Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Chinese System of Personal Comfort

My first clue was fat babies. Babies so fat their arms stuck out from their bodies at 70-degree angles. Their little heads bobbled on top of their fat bodies, incongruously small. Small children who could walk toddled along similarly bundled and their heads were equally disproportionate. What was wrong with these babies?

My second clue was adults running around in what appeared to be jammies: matched jacket and pants sets that were quilted. During the warmer months I had seen adults run around in actual jammies and I had even seen one woman walking down the street who wore a red sheer nightie as though it were a dress, so these quilted outfits struck me as extremely odd. Why were people suddenly wearing pajamas while out and about?

Incidentally: I meant to write about the jammie craze around here. When the weather turns nice again I’ll be out with my camera and take a picture of someone wearing jammies as though they were regular street clothes, just to show you.

And then I learned. A lot of apartments around the neighborhood do not have heaters so the babies have to be bundled up to three times their normal size in order to conserve body heat. Adults also conserve body heat by wearing these quilted outfits, along with fur-lined boots.

In America we are used to regulating the temperature of our space. Central heat and air conditioning, oil or kerosene heaters, wood stoves or, if nothing else is available, electrical space heaters. In China, they have no choice but to bundle up, layer upon layer, to stay warm.

My apartment has two climate control units: one in the bedroom/office and one in the living room. Clearly foreigners are not expected to maintain the same degree of personal deprivation and temperature torture as the Chinese do.

As we get deeper and deeper into the winter months I find myself scrounging for better and more efficient ways to keep warm. Obviously running the heaters costs money, and the heat pumps provided are woefully inadequate to maintain the minimum temperature I’m used to: 68 degrees. To that end I have procured a 1,000-Watt space heater, to assist the heat pump in keeping at least one room warm.

And I only heat one room: my bedroom/office. That is where I hang out the most. That is where I sleep and where I write, that is where my Internet connection is. I feel there is no point in heating the living room as I can only be in one room at a time; therefore heating that space is a waste of resources. The bathroom only has a heat lamp directly above the bathtub and the kitchen has no heat at all. When I’m in those rooms for an extended period of time, I usually carry the space heater with me and make use of it there. In the kitchen I turn on my oven if it is going to be just a short jaunt. It does a pretty good job at heating things up.

With the walls being concrete and floors having only a thin veneer of laminate over concrete, cold and damp get trapped inside and overpower any climate control efforts. I find myself wearing 2 pair of socks with my fur lined house shoes (or any other shoes for that matter!), 3 or 4 shirts and long johns under my flannel pants. At times I wear my jacket indoors and nowadays I always wear a scarf. Even that is not enough to keep warm sometimes.

I exercise and do jumping jacks. I play solo badminton and I have recently bought a jump rope. A few weeks ago I broke down and bought an electric heating pad for my feet. It sits on the floor beneath my desk. It may well be one of the best investments I’ve made. My kettle gets quite the workout warming water for my hot water bottle.

Sam does not heat his quarters at the university. He has an electric heating pad for his bed and otherwise keeps his jacket and his fur-lined shoes on. He keeps his hands wrapped around a mug of hot tea or water unless he is doing something that requires hands, such as typing or any other manual function – tee hee! Nor is his home heated. How do his wife and baby manage?

In absolute confoundment I asked him about the issue of keeping warm. He told me that this is South China; people are not expected to get cold. He told me that on the day of our second snowfall, when the wind chill was below freezing and the wind gusted so hard it blew small, skinny girls over. I think he expected me to believe him. It seems I have no choice but to do so.

Or do I?

I have seen freestanding heat pumps for sale at various stores around town. They stand about 65” tall and simply plug into a wall socket. They are entirely self contained and, from what I can tell, fairly efficient. They are costly though. The next best thing is a space heater. A lot of places now sell all manner of space heaters: parabolic, like the one I have, ‘portable’ radiators with oil inside them that heat up when plugged in. I’ve even found ceramic tile space heaters. So I guess that the Chinese are tired of being cold and now, with the burgeoning capitalist economic model, they can buy heat.

It seems that here too, the tide is changing. All of the new construction around town includes heat pumps for the apartments. I can see the external units mounted on the walls of the high-rises, hanging on the side of the buildings like evenly spaced, rectangular parasites on a host. What I don’t understand is why the apartment owners tarp their units up and don’t use them in the winter. Maybe the tide is not changing as quickly as it appears to be.

I’ve gotten used to an indoor temperature of 63.5 degrees. That is as warm as my room gets, running the heat pump 24/7, and that is twenty degrees warmer than the rest of my apartment. If I start shivering I put my faithful laptop to sleep and go jump rope or do some squats or heat some water…

When I get my electric bill for this month I’ll be in shock and temperature won’t matter to me anymore because when you’re in shock you don’t register external stimuli. What a strange thing to look forward to.

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