Winter Layer Cake
I had never experienced cold the way I have since coming to China.
(And that sentence was written by a Canadian.)
I have lived through winters where the lows have dropped to more than fifty degrees (Celsius) below zero. I was even once in Whitehorse in February! Many times growing up, I remember my eyelashes freezing together while playing outside and then followed by the breathtaking, subtle beauty of their melting on my cheeks when I came back indoors.
Like tears you didn’t cry. Like rain on a sunny day.
Those frozen eyelashes, eyebrows, nasal hairs—they’re one of my favourite things about the cold of a true Canadian winter. I love the crunch of them when you wiggle your face, and then the feeling of my crisp, flushed cheeks taut with cold covered over by scarves that also crunch up with crystallized condensation from my breath caught in the woolen fibers.
But then you get to come inside. Where it’s cozy. Where there’s hot chocolate and a crackling fire.
You see, I love the cold of winter, but I also love being warm. I want the beauty of snow and ice and snowflakes and icicles alongside of warm toes, sweaters, steaming mugs and freshly baked sweetness. Yes, to chew on my cake. Unapologetically.
Canadian houses are well insulated. Our walls are usually made of bricks and the windows are double-paned. We often have fireplaces but most certainly have central heating. There are lots of warm carpets.
Chinese houses are not well insulated. They’re made with thin walls and one pane of glass on the windows. Don’t forget that less than a century ago, those same windows were covered in just paper! What’s more, the windows are drafty and rattle with the wind. Floors are often cold tiles or laminate. There are rarely fireplaces in homes and heating is moderate at best.
China is still a communist country and things like heat—natural resources—are state-controlled. As a result, the heat doesn’t get turned on until November 15th, collectively, making the last thirty days from October 15th-November 15th into what feels like the coldest days of the year.
We are right in the heart of that period right now. Brrrrrrr.
Then, even when the heat is finally turned on, it seems like it’s never enough. Space heaters need to be purchased and electricity wasted if you really want to experience anything I liken to the coziness of winter. And that’s while wearing puffy slippers and many layers indoors! Beijing’s temperatures never get as low as Toronto’s or Montreal’s, but I shiver much more here than I do in my home country in the wintertime. The cold never seems to wait outdoors for when we want to play in it like it did when we were kids back home; it’s pervasive and pushy here.
It barges in.
As a result, I would vote for northern China as one of the best places in the world to buy thermal clothing. There is a long history of quilted or cotton-padded jackets and pants, undergarments with fake fur lining, and a cultural practice of wearing “qiuku 秋裤” or “maoku毛裤” from September to May. These are basically longjohns (longsallies!) or long underwear. They are usually sold in sets with matching tops and bottoms and all winter long Chinese people generally just take off their outer wear and sleep in their long underwear to avoid losing heat at night.
All that to say that my partner Guo Jian and his parents were appalled to discover that not only did I not own a decent pair of “qiuku秋裤” or “maoku毛裤” (the former are cotton and the latter are wool), I had no habit of wearing them. They looked at me like I was a stupid child who didn’t understand the science of keeping one’s body warm to avoid illness. I remember those early days when I had no real comeback and just stared back blankly, thinking, “What’s my crime, exactly? Aren’t I the one from the colder climate?”
The first winter we spent together, Guo Jian started a curious habit of pinching my pants before I went out and wrinkling up his face disapprovingly. I thought it might be a commentary on my style choice, at first, and then I was just bewildered.
Finally I figured it out.
He’d reach for the fabric on the thigh of my jeans with his thumb and forefinger and, if when pinching the fabric together, he felt two layers, he’d nod his head approvingly and allow me to leave. If I was only wearing one layer, as was much more common, he’d sputter and start, and then run as fast as could upstairs to get a pair of his long underwear (that were invariably too long and would bunch up at my waist) and he’d insist I put them on before leaving the house, actually physically barring the door a few times until I complied. Eventually, ones in my size were purchased for me—several sets in fact. There was no optional protest.
I rather liked the hyper concern for my well being but I couldn’t really get used to the feeling of having an extra layer under my jeans. It felt puffy and bulky like I had inadvertently put on ten pounds and now my clothes were too tight. I felt like I’d eaten too much cake. I felt like a layer cake.
I admit, though, that I was warmer.
His parents were similar in that they clicked their tongues with disgust to see my inadequate selection of winter wear and would often drape fabric or blankets or even full winter jackets over my shoulders when we were indoors. It was all so kindhearted that I couldn’t fault them for it, but I found myself confused as to whether I was just undereducated in the way of dressing warmly or if they were just hyper vigilant (read: extreme) about layering. I’ve since realized that both are true.
When my mother-in-law marched me off to the local mall in their hometown to buy me a down-filled jacket, I was stuck. In fact, I was already in the mall before I realized what I had been taken there for. She wouldn’t take no for an answer. Chinese fashion is, well, to be diplomatic, let’s use the word unique. Ach-hem. In my Western eyes, the jackets were all way too… unique… and I was only able to find a basic black one without embedded jewels or ridiculous decals after some serious searching. Still, it was hooded and fitted at my waist like a little girl’s jacket and definitely not my style, but they simply would not allow me to leave the mall without purchasing it for me.
Then again, I had to admit that I was warmer the next time I got on my bike in the late autumn winds.
(I wrote about this experience a long time ago in one of my more poetic “Final Thought” blogs from my newsletter. It’s posted here.)
And now I’m fully Chinese. On this front, at least, I’ve been converted. I can’t imagine a fall and winter season without the layers. I’d feel a bit naked without them as soon as the leaves start to turn. Like a cake with no icing. What a shivering thought!
I have also purchased several pairs of the Chinese-style “longsallies” for my friends back home and find myself questioning if my friends are dressed warmly enough when they leave the house, clicking my tongue at the thinness of their outerwear and wanting to rush them with quilted alternatives.
After five years, this is only one of the ways that I have become more Chinese. After another ten years, what will I be like? Will I be able to reintegrate into Canadian society? Ha!
I just hope that this winter when I’m back on Canadian soil for the holidays (for the first time since 2007!), that I get some of those magical frozen eyelashes to dampen my melting cheeks. Just the thought makes me smile.
But this time, I’ll have my layers… while I’m simultaneously eating my Christmas cake.