This photo (see below) shows a typical sunny, 80º day at the beautiful tropical beach just minutes’ walk from our apartment in Xiamen. In the photo you will see a typical Chinese family of three, dressed as though it were Minnesota in January. I am baffled by this more than most things here. True, these were the most bundled up people I could spot, but they were not dressing strangely by local standards. Nearly everyone on this day wore a jacket, some wearing the heaviest jackets they owned. Most wore hats as well. I didn’t see anyone wearing even short sleeves. There were more people wearing snowboots as they strolled the sand than there were going barefoot. (A couple eccentric old men wearing Speedos were swimming a bit down the beach. Given that signs posted everywhere warn of undertows, they are probably considered by locals to be not right in the head.) Children are the most grievously overdressed. Some toddlers are bundled in three or four layers, including two windbreakers, rendering them unable to move their arms and looking like Michelin men or astronauts. On, I repeat, a sunny 80º day.
We have even had strangers stop us on the street and rub our kids’ bare arms in a scolding manner, implying that we’re underdressing them—this on, say, a 75º day.
Various explanations have been offered for what appears to be a radically different perception of temperature. Some point to the fact that the Chinese revere light skin and live in fear of getting tanned. True enough, and this explains parasols, which one sees here—and those floppy sun hats familiar to anyone in the world who has encountered Asian tourists—but it doesn’t explain upgrading from a simple light jacket to a parka!
Another explanation I’ve heard is that it gets so hot and humid here in the late summer months that March’s warm, gentle spring temperatures feel cold to locals. This may be part of it, but it doesn’t explain everything: I don’t think people in Phoenix or New Orleans start dressing in snow gear when temperatures dip down to 80º. In fact, those extremes are all the more reasons to enjoy being out in the elements when it’s mild.
For me, this remains a mystery. And I’m sure Chinese people who see us are equally baffled and wonder if there’s something about Caucasians that makes us impervious to the bitter cold of Xiamen in spring—and then wonder also if they can somehow rescue the poor little Asian girl that we’re dragging around in that underdressed state.