Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Beating the heat in China

It's been awhile since I last published a post. The more time passes, the harder it becomes. Writer's block? No. Laziness? Not exactly. One might say I've been in a bit of a rut, not feeling particularly inspired by anything. Just floating along, allowing each day to run into the next.

But this morning was somehow different. I felt inspired by red bean popsicles and a blog post. Their common theme? Dealing with the heat. The way Chinese cope with summer is different from what I'm used to, that I've known since my first summer here. I've learned more as time has passed, particularly last summer during which I had to navigate through a sweltering July while caring for a newborn. I am still not familiar with all the intricacies of Chinese beliefs relating to hot and cold, they are incredible complex, thanks in part to traditional Chinese medicine. On a more superficial level, I do know some of the do's and don'ts of summer. Here is what I (think I) know:

1. Never expose your stomach, unless you are an overweight middle-aged Chinese man.
William in a dudou.
Last summer, when the thermometer hit the 30's (that's around the neighborhood of 85-95, my Fahrenheit friends), I was planning on letting William lay around in a diaper. I was immediately shot down. "You can't leave his stomach exposed! It's bad for his qi!" both my husband and mother-in-law exclaimed. In other words, not wearing a shirt would be bad for his life force. Who can argue with that? Instead of going topless, William sported a dùdōu (肚兜) for most of the summer. Dùdōus are popular among kids and even (supermodel thin) young women. They are designed like an apron so that the front is covered and back is open, with strings that tie around the neck and waist.

For reasons I have yet to understand, it is okay for men to walk around with their stomachs out. I'd think that this would leave their qi vulnerable, but it only leaves them looking ridiculous. Now I can very much appreciate a man without his shirt on. Moreover, I'm a realist and don't expect men to have rock hard abs. I do understand the desire to let the beer gut out for a breather from time to time and that's all good. But I just can't get behind the Beijing Bikini (as it's affectionately called) which is a summer "style" popular among a certain set of Chinese men. The Beijing Bikini requires the wearer to roll up his t-shirt well above the navel, often resting on top of the protruding gut, leaving his entire midsection flapping in the wind. Why not fully commit to going shirtless and take it all off? That's the sensible thing to do and it looks better, no matter what the physique.

2. Eat popsicles with abandon but only if you are strong enough for it.
William enjoying a red bean popsicle
I am a lover of ice cream and enjoy popsicles from time to time. Quite frankly, I'm suspicious of anyone who says they don't like such treats (along with the weirdos who don't like chocolate). The quality of Chinese popsicles is often questionable, but what they lack in fine ingredients and hygiene, they make up for in flavor intrigue. You can find everything from taro to corn, green bean to hawthorn. One of the most popular flavors among locals is red bean, which also happens to be William's favorite. One of my Chinese friends explained to me that red bean is considered a "warm" food which helps neutralize the coldness of the ice, making such popsicles less harmful to the stomach.

There is a lot of concern over the temperature of foods and drinks, as well as if a food is considered "warm" or "cold" (this has nothing to do with actual temperature but relates to Chinese traditional medicine). We have been scolded, usually by strangers, for allowing William to eat popsicles and they are considered too cold for babies whose bodies are still weak. Those who are menstruating, recovering from an illness, or practicing zuo yuezi must also not indulge in cold desserts.

3. NEVER walk barefoot, especially if you are a woman.
This is a lesson I learned early on and has become one of the things I miss most about home. I look forward to the day I can kick off my shoes and walk barefoot through the soft grass during summer. I have been chastised for going about barefoot or even in socks in my home. I have been told I may catch a cold and that it may lead to stomach cancer in women. While I think it's total nonsense, I have put this on my list of "battles I rather not fight" (it's currently a very long list).
"Summer Sneakers" photo via taobao

Instead of going barefoot, most Chinese people purchase summer shoes. This is a concept I'm still a little foggy on. I always considered sandals to be my summer shoes and when I needed something with a bit more coverage and support, I'd wear my regular sneakers. While many Chinese people do wear sandals, it is also popular to buy a pair of "summer sneakers" which are lighter and more breathable than "winter sneakers." My husband nags me every summer to buy "summer sneakers" but I'm perfectly happy with the shoes I already have. He frets over my feet, claiming they will be too warm, but I manage to convince him that my feet really don't know the difference.

4. Use the air-conditioner sparingly and only if you are strong enough for it.
It gets very hot and incredibly humid in many parts of China during the summer. Despite it's reputation for being a cool respite for Beijingers, Chengde is also uncomfortably warm in July and August. I admit to letting my air-conditioner run all day, most days, during those two months. Last summer, however, our AC got a bit of a break and my CO2 foot print got ever slightly smaller. Come early July, despite us all being dripping in sweat by mid-morning, my mother-in-law was vehemently opposed to any AC usage. My husband and I would turn it on secretly on the days she didn't come over, but eventually it became so hot that we won her over. She agreed to using it sparingly. I'm under the impression that older Chinese believe air conditioning to be harmful, particularly when weaklings (such as babies) are exposed to it. I'm not sure what I think, but when the indoor temperature creeps near 30 degrees and all I can think about is how miserable I am, I'd rather just turn it on.

5. Shave your (baby's) head
Bald William with my friend, Marie
I put it off as long as I could, though I knew it was inevitable. . . the baby head shave. Many Chinese babies have their heads shaved as infants, as it is a widely held belief that shaving the head with allow the hair to come back in much fuller. In fact, I have one friend who claims her hair is thin and stringy (it's actually beautifully thick and lush, but there's no telling her that) because her mom failed to shave her hair off as a newborn. I compromised with my husband and mother-in-law, agreeing to William's first buzz cut after he turned one. Chinese toddlers, both male and female, usually sport a buzz during summer. I find it very odd, as American toddlers, even boys, rarely have shaved heads. But it's only hair and I can see how being without it during summer would be comfortable. Nevertheless, I was quite shocked to see William after his first haircut. It's been two months now and it is growing back nicely; my mother-in-law is very quick to point out how thick it is.

Do you have any tips for dealing with the heat?


Autumn Ashbough said...

I am a firm believer that anyone should wear a bikini. That said, it is totally unfair that only middle-aged men get to bare their "flabs!"

That was a cool article -- nice to see you blogging again!

rosieinbj said...

Thanks Autumn. I am going to try and get back in the habit of posting.

I agree that anyone should wear a bikini if they want to, but I'm not a fan of the makeshift t-shirt bikini (though I did love sporting that look in 3rd grade).

Anonymous said...

Rosieeee, you are back! :D

Sometimes when Chinese people tell me about these beliefs and I tell them we don't have them in Spain, they tell me "because your bodies are stronger so you can do whatever you want". Yeah, right. Anyway, I have always eaten ice cream or swam when I was having my period and oh surprise, nothing happened haha. And I also love walking barefoot! It is actually healthy. I would not do it in the winter, of course, but in the summer... cannot see why not!

Anonymous said...

Hi Martaaa, I am back! I needed to take a break from blogging (though I have been trying to keep up with reading others, just not commenting as frequently) as well as Facebook.

I also get the "your bodies are stronger" line, and heard it with particular frequency while pregnant! I do think a lot of it is mindset. If you think something is harmful, you'll easily blame any negative outcome on it even though there may be no relationship between the two.

Anonymous said...

OMGG you can't wear shoes in the house!?!? That's soooo crazy!!! I respect you for choosing not to put up a fight and just putting on the shoes!! I walk barefoot in my home all the time. I remember in China, too, when I used to go barefoot my Chinese friends would gasp and immediately give me slippers.

I'm glad to see you updated! Really interesting post!

rosieinbj said...

Thanks Mary. I try not to put up a fight when I can. But some things I try to hold my ground on, though it can be a bit of a battle!

Sarah - Diariesofayangxifu said...

Thanks for linking me :D I will take the advice on board!

rosieinbj said...

@Sarah, when are you coming? Where will you be in China?