A Beijing Summer

Before moving to Beijing I lived my entire life north of the 42nd parallel. I know cold. I know what it’s like to walk the streets of Chicago in January with an arctic gale blowing in from the lake. The word cold doesn’t do it justice.

And yet I have never felt as cold as I do here in Beijing in the wintertime (39th parallel). I am quite literally chilled to the bone. My extremities ache. I lose my sense of touch.

Which is why I am so dumbfounded when I look at the thermometer and see that the temperature outside is only in the teens or low 20’s Fahrenheit (-9 to -7 C). It can’t be. I have lived in places where it is -30 degrees F (-34 C) for days on end and never felt so cold. It’s rather pleasant actually. Silence fills the air and the snow makes a comforting, quiet swoosh when you walk.

Some say it’s the dryness of the air. Others say it’s the humidity of the air. No one, however, has ever offered what I consider to be a plausible explanation.

And if that weren’t perplexing enough the reverse is true in the summer. I have never experienced such stifling heat as grips Beijing in July and August. It’s downright oppressive.

But, again, the thermometers are either all broken or don’t tell the whole story. It’s a heat that simply does not lend itself to calibration.

And how do the Chinese handle the sizzling Beijing summer?

many umbrellas
The Beijing summers are as hot as the winters are cold.

As you might expect, they endure it. And they complain notably little. Suffering, as I’ve noted before, is an accepted reality of life in China, having little, in the end, to do with wealth or the type of work you do. It just is what it is.

The schools are closed but not for long. The Chinese school year is much longer than the typical American school year, in part because there is an extended break during Spring Festival, known as Chinese New Year in the West, when virtually all of China returns to its roots for an extended family visit.

And while employment patterns are changing, most Chinese do not get vacation (my Dutch colleagues call them mini-sabbaticals) as we know it in the developed world. The large number of people who work for themselves in the informal economy simply can’t afford the time off. And even those who have paychecks signed by someone else get most of their paid time off around the national holidays, two of which (Spring Festival and National Day on October 1) get turned into Golden Weeks of paid holiday by switching weekends with normal working days to put together a string of 5-7 consecutive days off with pay. (And 7-8 consecutive work days on one end or the other.)

The Chinese don’t worship the sun in the same way many Westerners do. Or, more to the point, they don’t like to get tanned by the sun. Light skin is a standard of beauty among Chinese women and most go out of their way to avoid both the darkening and aging that comes with direct sun exposure. Many use umbrellas on sunny days and bicyclists going to and from work or the store often wear dark face shields that give the appearance they might stop and do some welding along the way. (There are no tanning salons here. They would be as financially foolish as opening a store that sold licensed DVD’s.)

Air conditioning exists, of course, although many Chinese shun it for perceived health reasons. And most hotels turn it off at night to save money. (By far the biggest complaint I get from visiting Western colleagues.)

Hand fans are common but I would like to see a scientific study to determine if the cooling provided by the small amount of wind generated dissipates more heat than it creates through the exertion of fanning. Something tells me it’s a net loss but I seem to be the only one with the question so it goes, to my knowledge, unanswered.

A covert view of the common Beijing Belly.  Science or decorum?
A covert view of the common Beijing Belly. Science or decorum?

There is one unique aspect of the Beijing summer known among foreigners as the “Beijing Belly.” During the heat of the day men often pull their shirts up over their stomachs in the same way men elsewhere might take their shirts off. I’ve never quite figured out if this is a compromise to cultural norms of decorum or just a belief that heat escapes more efficiently through your belly than elsewhere. (Hat makers, I’m sure, would argue that most body heat escapes through your scalp in the wintertime.)

The Chinese do appear to enjoy fishing, although like most activities in China, it is generally not a hobby that brings much solitude.

Even if you venture into the  'wild' privacy is hard to come by in China.
Even if you venture into the ‘wild’ privacy is hard to come by in China.

There are many large and beautiful public parks in Beijing and the Chinese take full advantage of them for summer outings. But since they don’t like the sun and privacy is essentially non-existent the practical impact is that the parks turn into congested tent farms on a pleasant weekend afternoon. People enjoy a nice lunch, perhaps a nap, and just generally spending time with family and friends.

Sports are becoming more popular as people acquire the time and means to pursue them. Basketball is verging on a passion. Yao Ming, of course, has had a hand in that but the American NBA has done a masterful job of marketing itself here. If you’re wondering what the superstars like LeBron James do with their time in the off-season months, chances are they will make at least one visit to China to promote the sport. LeBron, himself, was here just after announcing his return to Cleveland and received a hero’s welcome.

Bicycling, as seems only logical, is becoming increasingly popular as a recreational pastime. Although air quality can be a legitimate deterrent to knocking off 100 km on a Saturday morning, most urban roads have segregated bicycle lanes much like you might now find in the Hamptons or Venice Beach. They’re used primarily by the millions of Chinese who still rely on a bicycle to get around (and more than a few unscrupulous drivers trying to jump the line at the traffic signal) but they’re there nonetheless and make cycling far more convenient than on the vehicle-dominated streets of most American cities.

I have grown greatly appreciative of the people who taught me to swim at a young age.  It was an assumption then but is more of a perceived privilege now.
I have grown greatly appreciative of the people who taught me to swim at a young age. It was an assumption then but is more of a perceived privilege now.

The Chinese who can afford it or have the good luck to have been born close to the ocean love to go to the beach as much as people elsewhere do (Without the typical sunbathing, of course.), but relatively few Chinese, in my experience, actually know how to swim.

I find that a bit sad, to be honest, given that 75% of the globe is covered in water and taking a dip on a hot summer day is indeed one of life’s simple but great pleasures. It has, at the same time, given me immense pride and satisfaction to realize that the vast majority of citizens of my home country have been taught to swim as children. Kudos to all of those who helped to bring that reality to be.

And what about the practical effects of having so many people in such confined spaces in such hot and humid weather? Odoriferous, right?

This is a topic of great debate within the ex-patriate community. Many Chinese will claim, to the indignant incredulity of many foreigners, that they do not sweat as much as foreigners do. And whether effect or excuse, most Chinese don’t bathe with the same frequency that Americans do. Nor do they use deodorant or anti-perspirant out of both a sense of frugality and the belief, I suspect, that it is unhealthy to restrain normal bodily functions. (That’s also why spitting is considered good health rather than bad manners.)

cards summer palaceI can tell you with certainty that the Chinese do sweat. Glass factories are hot places in the summer time so I say this with a certain degree of expertise. I also believe, however, that they do, for whatever reason, sweat notably less than Americans in general. A sheen to the skin, perhaps, but seldom do you see the sweat-soaked shirt you would normally find in similar conditions elsewhere.

And when they sweat they do, of course, emit body odor. I must admit, however, that even in the absence of deodorant the odor is not as offensively pungent as it is elsewhere. It’s more of an organic smell than repulsively rancid-smelling.

I’ve given this a fair amount of thought, actually, and concluded that it all comes down to a few key differences.

A typical Chinese 'wet market' where the Chinese, and many foreigners, shop for daily staples.  No chemicals in sight.
A typical Chinese ‘wet market’ where the Chinese, and many foreigners, shop for daily staples. No chemicals in sight.

The first is diet. Despite all of the marketing hype surrounding organic foods and the whole farm-to-table movement in the U.S., the reality is that Americans eat a lot of processed foods. Foods may taste better and remain consumable longer but we are quite literally filling our bodies with chemicals that interact in ways I’m convinced we don’t fully understand.

The second is hydration. This is an increasingly popular topic the world over but the Chinese have been obsessed with it for generations, to the point where they drink only warm water to promote absorption. And in combination with their diet this has the practical effect of limiting the time anything stays in their bodies to hours rather than days.

And while I have not one shred of scientific evidence to support my theory (my full and complete legal disclaimer), I believe that deodorants and anti-perspirants actually stimulate body odor when used over a long period of time. I don’t know why. I don’t know how. I’m not even scientifically sure it is true. Through experience and experiment, however, I have become convinced that the process of chemically controlling and/or masking our sweat glands actually makes them more rebellious.

Experiment for yourself; although I strongly suggest you change your diet and your hydration habits first.

All told summer is not my favorite season in China. It’s just a bit too hot and sticky for my tastes. Or, as I sometimes say when the air quality is poor, too hot, sticky, and icky.

But it is a season and I prefer to live in places that have them. If nothing else it gives you something to talk about. Or try to, anyway, if you don’t speak the language.

Children and a sprinkler or broken water pipe.  It's a universal language in the heat of the summer.
Children and a sprinkler or broken water pipe. It’s a universal language in the heat of the summer.

Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.