Winter has arrived in China. There are very few heated indoor spaces here: most houses south of the Yangtze river have no indoor heating (so we’re told), so people have to wear a lot of clothing to stay warm. For a huge swath of the population, the cold doesn’t end until winter ends. For wimpy weekend tourists like ourselves, this means that long waits at the train station feel longer when you’re huffing and puffing to stay warm; and that hotels, restaurants, museums, and shops are all the same temperature as the outdoors. This is not shocking or awful in any way, but it’s a change from wonderfully well-heated America, where every trip inside on a chilly day is a break from the cold. For millions of Chinese people, there are few breaks.
Winter also means that women of a certain age have begun to scold me, repeatedly and persistently, for not dressing Owen warmly enough. Chinese babies, according to Ayi, don’t learn to walk in the winter. Why? Because they’re wearing too many clothes. Fact. The babies around here are so bundled in fleece, down and sheep’s wool that it’s a lucky day to catch a glimpse of anything other than an errant butt cheek (yes, they still wear split pants in the winter—when you’ve gotta go on the sidewalk, you’ve gotta go on the sidewalk). I regularly see babies nestled in giant sleeping bags with little ties around their ankles and wrists to keep the heat in. Their cheeks are pink, but it’s impossible for me to judge if they are overheating. (Babies just don’t tell you these things. It’s so frustrating.)
Every day, I try to take Owen out for a little jaunt in the “fresh” air. (Sidenote: today we were looking at pictures of our previous home, Monterey, and exclaimed to each other in unison, “Oh, my god, the sky. It’s blue.”) Since it’s usually in the upper 40’s to mid-50’s here, I dress the baby in two long-sleeve shirts, a jacket, warm pants, socks, shoes and sometimes a hat. I cannot get out the door of our building without at least one person and sometimes four telling me, “He’s underdressed. He should be wearing more clothes.” I give my best smile and say, “It’s okay; the weather is not too cold,” or the not-so-popular, “He’s used to the cold,” and I head outside. Outside, more often than not, I am immediately greeted within 5 minutes by a woman (it is nearly always a woman) sticking her hand down Owen’s shirt to count the number of layers he’s got on and simultaneously asking him/me: “Leng bu leng?” (which directly translates to: “cold or not cold?”). Invariably, the answer is “leng,” because his clothing is “tai shao” (“not enough/too few”), and she scolds me. I don’t like being told by strangers that my baby is not dressed properly (the implication being that I am an negligent mother and responsible for his runny nose, which they also take care to point out: “Biti lai le!” [“Snot’s comin’!”]), so I have employed a number of different tactics in recent days, my goal being to do an errand without being tsk-tsk’ed.
First, I tried putting Owen in a fleece body suit with reindeer antlers on top, plus fleece mittens. The response: “How cute! Leng bu leng?” Then I tried adding a hat underneath the fleece bodysuit hood. The response: “Small foreigner! So handsome! Leng bu leng?” Today, I put him in a two long-sleeved shirts, a wool sweater and two pairs of pants, then stuffed the whole of him like a kielbasa into a PolarFleece™ body suit with stegosaurus horns on the hood. The response (from the lady who sells us fruit, a friend indeed): “Oh, my goodness, look at that! Adorable! Leng bu leng?” “Bu leng!” I all-but-shouted. Smiling, she started in on me: “You are also dressed in too few clothes. You should put on a warmer jacket.” She fingered her own, goose-down, ankle-length coat. I had no defenses left. I paid for 10 oranges, she gave me 14 (for being a loyal customer? Or to keep my stupid foreigner ass warm at night?), and we went home, both of us sweating under our fleece in the 55-degree air.
At home, I took off the ridiculous dinosaur suit (Owen’s; unfortunately, they don’t make them in my size), and Ayi greeted me:
Ayi: “Mom and Owen are home!”
Me: “Hi. I bought some fruit.”
Ayi: “Oranges. He has a cold again. That’s because he’s not wearing enough clothes.”
Me: “He has on 2 pairs of pants and a hat!”
Ayi: “Yes. The pants are good, but he’s not wearing enough shirts.”
Me: “He has two shirts on, too!”
Ayi: “It’s not enough. He needs a sweatshirt.”
The worst part is, the biggest offender in all of this is suddenly Nick, who come December turned into Chinese Mom-Dad. He makes sure the heat is always on high in Owen’s room, and nags me to put a hat on the kid when he’s playing in the living room in the morning. When we go hiking, oh, watch out: Chinese Mom-Dad Nick will feel Owen’s cheeks and hands every 5 minutes and turn to me with a look of worry: “Do you think he’s cold?” In other words: Leng bu leng?