One in a billion: Cold
"And mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled down for a long winter's nap," I read to my daughter Mia on Christmas Eve. I continued reading the story until Mia got bored and squirmed out of my lap. I started thinking to myself, "Who wears a 'kerchief or a cap to bed anymore?"
Winter life in Nanjing is a constant battle against the elements. The one constant is that I am always cold. The temperature hovers around freezing for most of the winter -- occasionally dropping just below with a dusting or two of snow thrown in every year (with the exception of the 100-year blizzard of 2008). But the cold is a raw, wet cold that seeps into every pore of your body.
Public places and spaces are notorious for not being heated. My first Chinese boss in Nanjing told me that buildings south of the Yang Zi River are not required to be heated. Nanjing is on the south bank of the river. For most buildings that I wander in and out of on a daily basis, this is certainly true.
Let us start our hypothermic tour with my school. As one enters through the front gates, our Chinese partner school's classrooms are laid out in wings stretching to the left and the right. The hallways are exposed to the elements and the classrooms are unheated. The next stop is the science building, where the chemistry laboratories are on the first floor, and as a chemistry teacher I use these labs regularly. In order to ensure that the rooms are well ventilated, the entire length of each room is lined with oversized sliding windows. When we are doing a lab, the windows on both sides of the lab are opened and the big ceiling fans are turned on, creating a vortex of frigid arctic air that permeates the ski hat and winter parka I have to wear while teaching.
The students are pretty hardy, though. While I complain about my 50-minute forays into the chemistry labs, many of the dorm students live with no heat in their rooms all winter long. To fight the cold, the students layer themselves thick with long johns, shirts, pullovers, sweaters and finally their school uniforms, which look like gym warm-ups over it all. The classrooms in our school actually do have heaters -- and so the battle next turns to underdressed foreign teachers against overdressed Chinese students. Many of our first-year teachers arrive with the sheer and airy professional clothing of North America in their bags and like to keep the classrooms as toasty as they can. The students of course, are so completely bundled up that they are sweating and falling asleep within minutes.
As swine flu fears spread into the classrooms, the directive came down. "Please keep the windows of your classrooms open as much as possible and the heat off to ensure good air flow." After about three days of battling, most of us foreign teachers have yielded and simply wrap ourselves up.
My wife also fights this frigid battle in her office. For nearly the whole winter, the boss did not allow the workers to turn on the heat. So she and her co-workers turned to wearing their ski gear in the office. "It is so hard to type with gloves on," my wife said to me one day when she came home. "Many of the girls in the office keep these little electric water bottles in their laps all day long just to stay warm."
The scrap has pervaded into my home as well. As the only foreigner and the only male in a home comprised of three generations of Chinese women, I find myself always outflanked and outmaneuvered in my fight to keep the windows closed and the house toasty in the dead of winter. In most Chinese homes, people will keep their windows open all day long and (to change the air), just like our students, wear layers and layers of clothing. My home is no different.
Part of it is economics -- buildings here are all built out of concrete and there is little to no insulation. It is simply too expensive to keep a heater running all day. As soon as the heater is turned off, the temperature plummets 20 degrees. I suppose I should thank my family for keeping the heating bill down and preserving the environment. I can only imagine the energy use and added contamination to this already polluted country if the 1.3 billion people here had houses and heating bills the size of the McMansions of the USA.
And so I have pretty much given in to the fact that from the beginning of December until the end of March, I am going to have to layer up both indoors and out and be cold nearly all of the time. After nine years here I have pretty much gotten used to the fact that despite sub-freezing temperature, the windows in my lab, my classroom and my own home will be wide open.
However there is one battlefield which I consider my last stand, the one place that despite repeated forays, attacks and assaults I refuse to surrender any ground. It is my own personal Maginot Line. No matter how low the mercury dips, my wife and mother-in-law always keep the window open in the bathroom -- day and night. They open it, and I close it. It is a wordless battle. But I will prevail. A man needs his sanctuary after all.
Fairfield native Keith Gallinelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.