Monday, 5 January 2009

When You're Hot, You're Hot

I grew up in the Inland Empire of Southern California where it only gets cold in the mountains. Friends and family might dispute that, but these are people who need coats when the slightest wind picks up, who start eying the thermostat longingly when there is the tiniest bit of chill in the air. Inland Empire residents could tell you all sorts of things about hot, but don't let them try to tell you about cold -- they will lie and not even know they're doing it.

They say it's cold here. I don't say it's cold here, oh no. It is only cold for the short time I spend in my home; the rest of the time I might as well be back in California. Because almost all of my students are just like those Inland Empire wimps from my past. When I arrive in the classroom first thing in the morning, the classroom temperature is a little chilly, but tolerable. When my students arrive, one of them invariably nudges one of the taller kids, who then stands on his or her tippy-toes and switches on the thermostat. Within a few minutes, we all might as well be in a Turkish bath.

"Will someone please switch that off?" I plead and this is met with a chorus of aggrieved wails -- "Noooo tee-cha -- very cold!"

Minutes pass. I grow more and more miserable. I peel off my jacket, then my sweater. I roll up my sleeves, fan myself, fish around in my bag for an elastic band and put my hair up. I crack open a window and lean out; I grab someone's water bottle off a desk and splash a little on my neck. But God forbid I should suggest that the thermostat be turned down!

I'm a cheapskate and a firm believer in saving energy, but most of all, I warm up quickly when I'm teaching. My students, on the other hand, cannot get warm no matter how hot it gets. The windows steam; sweat beads up on my lip; my face turns a nice shade of rose, but they sit huddled in their sweaters and coats, shivering. I can forgive the handful of kids from Dubai and Nigeria, but not the Turks or the Russians. I've heard that it is snowing in Istanbul right now and it is definitely snowing in Moscow, but here in our little southern outpost it last snowed decades ago, a mere frosting, by all accounts, that barely made it to the ground. "You can't possibly be that cold!" I rave, fanning myself. I see the looks on their faces: You can't possibly be that warm!

Last week one boy narrowed his eyes at me. "Tee-cha, where you from?"

"California."

He frowned, and the others gave me suspicious looks. "California hot, right? Surfer place. Swim sea."

"It's hot all right, but I still want that thermostat turned down." What else can I say? I may be from California, but when you're hot, you're hot.

Personally, I think they're spoiled when it comes to room temperature: in September and October, they were quick to turn on the air conditioner. I wonder how they'd cope without central heating and air conditioning, and I find myself wondering what their parents' electric bills must be like.

And I remember Hokkaido.

Hokkaido is the northern-most island of Japan, and take it from me, in the winter it is cold there. There are places in Hokkaido where the snow is two meters deep and the icicles hanging from the eaves are easily that long and as thick as a man's thigh. Now, winters are cold all over Japan with the possible exception of Okinawa, but only in northern Honshu, Japan's main island, and Hokkaido do houses tend to be centrally heated and insulated. A friend from Tokyo once assured me that she could bear the winter cold outside in Hokkaido, but not the winter heat inside. I thought she was exaggerating until I went there one winter myself.

I've gone through some hot summers in Japan. I lived in Kyushu, Japan's southern most island, where the temperatures can reach 40 and feel a lot hotter what with the high humidity; I spent almost ten years in a house without air conditioning when the only way to get cool was to hop in my kids' wading pool in the garden and eat popsicles all day long. But never have I suffered from the heat as badly as I did that winter I visited Hokkaido.

Boarding a train in Sapporo one snowy afternoon, I was grateful for the blast of heat that met me as I settled into my seat. I took off my scarf, then my coat, noticing that all the other passengers still had theirs on. Five minutes later, I took off my turtleneck sweater; the heat was not nearly so welcome as it was when I first got on the train. Ten minutes later, I pinned my long hair up and peeled off my cotton turtleneck shirt. People around me began nudging each other and craning their necks to look at the crazy foreigner stripped down to her undershirt. Everyone else was still bundled up in winter coats and scarves, though a few brave souls had removed their mittens.

Ten minutes later, I was panting and close to collapsing. I'd managed to take off my hiking boots and pull off my leg warmers and socks, and the seat next to me was piled high with my discarded clothing. What could I do? I had another thirty minutes left to travel. Should I go into the tiny toilet and strip down to my long-johns? Or should I sit there until I keeled dead over in a faint? Finally there was nothing for it: dressed in my sleeveless undershirt and jeans, I shoved my sockless feet back into my hiking boots and made my way to the end of the train. Pulling open the door, I stepped into the area between the train cars and stood in the refreshing cold, tasting snowflakes. It was heavenly.

Daijobu desu ka? asked the ticket collector, regarding me warily. I told him that I was okay, but I found the heat inside a little oppressive.

"But it's cold out here!"

"I'll go back inside when I've cooled off."

He shook his head. "You must be from one of those northern countries. What are you, Russian?"

"No."

"German?"

I figured honesty was the best policy. "American."

"Ah. Up north?"

"Well... no."

"Which state?"

I bit my lip. "California."

"Ah."

I saw suspicion in his eyes, but what else could I say? When you're hot, you're hot.

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17 comments:

Carolie said...

You make me laugh, Mary! I know too well the too-warm trains...and I have not yet been to Hokkaido!

I get weird looks when I walk down the shopping arcade (all the Americans on base call it "the Ginza" but the locals laugh at them behind their backs for doing so) in jeans and a cotton shirt, and I'm still too warm. All around me are Japanese women bundled in overcoats, scarves, winter boots, gloves and hats, and they all look at me with astonishment...and (I pretend) a little envy. I finally had to retire my sandals for the winter, as too many accquaitances simply could not stop talking about my exposed toes and how COLD I must be!

As for your classroom, I would suggest you do as my mother does. (She and I are the warm-bloods in the family, everyone else is chronically freezing.) One evening, after a protracted battle with my brothers over the thermostat, the space heater and a window in the kitchen, she shouted in exasperation, "ENOUGH! You can all go put on more clothes. I can't take off any more, unless you boys want to be in therapy for the next five years!"

Wide-eyed, my brothers both scrambled for sweatpants and wool socks, terrified my mother would drop her skirt and peel off her t-shirt.

Then again, your students sound distruptive enough to shrug and suggest you go ahead and disrobe!

Eryl Shields said...

As I sit here, shivering, I can only envy you. I am never warm enough, ever!

Christy said...

I remember years ago when my husband and I were newly dating, he lived in a steam-heated apartment. The heat was either ON or off. So that whole winter, I'd peel off my coat, my scarf, my sweater, my shirt, my pants, socks, etc. and walk around inside the apartment in a tank top and shorts. I had almost forgotten that peculiar brand of misery.

Katie Alender said...

My Turkish sister-in-law is always freezing! They keep their thermostat set at about 78 F.

I like Carolie's suggestion, although that might not totally fly in Turkey, LOL.

Robin said...

I love this story! It's so funny! I hate the heat being too high in the winter, and I would be just like you, only sweatier and smellier. That sounds awful.

I grew up in Boston, and I'm convinced I just never developed heat tolerance at an appropriate age. My father kept the thermostat at 63F in the winter, and we all thought it was fine. If we got cold, we'd use that new fangled knitted thing they rave about. You know. Maybe those kids could learn about them. The sweater?

Charles Gramlich said...

The people who don't know about cold make me think of Louisianians I've known. If they're natives and haven't left here, they have almost no conception and they will put on sweaters and hats and gloves at the faintest hint of what I call cool.

Anne Spollen said...

We have a close family friend from Malaysia who gardens in May (in southern New Jersey) wearing a hat, a hooded sweatshirt under a jacket and two pairs of socks. We leave the down comforter out of the winter boxes specifically for him. He uses it even in July; he never seems too warm, and he dreads the a.c. even in the middle of August. He keeps begging us to move to the Florida Keys - the only place in the US where he has ever felt comfortable.

Kim Ayres said...

Like Eryl, I am rarely warm. Even with the central heating on I sit here in 2 fleeces. I do wonder whether your semi-desert weather feels worse as you might have acclimatised to Scotland over the past few years

Patois said...

And I am always, always, always cold. But I HATE too-hot stores and buses and homes and hotels. I'd rather freeze.

adrienne said...

I feel for your students who think they're cold...maybe you should have them do jumping jacks at the start of class :)

Mary Witzl said...

Carolie -- I should have known you would know how I feel! There is nothing as awful as being on a packed train, dressed in many layers of warm clothing. You don't even have enough space to peel off layers. I've seen people faint on the trains in the winter. I'm sure a lot of them collapse from heat exhaustion.

I do as your mother does all the time; not a day goes by that I don't yell at someone to go put on a coat. The problem is, going to get a coat takes a LOT of energy! Flicking on a switch is much less labor intensive.

As for stripping off in class, yes, they called my bluff when I threatened to do this. They say they're game if I am.

I get weird looks when I dress lightly too! In my case, I'm pretty sure they're not envious.

Eryl -- It's probably that I have more padding on me and that's what's keeping me warm. You don't need to envy me at all!

Christy -- We had a thermostat with two settings too: summer in Saudi Arabia or Arctic Circle Winter. Just getting it adjusted was a major headache. I thought I was all over it until we got here...

Katie -- Maybe it's just something in the Turkish blood!

When we first got here, I assumed that people here would be very conservative in their dress. I imagined that the women in particular would be overly modest, but that is not the case. Some of my colleagues are very snazzy dressers; I feel a bit like a moth around butterflies.

Robin -- No way could my kids go and put on sweaters when it is so much easier just to go and press a button. They're all for saving energy when it is their own; the only time they can't be bothered to save energy is when it's the kind parents have to pay for.

Charles -- In that case, Louisianans are a lot like some of the Californians I grew up with. My father was always cold and would bundle up when it got just the tiniest bit chilly.

Anne -- Your poor friend, living in New Jersey! I knew a Malaysian student when I lived in Japan, and he made the adjustment just fine. But I knew another man from Zambia who actually cried in the winter, he was so miserable. It is odd who can cope and who cannot. Here, I couldn't help notice that all the West Africans had their coats out back in October when I was still wearing sandals and spaghetti straps.

Kim -- I think it was Japan that made me tough: most houses there are not centrally heated. When we lived in Tokyo, it was bitterly cold in the winter; you could always see your breath in the house. In the Northeast, the pipes regularly froze in the winter and there was always ice in the kitchen sink when I woke up. Very character building, but catch me going through that again...

Patois -- When I get too warm, I always think I'd rather be too cold. Then I get too cold and I wonder if being too warm isn't a little easier. It's tough figuring out which is the least of the two evils.

Adrienne -- Jumping jacks would be a good idea for a lot of reasons, come to think of it -- all that surplus energy the kids need to get rid of! The problem is, the seats and tables are bolted to the floors and it is hard to get the kids moving around. We did Simon Says once and they loved it, though, even with the bolted-down chairs. Maybe I'll try it again and see how they do.

Barbara Martin said...

Your story reminded me of a trip I took to California one February. I had left sub-zero temperatures of Alberta at -30F and, of course, in southern California where the winter temperatures is 63F. My friend and I are in t-shirts, jeans while others in bomber jackets and fur coats are giving us looks like we're crazy.

The only times I've been really cold were a winter spent in a rural area where the overnight temperature went down to -60F with the windchill with only a woodstove to keep the house warm; and winters I endured in London, England where to conserve energy the landlords only turned the heat on from 6am to 9am and 6pm to 9pm. It's a wonder some winter nights their water pipes didn't freeze.

Charlie said...

I grew up in northern NY state east of Buffalo and I lived in Denver for 25 years, so I was fairly cold-tolerant—until I moved to the Arizona desert.

Living in intense heat changes the body, I'm told. Now, when it's 70 or below, I'm freezing. And my feet will be frozen until spring arrives. [blush]

Kanani said...

I love warm weather. But I like it outside, not necessarily inside.

I don't run the heater much. Everyone knows to put on slippers and a sweater --winter (albeit a California one) is here!

I'm just grateful I've never had to dig out my car from the snow!

Mary Witzl said...

Barbara -- The kind of winter you describe makes my flesh recoil -- around that kind of cold, I fear I too would break and start whining for central heating. I don't even want to think about what my kids would do.

But in the U.K. I follow your landlord's practice myself. In fact, I'm even stingier with the hours. If there are more than three people in the house, that's different. For more than three people, I'll bend the rules -- as long as everyone agrees to put on a sweater.

Charlie -- Ooh, Buffalo! I've heard stories about Buffalo winters. My mother used to tell us about breaking up ice to get water for washing clothes and how cold her hands would get, but even she became cold intolerant in California.

My hands and feet are perpetually too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, so you have my full sympathies.

Kanani -- I am grateful I don't have to dig my car out too: just scraping the ice off the windshield was bad enough.

A friend once described a winter she spent in Alaska. Stories like hers make me wonder how the kids I teach would cope in REAL winter. Or how my own kids would cope, for that matter.

planetnomad said...

Sorry this comment is late...sometimes my connection is squirrelly. I'm sure you can relate.

This reminded me so much of my Mauritanian students, only it was the opposite there. I'd be dying of heat and would sneeze from chalk dust and they would turn off my fan and tell me it was making me sick!

Mary Witzl said...

Planet Nomad -- Our connection is nothing but squirrelly. We go for whole days without being able to use the internet; then it magically starts working again.

They turned off your fan? Nooo! My husband has a hard time with air-conditioning and fans too, but he knows better than to turn them off when I'm miserable. When it's summer here, I'm going to really be in trouble. Last year they say it was over 45 degrees inside.