Saturday, February 4, 2017

Living In a Walk-In Cooler

If you think about it, living in a large-size walk-in refrigerator, such as those in restaurants or in food factories is not such a bad idea, especially if you are a minimalist, like me. They are exceedingly well insulated and wired for electricity. It would be only a little work to pipe in some water and they come equipped with a rudimentary drainage system. There would be space enough for a sleeping area, a cooking area and a sanitary area and, if you were really ambitious and built a loft for your bed, you could even have a small sitting area.

I could see myself living in a walk-in refrigerator... provided the cooling were turned off.

As it is, I am living in a full-sized apartment: 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, kitchen, dining area and generous living room. Unfortunately, it is currently nearly as cold as a walk-in cooler inside my apartment. 

Because of my tendency to travel stateside during the off-season, I've only experienced the dead cold that grips China in the winter the first year I was here. Then, I traveled to the southern part of the country, where the weather remains relatively warm and sunny. This is my first winter in Wuhan, in my apartment.

I have a measure of climate control that I don't use: 3 separate units. Small ones in each bedroom and a large, freestanding component in the living room. However, they are costly to run and inefficient, as systems go. I cannot set the thermostat to a desired temperature; the most these devices can crank out is about 64 degrees. And, while that is warmer than the 49 degrees my place currently is, it would take running all three heat pumps to attain any consistency in temperature throughout the house.

Another reason I choose to not run them, especially the large unit in the living room, is because the return air portion is at seating level and the hot air is vented out about 5 feet off the ground. So, if I were to lounge on my couch and watch a movie while the machine labors, I would be caught in the wave of cold air being sucked in by the return vent while feeling hot air only if I should stand.

Additionally, my bathroom has heat lamps that work very well... not at heating the room, by any great measure, but they do a great job of scalding the top of my head. Being much taller than most Chinese, my head is only about 2 feet from the ceiling in that room. The lights' intensity is a bit too much on my scalp, especially because they are mounted over shower portion of the room: the water magnifies the heat. That sounds like a good thing, especially in this icy dungeon and maybe it would be, if only I didn't fear it frying my head. 

In all, my climate control system is very inefficient.

So how do I keep warm?

Dress accordingly. One or two pairs of socks, legwarmers and longjohns. Not the commercial kind that you can buy at Walmart. Military surplus PolarArctic work best. Fleece-lined ski leggings do a good job, too. My top half is buried under at least four layers: tee-shirt, thermal shirt, sweat shirt, a fleece jacket and a scarf. Some days, I also wear a hat and knuckle gloves. 

The first year I was here I bought a parabolic space heater. It is currently swiveling its head, throwing heat around. I paid 300 Yuan for it six years ago and it works as though brand new. I definitely got my money out of it! Besides these types of heater, there are hordes of devices available to draw heat from. Among them, my two favorites are a heated foot pillow and a bed-sized heating pad.

Some I have tried and cannot make a go of: gel heat packs –  the equivalent of a hot water bottle, which I also tried and gave up on when it sprang a leak in my bed. The modern versions contain gel, in a leakproof sack. Plug them in to heat; once heated, wrap your hands around for dear warmth. In deep cold, their warmth doesn't last very long, and it is cumbersome to constantly carry such a pack around. Chemical heating pads: you might be familiar with them if you enjoy the great outdoors and/or winter sports. The first and last time I tried one, I placed it on my lower back, per the package recommendation. It blistered my skin... and didn't keep me much warmer than had I gone without.   

What about showering?

That takes courage. First, I lay all of my clothes out in front of the space heater, so they will be warm when I am ready to put them on. I make sure I have everything I need, and then... take a deep breath... strip and bear the ambient cold until the water gets hot. That minute or so, until hot water gushes forth, is the worst part of the ordeal.

A few years ago I wrapped my water heater. Prior to that I only had about 2 minutes worth of hot water; now I enjoy about twice that amount. In the winter, I make full use of it. Fortunately, the bathroom is small enough that my shower water will heat the entire enclosure. The only other time I endure clenched teeth is when exiting the room.

I cannot get dressed in the bathroom because, with no ventilation, condensation would render my clothes clammy, magnifying the cold once I step out of that room.

How does this temperature impact life?

Electronics are sluggish in the cold. My computer does some very strange things unless I park it in some warmth. However, my wireless network zings along! It seems the cold actually boosts the signal. Cooking is more difficult: it takes longer for the pans to heat and the warmth is localized to the bottom, where the fire is. Also, the food does not cook as quickly or thoroughly.

I have to be careful not to bang dishes around. They tend to shatter at the least little nick or bump. And I have to be careful pouring hot liquid. More than once, I've shattered a cup or pitcher by the simple act of making tea, dousing seething water into a cold vessel. Placing a wooden chopstick into the container is the key.

Glutinous substances, such as honey or toothpaste, tend to not want to move. My honey, which I use abundantly during these times to make toddies, has already started crystallizing. Forget making any kind of baked goods! Butter refuses to soften and the oven loses about 20 degrees of heat to the ambient air. Thawing meat out requires the portion to be laid out overnight, and even then, depending on the density or thickness, the core might still be frozen (picture a chub pack of hamburger).

There is a lot to be said for adapting to and enduring extreme conditions. I don't have to live like this; I choose to, for one reason: to be in solidarity with those whose lives are, by necessity and circumstance, difficult.

Dr. Deepak Chopra said that one key to a long life is your ability to be adaptable. I am not convinced a longer life is necessarily a better one, but I've learned by experience that an adaptable person can overcome most anything. Maybe that is my true goal.


This cold will not go on forever. In a month or so, things will warm up, trees will bud, birds will sing. And I will have endured my last (last... last...) winter in China.     

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