Finding winter sanctuary in pink pajamas

Feb 6

Tourists stroll on the snow-covered Broken Bridge in Hangzhou.
Hannah Lund

WHEN winter comes around in Hangzhou, I can always look forward to one thing: my orange-pink padded fleece pajamas. They come in two parts: a fluffy jacket designed like a letterman’s jacket, and thick sausage-like pants that restrict my movement and likely dating prospects every time I put them on. I resisted getting them for many years, but now that I have this full-body armor against Hangzhou’s winter chill, I’ll never go back.

It’s a strange thing to try and convince people back in my home-state of Minnesota (located in the north, with the same latitude as Harbin) that Hangzhou’s 10-degree-Celsius weather is really cold and worthy of such tacky pajamas. In Minnesota, there is almost a certain pride in dealing with the cold, and if you’re not able to handle it, shame.

If it’s above freezing, it’s not really winter. If it’s below freezing, well, what did you expect? It’s winter! When I recently went to Harbin this past week, I remembered this same northern pride as soon as I sucked in the icicle air, relishing the brisk bite of a “true” winter chill. Once I came back to Hangzhou, I said with satisfied bravado, “Oh, this isn’t cold. This is nothing.”

But of course, as anyone who lives in nanfang, or the south of China, like me knows, it really does get pretty cold, and no amount of overconfidence can make up for it. Southerners prepare for winter by a slow piling-on of layers: first the long underwear, then the down jacket, then the scarves, and then of course, the coveted padded pajamas. Without indoor heating, jackets become winter uniforms.

As such, I’ve more or less mastered the art of getting mileage out of my winter coat by adding a rotating collection of cute scarves, knowing that I will in all likelihood never need to take this outfit off for the better part of three months. As a friend of mine summed it up: “It’s not that you’re always cold here, but that you’re never truly warm.”

Winter changes

As I’ve come to learn, this southern chill comes from a 1950s heating policy that marked a geographical divide called the Qinhuai line separating China’s north and south. Those above the line get subsidized coal for heating from mid-November until March. Those below, no such luck. It was likely a cost-efficient way to control resource consumption while China was still trying to gain its footing. But now that China is more prosperous, I’m starting to wonder if the time has come for heat to make its way down south for the winter. Could this policy be updated without undermining efforts to fight pollution?

Changes have been happening when it comes to heating, though mostly in the north. In the fall, roughly 28 northern cities attempted to convert to natural gas, allegedly reducing coal usage. This plan has not been without some major problems (most notably in poorer areas that couldn’t convert in time), but the fact that any change is happening is enough for me to have hope.

Am I a naive optimist? Absolutely. As far as priorities go, adding heat to the south is not high on the list, and doing so could ultimately undermine efforts to reduce carbon emissions if not done well. But, any changes would be very welcome indeed.

I’ve only been in Hangzhou for five years, and so haven’t had to weather the winters for as along as many of my Chinese friends. But Hangzhou is below that cut-off line, and it still snows and can drop down to single digits. And while 10-degree weather may seem like a small thing when compared to the intense northern cold, it doesn’t seem so small when you can see your own breath in your apartment.

I’m lucky, of course, in that I have my coveted padded fleece pajamas and a trusty space-heater. But it still doesn’t erase the fact that Hangzhou, in particular, is a very humid place, and so the cold seeps into your very bones, no matter how many layers you wear. Your bed becomes both a sanctuary and a trap. Your fingers get so stiff, grabbing chopsticks can be hard. At the risk of sounding whiny, it’s harder than I, a proud northerner, had thought to deal with a Hangzhou winter.

With Hangzhou being so deeply committed to modernization and technology, and pioneering many cash-less initiatives and state-of-the-art facilities in new development zones, I can only hope that it can one day also be the home of new, sustainable heating facilities.

Until then, I’ll keep shuffling along in my padded pajamas, and saying “hello” with white puffs of air coming out of my mouth.

Who knows? My orange-pink winter uniform could one day become an archaeological relic of Hangzhou’s once-unbearably cold winter days.

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