Winter is coming. We tell people in America it gets cold here in the winter, and they are sympathetic. They know cold. Cold is not great.
“How cold does it get?” they ask.
We cringe when we tell them it gets down to 50°C (around 10°C) because we know they will laugh.
“That’s nothing!” they say.
Yes, but: the houses here are built to be cool in the sickeningly hot and humid summers. So they are built of concrete, often with tile floors and even tile walls. The windows are often big to allow for creating cross breezes, and the ceilings are high. The kitchens are tiny in the newer houses, because nobody wants to be stuck inside cooking in a hot kitchen when you can get dinner outside for cheap.
There are often air conditioners in the apartments, but never heaters. The weather starts to get unpredictable, from day to day, then hour to hour, then one day it starts raining and doesn’t stop raining for two weeks and your clothes and the linens and the bathroom start to smell of damp.
The cold seeps into the wet concrete walls and settles on the ceramic tiles. You want to cuddle up for warmth, but keep your icy feet to yourself if you aren’t wearing socks. You can see your moist breath in the living room. You hang your clothes, but they take three days to dry. By then they are stiff and they smell weird. Room temperature water is cold, and even if drinking cold water weren’t culturally proscribed, it’s hard to do on a cold day. Stick to tea or coffee.
There’s no hot water in the taps to wash your hands. You do it anyway, bracing yourself, cursing if a drop gets on your sleeve. The students’ sleeves are wet and dirty all day. Your contact-lens solution is cold. The toilet seat is very, very cold. The shower is hot and you never want it to end because when you step out it will be cold.
It also starts getting dark earlier and earlier, so that the sun is rising with you in the morning and sets by dinner time. If you’re working 9-5, you might miss it.
You know how in the U.S., if you’re lucky enough to have a car, and lucky enough to have a car-starter, you can stand in your living room, drinking your first cup of coffee, and turn the car on by pressing a button, so that even if you have to move some snow to get to work, it will be melted by the time you get outside?
Yeah, well, in Taiwan you drive a scooter, rain or shine. You don’t want to get wet at all, because any part of you that gets wet on the way to work is going to be wet all day, and cold. You put on rain boots, rain pants and a giant poncho over your winter coat. You don’t want to wear the kind of gloves that will get wet, so you wear big waterproof winter gloves (they are never really waterproof though); or you put industrial rubber gloves over your nice woolly ones. Then you do up your poncho over your scarf, and then put on your helmet, visor down. That’s how you drive to work. In the summer, you would have stopped on the way for a coffee or a sandwich, but in the winter you’ll have to take off half your gear just to go in the store. Then it’ll get wet and so will you, so no coffee today, no sandwich. Just drive in the cold rain, your nose running and your hands too encumbered to wipe it.
You take off your rain gear when you get to school. But not your coat, your gloves, or your warm rubber boots because even if you have a space heater at home, there’s no heater in the schools, and you and the kids are all bundled up for the whole class. (Some of the babies will come to class in so many layers of shirts that they get damp with sweat in the cold and can’t move their arms very well, so out of compassion you and your co-teacher remove three or four undershirts and only put them back on again right before Gramma comes back to pick them up.) It’s too cold these days for the kids to go outside, so we all stay inside, locked up germ-incubators, always sputtering and coughing, red-eyed and hoarse, until spring.
“You think that’s cold? Back in Russia…”
Okay, yes. But it still stands that 50°F is a lot colder here than a crisp autumn day is back in Pennsylvania…