This winter season has instigated a distinct cultural clash between our little family and the citizens of Chengdu. According to large swaths of the general public over the age of 40 – and frankly, most people of any age at all – we have no clue how to dress a baby for winter. The city’s roving peanut gallery, upon seeing our son in his winter coat, hat and mittens, tends to respond with audible gasps, collective tsk-tsking, and impassioned rebukes.
Concerned members of the public also like to feel our son’s pants to confirm their worst fears. It’s then that the real cry of alarm goes up: 一条裤子?? 一条裤子! ! ! One pair of pants?? ONE PAIR OF PANTS! It’s a trial and conviction in rapid-fire Chinese. Plus, the sheer insanity of discovering a baby who’s wearing only one pair of pants usually attracts a crowd of rubberneckers who can’t miss seeing the aberration for themselves.
It happened in the grocery store a couple of weekends ago when a grandmotherly older woman conducted a quick survey of the baby’s pants and announced that we needed to dress him in more clothes because he was not warm enough. I politely told her we felt he was wearing enough clothes and she shouldn’t be concerned. Then I mentioned that we have heat in our home and leave our windows closed so he is really quite fine.
This is an important clarification. In Chengdu, in a recklessly optimistic embrace of the concept of “fresh air” people keep their windows open throughout the winter. This is true for homes, offices, schools… It is such a common practice that most of Chengdu’s citizens spend the day in one consistent temperature and that is whatever temperature it is outside. This helps explain why no one ever takes their coats off (even in meetings) and why children waddle around in several layers of thick quilts shaped like clothes.
This is also why people panic when they see our son without the standard five inches of winter padding. For example, we went to our Chinese teacher’s home for dinner and her in-laws were extremely concerned about letting him crawl around on the cold granite floor. But as he got more and more agitated and more interested in crawling around on the floor we had two options: 1.) put him on the cold floor, or 2.) close the windows and put him on the cold floor. We went with the former and left it to our hosts to decide if further action was needed. The windows remained open.
The good news is that Chengdu has fairly mild winters with temperatures in the high forties most of the time. It’s warm enough that palm trees make it through the season and there are flowers in bloom. For people from Chicago, it’s downright balmy and even a little confusing.
For example, there’s a tree here that I’d never seen before and it seems to flower only at this time of year. The blooms are small and yellow and dot barren branches with no leaves. These trees look lonely and still but they announce their presence with an intense fragrance that finds you even before you find the tree. It is clear and wonderful and sweet and hovers in the air like a cloud.
I didn’t know the name of this tree even though it’s all over our neighborhood so I asked a lady we know. She said it was a la mei tree. Well, actually she said it was a “na mei” tree because she’s from Sichuan and people here tend to use n’s for l’s and vice versa which is even more fun when you’re trying to learn the word for cheese which is pronounced nai lao by everyone except for the millions of people we happen to live with here in Sichuan, but I digress.
We looked up the name and it seems to be Japanese allspice, also known as wintersweet which is as close to a perfect tree name as you’re going to get. And easy to remember. You learn something new every day.
And don't underestimate the educational opportunities available to you at your local hair salon. I learned a ton while getting my hair cut over the weekend. The first thing I learned was that the salon doesn’t take appointments during the Lunar New Year season because this is the busiest time of year and there are too many customers. [Based on the drastically unsuccessful discussions I’ve had here in the past on such topics as improving efficiency and my-fond-memories-of-the-customer-service-experience-in-the-United-States, I opted not to comment on their decision.]
When I finally managed to get a haircut I asked my hairdresser why so many people get their hair cut for the holiday and he told me that not so long ago China was a very different place. He said that New Years was extremely special because you would eat meat and buy new clothes – two things that didn’t happen often otherwise. He said he clearly remembers being excited for New Year as a kid because you got to go shopping and you would get a hair cut to make a good start of the year ahead.
He said things are different in China now; people eat meat all the time, go shopping, and regularly get their hair cut at salons. But as recently as fifteen years ago, he said, it was completely different.
On a lighter note he also told me that it was ok for me not to dye my hair here because he’s sure that Chinese people won’t notice the white hair on my head. He very earnestly explained that Chinese people think all of my hair looks the same. But, he went on to clarify that if I go back to America I might need to consider it.
For us Chengdu is like a giant hazy classroom. There are the older ladies who want to teach you how to dress your child; the locals who teach you the names of good-smelling trees; and the hairstylist who teaches you modern Chinese history and cross-cultural views on grey hair in a single sitting. Who knows what we’ll learn next.
Year of the Horse here we come!