Summer heat… with Chinese characteristics

Last week on Wednesday afternoon it was over 30′C. We were sweating in the office — not because we don’t have big air conditioners but because everyone except me is afraid or unwilling to use them enough to actually make the room comfortable. A coworker thoughtfully brought me a cup of water, bless her soul, which she’d poured from a hot thermos. I knew it would be that way, and as my already-sweaty hand felt the heat through the “Little Foreigner”-brand (洋人) cup’s paper sides, I knew it was time for a summer-in-China post.

Turns out (big surprise!) the Chinese tend to manage the heat differently than we do; for foreigners this basically means unnecessary sweating. When I remember to think, I see these big differences over ultimately little things as opportunities to practice understanding and getting along with people who have fundamentally different perspectives from you — something our Western societies tend to do a pitiful job of in general. And we need the practice, because if you have Chinese friends you’ll easily discover big differences over bigger things, too.

1. Cold will give you chronic health problems

Our Chinese tutor is thoroughly convinced that the reason she has painful cramping every month is all due to a particular event in her childhood. When she was 12 or 13, right around the time when she had her first period — I should mention here that if talking about your periods and diarrhea and weight and acne and other body-related things makes you uncomfortable, China will either cure you of that or make you cry, maybe both. When it comes to casually discussing these kinds of body things, Westerners tend to be hypersensitive by comparison. Now back to our language tutor’s menstrual cycle… — she’d been out playing sports on a really hot day. She was all flushed and sweaty and came inside to have a shower. She stood under the shower and turned it on, but the water came out really cold a shocked her. She’s convinced that that untimely instance of drastic temperature change — a hot sweaty body getting doused in extra cold water right at the time her body was changing — is why her monthly cycle is painful to this day.

She comes over for three hours twice a week. We put the air conditioner on “dehumidify” instead of cool. Don’t want coming to our apartment to cause her to fear for her health.

2. Hot sand is good for your bones

Friends in Vancouver, Canada – which neighbours called HONGcouver when I was a kid – asked on Instagram:

I didn’t know, though I guessed it had to do with TCM. So I ask our tutor, and she immediately replies, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that lots of times.” She didn’t know why the lady was wearing a shirt and shorts, but apparently it’s not uncommon for some people go to the beach, get wet, and then cover their skin in hot sand. This helps get the ‘Wind’ and ‘Damp’ our of your bones to prevent “Wind-Damp disease” (风湿症 aka rheumatism) in the future. That was out tutor’s explanation, anyway. (More about this and links to more TCM stuff here: How to scandalize your Chinese neighbours: Evil stepmother edition.)

3. Air conditioners make you sick

Jessica goes to a Chinese book club; it’s great for meeting people and improving her Chinese. This particular group happens to be the more ‘cosmopolitan’ kind of Chinese: younger, educated, disposable income, international travel experience, lots of ‘foreigner friends’, and they love practicing their English so much that many of them only know each other by their ‘English names’ and not their real names. Point here being they’re less typical. Not saying they’re less Chinese, just that they’re a particular breed that’s more foreign-influenced.

So they meet last week, everyone shows up sweaty, and they turn on the air conditioner. Then one more person comes in. She has a cold. She sits directly in front of the air conditioner and then asks if they can turn it off because she’s sick. There are sympathetic comments about ‘air conditioner disease‘ (空调病) making lots of people sick right now, but no one wants to turn it off. This group has figured out that not sweating indoors is nice. They hint at her to sit somewhere else and that they don’t want to turn it off, but this only child is either oblivious or unwilling. So they turn it off, and everybody sweats. After all, she had a point: air conditioners are bad for you.

P.S. – Cross-cultural anecdotes

This is not a disclaimer, but I do want to say something about cross-cultural anecdotes and what they mean and don’t mean.

Anecdotes are powerful; they make impressions. They don’t prove anything, but they can vividly illuminate or mislead depending on how they’re used. I’m not making this stuff up, and I’m not trying to give a particular impression of China or Chinese people. The stories on this blog are not a representative summary of Chinese thought and culture. But they are China as we encounter it. If they illuminate and help outsiders better understand Chinese culture, great. I hope so. Regardless of how accurately this blog portrays the Chinese, what our stories truly represent is one North America family’s personal encounter with and growing understanding of Chinese culture. I hope our experiences, and our understanding of our experiences, accurately reflect Chinese culture, but we’re learning as we go here.

One thought on “Summer heat… with Chinese characteristics

  1. Many Chinese friends over the years have been stunned (and concerned) by my preference for cold drinks in summer. And most Chinese co-workers in various places wore sweaters at work when the AC was set to foreigner-friendly temperatures. I’ve had several people tell me that sweat and flushed skin is considered healthy and good for the body, and I’ve heard of the danger of dramatic temperature changes many times.

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