilet all faced north. The winter wind gave each room its special torture.

The half-inch gap under its balcony door makes the kitchen the coldest room to work in. Chinese kitchens don’t have ovens, and wok meals require minimal cooking time and a good bit of washing and chopping time. Icy tap water didn’t make washing anything very appealing.

The watertank lid on our western-style toilet broke before it was installed, and the jerry-rigged flushing mechanism fell to pieces soon after we started using it. So after testing our mettle on the cold toilet seat, we had to dunk a hand in freezing water and pull out the rubber stopper to flush.

Until well into winter, we either took cold showers or filled a small plastic tub with hot water to wash with. Those are the two options available in most houses there. Then, in January, our school finally installed the gas hot-water heater they had bought for us.

The water heater had first been mounted above the western-style bathtub. But there was no room to fit the gas canister in the same room, so it was taken out again.

Several months later, it was remounted in the bath, holes were drilled through the wall into the toilet where the gas canister was put, and a rubber tube was run through the wall to the heater. Then it turned out the water heater needed repair, so it was taken out again. A month or so later, it was reinstalled. This time both water heater and gas canister were placed in a more open area outside the toilet—to reduce the chance of asphyxiation in the toilet or explosion in the bathroom. The workmen had to drill new holes and run new pipes through the toilet and bathroom walls. But they didn’t feel the need to clean up the debris they left behind.

So now the hard part of taking showers was turning the hot water off and feeling the cold air all the more severely. The hard part used to be first turning the cold water on yourself.

There were two real advantages to the cold indoor temperatures.

First, the household mosquitoes take a vacation. Still, we usually lowered our mosquito nets at night, if only for that added layer of gauze between us and the cold.

Second, we didn’t have to refrigerate the Chinese-made old-fashioned peanut butter to keep the oil from separating. In fact, we could have just unplugged the refrigerator if we hadn’t kept a few things in the freezer.

To counter the cold, we drank many cups of hot tea, using the teacups to warm our hands as the tea warmed our throats. We learned to make ice tea from hot tea in 20 minutes—without ice or refrigeration.

We didn’t have to count calories. We just had to keep shoveling them in. We developed more of a sweet tooth than we used to have, and our bodies demanded between-meal snacks to keep the furnaces stoked.

We dressed for dinner—and for lunch and breakfast—in the cold dining room. We even had to dress for bed, sometimes sleeping with our socks on—a barbarous custom!

As friends from Winnipeg, Canada, who were teaching there observed, cold is not so bad when there is somewhere you can go to get away from it. In our house, the only place we could escape the cold was under our quilts.

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