Winter in China, 1990

The Los Angeles temperature hit 32 last night, and although, for many of you, that’s hardly chilly, for us spoiled Californians, it is cold—partially because we don’t own coats. But it also reminded me of my first trip to China and this letter I sent home.

January 13, 1990. We were warned that it would be cold in China—especially inside—but little did we know what that meant. Not even a year in Scotland in a drafty flat with no central heating prepared me for this. But tonight I was better prepared for the dinner we went to. I have just peeled off the layers that kept bone-chilling cold from making me shiver uncontrollably. On the bottom—two pairs of English ribbed panty-hose, one pair silk long underwear, high ski socks, lined wool slacks. On top—tank top (=undershirt), long-sleeved silk underwear, cashmere sweater, turtle neck sweater, high-necked lambs wool sweater. With these on plus a small coal stove (a great luxury and quite unusual) I was able to eat dinner minus my down jacket. Even so I am still aching from the cold. (At most banquets all assembled guests eat with their heavy jackets—often down—buttoned up to the neck, and in school classrooms the children wear heavy cotton padded clothes and outdoor jackets.)

Preschoolers, Winter 1990

Our rooms—in the Foreign Experts Building of Nanjing University—are heated twice a day for about ½ hour at 6:30 a.m. and an hour in the evening. (At 8 a.m., though, the maids come in and open the door and windows wide to ‘air it out.’) The rest of the time we work in the room in sweaters, scarves and jackets. Average indoor temperature in our rooms, people’s home, and schools seems to be about 40 degrees. COLD!!!

But, ahhhh—the hot water—in the tub, in gallon thermos flasks, in schools. Boiling hot water to pour into cups to warm the hands, to make tea, to warm the insides. Every morning the gentleman in the room near the front entrance to our building boils water in two large blackened teapots on gas-fired hot plates—filling 30 or so red-plastic flasks and depositing them at our doors. At every school the first thing offered to us is hot tea—steaming and constantly replenished. It keeps us, and China, going.