At the present moment, it is about 65 degrees F (18 C) outside, overcast, and all the local people are wearing long underwear. This means they are wearing three layers: long underwear, clothing, and then a jacket over top. Many people are also wearing hats, scarves, and boots. This is in sharp contrast to the way I normally dress in 65 degree weather!
One could view this practice with a bit of puzzlement, but the reason why becomes more apparent when one realizes that local people, in general, have no heat. When it gets down to 40 F (4 C) at night, it feels almost as cold to those sleeping inside the house as it does for those sleeping under the bridge overpass.
This difference between how I dress in my heated house and how someone else dresses who doesn’t have heat brings to mind a similar contrast I once experienced while living in the United States.
I lived in a college dormitory, but my college was only about 35 miles (56 km) from my family’s farm. Several times each semester I would go home on Friday afternoon and return to school on Sunday afternoon, in time to prepare for class the next day. But one weekend in January when I arrived home, it seemed my family was overwhelmed with work.
My family raised various kinds of birds, and they were hatching about 10,000 eggs per week. The tiny little birds could drown in ordinary watering containers (which were too large), and so smaller containers had to be used while they were very little. Additionally, the little birds were vulnerable to infection, so the water jars had to be disinfected every day and washed three times per day. Washing water jars for 10,000 baby birds three times per day is a lot of work! To help my family, I volunteered to stay over and help wash and disinfect the water jars early on Monday morning, before I returned to college and my Monday morning class.
The air temperature inside the barns where the birds was hovered at about 45 or 50 degrees. The baby birds themselves were under giant heater lights (brooders) that allowed them to keep as warm as they liked. (The air inside the brooders, directly under the lights, was about 110 degrees F. If a chick felt cold, it could move closer to the heat to get warm, or if it felt hot it could move away to a cooler place.) The water jars were spaced about every 2 feet, interspersed with trays of food, so that a little chick would not have to look very far to find what it needed in life. But to wash the jars, we had to collect them and carry them outside to a separate, wet, washing area. The outside air hovered just above freezing, and the water used to wash the jars was not heated.
I dressed warmly and appropriately for this chore, layering with long underwear, shirt, sweater, gloves, hat, and jacket, two pair of socks, heavy boots, and muffler. The outside air felt clean and crisp. I found my gloves to be more trouble than they were worth, because of the manual dexterity required to open the water jar lids, wash, disinfect, and refill the jars. Heat gradually drained out of my body, so that gradually I became uncomfortably cold. By the time I was finished, I was happy to stop at my grandmother’s house for a short chat with her in front of a fire, holding a hot drink which she put in my hands. I then quickly changed out of my "farm clothes" and into my "city clothes" for the transition back to college life. Arriving a bit late, I sprinted to class with my books in hand just in the nick of time.
It wasn’t until I was sitting in class that I realized, suddenly, that I was "burning up." The classroom was heated, and I had forgotten to remove my long underwear when I changed my clothes. Dressed as warmly as I was, the heat in the building made me extremely uncomfortable.
I had not noticed this at all while at my grandmother’s house. Catering to a family that was working outdoors and dressed according to the cold weather, my grandmother kept her house’s heat set between 45 and 55 degrees F (about 8 – 12 C). Any hotter than that, and people dressed for weather outside would have felt unbearably hot when they came inside. Moreover, it’s not healthy to switch from extreme cold to extreme heat like that, forcing the body to go from a "retain heat" mode to a "get rid of heat" mode. In fact, I later realized, all the buildings in that town were heated to a level that reflected the fact that everyone in the town dressed in their long underwear.
In contrast, my college classrooms and dormitory, in the next town over so to speak, were heated about ten degrees warmer, reflecting the more sedentary, indoor lifestyle of the students who spent their days in a library or classroom. As I lived and worked in that town for a few years after my graduation from college, I also came to realize that none of the people in that town wore long underwear, and all the buildings were heated to a level to make them comfortable without long underwear.
After that experience, I began to notice that the temperature buildings are heated to reflect a general cultural consensus. In one city, public buildings will be heated to about 55 degrees (or not heated at all, like Guangzhou), and everyone wears long underwear when it’s cold. (As a matter of fact, windows in Guangzhou will often be open on the coldest of days, to let in the fresh air.) In another city, buildings will be heated to 65 degrees (18 C), or more, and everyone will complain about being cold — because they’re not wearing their long underwear.
The rationale for this difference in heat is obvious when one is thinking in broad "north-south" geographic terms like, say, Florida and Michigan. It’s less easy to explain when one thinks in terms towns that are only a few miles from each other, like my home town and my college town. In my own mind, I decided it reflected the difference between a more rural, outdoor lifestyle and a more urban, indoor lifestyle. Have you noticed or thought about this? Do you agree or disagree? What temperature is it right now where you are, inside and out, and are you wearing long underwear on this day in the middle of January? Just curious!
In the end, the people wearing long underwear are the ones who are doing the right thing. We all ought to be wearing long underwear and heating a lot less. The difference between the availability of heat in China and heat used in the USA is the difference between an energy guzzling nation and one that isn’t yet. For a long time, the USA has been using a lot more than its share of limited energy resources. China, as an emerging world power, is increasing its energy consumption dramatically each year. But the earth cannot afford another USA. In the mantra of "reduce, reuse, and recycle," there’s a reason the word "reduce" is listed first. This isn’t just about saving pennies on a power bill; it’s about stewardship of the earth and its resources.
I feel a bit guilty. As I write this, I sit in a house that has heat. But, in fact, we do try to conserve it. I find that this winter we all are dressing in layers and using blankets for warmth when we lounge around. Considering the remarks that Sophie made to me about the cost of baking a potato in an oven, I’ve even reconsidered that luxury! Everyone, everywhere, needs to be doing everything they can to conserve resources.
Unfortunately, sadly, the ordinary Chinese person doesn’t see it that way. Heat means warmth and comfort. Gas and a car means freedom and independence. And status. Just the other day, SY told me that Americans are fat because they have money and can afford food; she says that Chinese are thin because they don’t have enough money to buy as much food as they want. The overindulgence engaged in by Americans is viewed with longing and envy by hungry eyes.
I believe we Americans need to a lot do less preaching about other countries’ policies, less griping about cold people’s energy usage. Instead, we need to do a lot more of leading by example. We need to demonstrate commitment to responsible use of resources: long underwear, public transportation, food policy that supports small, independent family farms. (Hmm, and then there’s the minor issue of Kyoto Protocol and what ever happened to Jimmy Carter’s energy tax credits?) There’s my soapbox, and I’m sticking to it!