Keep Warm This Winter (the Chinese Way)

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Thursday, January 14, 2016 

under Health


Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. You know how December was so cold that we spent half the month huddled over our pitiful electric heaters like vagrants around a burning oil drum? [Editor: and the other half sweating in unseasonably warm weather…] Well, it’s about to get even colder.

 

January tends to be the chilliest month in Shanghai, with temperatures hovering at around 5 Celsius (41 Fahrenheit) most days. That might not sound so bad, but as you’ve probably realized by now, in South China what the mercury says bears almost no relation to how freezing it actually feels. Maybe it’s the humidity, the lack of central heating in most apartments and offices, or perhaps the steamy summer months soften us up, but five degrees in Shanghai tends to feel more like minus five anywhere else.

 

But the good news is that shanghairen are used to dealing with the bone-chilling weather, and have developed a ton of creative ways to stay toasty. If you’re shivering your way through the day, here are a few tricks I recommend trying:

 

1. Light a fire!


During the first winter I spent in China, my Chinese friends were constantly telling me off for drinking ‘cold drinks.’ Every time I developed even a hint of a sniffle, it would be taken as a sign that I’d been drinking ‘too many cold drinks’ and that I needed to shanghuo.

 

At first, I was completely bemused by these conversations. What did drinking water have to do with catching a cold, and what on earth was shanghuo? It was only later that I learned a bit more about traditional Chinese medicine and started to understand why my friends considered ‘cold drinks’ to be a problem.

 

This is a very simplistic explanation, and please do correct me in the comments below if I get anything wrong, but essentially shanghuo (上火)is based on the traditional Chinese belief that to stay healthy, we need to maintain a balanced flow of qi – or energy – through our body. Certain foods and drinks – such as fried or spicy food, soft drinks, and coffee – are packed with energy and heat us up, while others – including watermelon, tofu, and tea – serve to cool us down.

 

In general, and particularly in the summer, people tend to be more worried about having too much ‘heat’ in their bodies – shanghuo – which can lead to getting a sore throat, breaking out in pimples, or a loss of temper, among other symptoms. But when it gets cold, things flip on their head and gorging on 'hot' foods becomes positively healthy.

 

Now, I wouldn’t say that I’m a believer in shanghuo per se (and often even ardent followers of TCM can’t agree whether certain foods are ‘hot’ or ‘cold’), but the basic principles seem to be common sense and similar to the popular Western belief that you should ‘feed a cold’ – if you give your body plenty of high-energy fuel, it’ll have less trouble keeping itself warm.

 

And if nothing else, shanghuo is a great excuse for eating loads of delicious fried dishes, spicy hot pot, and red meat!

 

2. Give your feet some TLC


I only discovered this one a few weeks ago when I crashed at a friend’s place, but it’s been a total revelation.

 

It was getting late, so I told my friend that I was going to go to bed and get some sleep. But as I headed towards the guest room, he exclaimed: ‘Wait! You haven’t washed your feet yet!’ I thought maybe he was worried that my feet were dirty, but he explained that washing your feet in hot water helps stimulate your circulation and stops you getting cold during the night.

 

At first, I was skeptical about this, but since trying it I have become a complete convert. I’m not sure whether washing your feet in hot water really has a long-lasting effect on your body temperature, but it feels unbelievably relaxing and is definitely worth the few seconds it takes to fill up a bucket.

 

3. Rock the furry PJ’s


After the Pearl Tower and the xiaolongbao, one of the symbols of Shanghai has to be an old guy walking down the street in pajamas and black leather loafers, preferably with a dog (also wearing pajamas) tucked under one arm.

 

In my country, most older people tend to dress conservatively and would be scandalized to see someone wearing pajamas outside, so when I first moved to Shanghai I found it funny to see so many people rocking their PJs in the xiaoqu.

 

But my opinion completely changed when winter arrived and I discovered the furry pajama. These are pajamas with a kind of fleece lining inside – not exactly stylish, and I have never seen anything like them outside China before. But when curiosity finally overcame me and I tried a pair on, I understood why they’re popular here – they are unbelievably cozy, like wearing a suit made of sheepskin.

 

Trust me, if you want to stay warm, get yourself down to your local Walmart and pick up a pair of these beauties. And while you’re there, I highly recommend also buying a pair of sole liners (鞋垫) for the full furry comfort experience.

 

4. And if all else fails…


In the the UK, drinking to stay warm is a long tradition – we even have a term for it, the ‘beer jacket.’

 

A lot of Chinese people would probably find it baffling that British people would try to warm themselves up with a ‘cold drink’ like beer, but the ‘baijiu jacket’ is definitely alive and well in China.

 

It’s not exactly my favorite tipple, but like whisky or brandy, baijiu does have the advantage of both numbing your sense of pain and making you feel like someone just poured a quart of gas down your throat followed by a lit match.

 

If the spicy food, the footbath, and the furry PJs aren’t doing the job, crack open a bottle of your favorite paint stripper and feel the cold – and consciousness – float away.

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Is there anything I missed? If you have any advice for staying warm in the winter, share it in the comments below!


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