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Dress Codes

Frankly, I was so wrapped up in clothing that I couldn't bend over to retrieve dropped chalk and I appointed a monitor in the classroom to do so for me

By Suzanne Robare Updated May.1

I’m not really talking about all Chinese people here, I’m talking about the elderly Chinese people in my family and much of their cohort. Here’s their deal: no matter what the weather is, it will kill you. You, a foreigner, don’t wear enough clothes. You have the wrong sort of umbrella. And those waterproof hiking boots you bought for scaling up a damp and scenic path are going to make you sick! You’re not pregnant, are you? Ai-ya, your feet got wet: now your baby won’t have eyes!  

No matter how nice it is outside, your elderly Chinese friends and family will find some reason to behave as if it’s lethal. If it is truly awful, they will assure you that it’s fine and that you are just a big spoiled Western baby. True example: Many years ago, before Spring Festival, it became bitterly cold in Beijing, with a wind like a knife slicing through my layers of wool and down and leather. One of my students got frostbite running outside to check on her locked bike. The high temperature for most days was a bracing -15 C and that’s not including the wind chill factor. The ancient radiators barely breathed a sparrow’s worth of warm air into the frigid concrete rooms we live and teach in. My thermometer registered 3 C as the high at both home and school. I was cold. I mentioned this to the boss of the Foreign Affairs Department, who just happened to be a friend of my mother-in-law.  

“Nonsense,” she replied, “I have to open up the windows in my house because it’s too hot. You aren’t wearing enough clothes.” Note: she didn’t live in the awful building the teachers lived in, she had the deluxe accommodation reserved for upper management. I then demonstrated to her how many layers I was wearing: One set of merino wool long johns and matching long-sleeved shirt, a layer of cotton tights, a layer of Insulate long johns on top of that, a pair of wool pants, a long-sleeved silk turtleneck, and a heavy cashmere sweater. I had on insulated work boots in black suede as well as an extra pair of cashmere socks. Frankly, I was so wrapped up in clothing that I couldn’t bend over to retrieve dropped chalk and I appointed a monitor in the classroom to do so for me. As I stripped down and showed off each layer, I was greeted with gales of laughter by The Boss.  

“Oh, you are so foolish,” she chuckled. “Your clothes are so big! Maybe you could take a walk at lunch today instead of eating, get some exercise and fresh air.”  

The thought of stumping down the street and around the track in the Arctic wonderland of Beijing did not strike me as a particularly attractive alternate to gulping down lunch at my desk while correcting student work. Several weeks later, the weather warmed up considerably, and we had a mild snowfall. It was 12 degrees higher than the previous weeks and I encouraged my students to go outside and enjoy the sights. The Boss shrieked in horror. “Don’t tell the students to go outside! It is too cold! It is snowing! Ai-ya, that stuff can get on you and kill you!”  

My mother-in-law believes wind gives you arthritis, rain causes diarrhea and sunshine makes your skin dark and wrinkly. Since I have had arthritis, I can attest that my left shoulder hurts like a mother before big wind storms and rain makes my legs ache badly. Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) believes the body struggles to maintain a balance among the five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal and water – and eight guiding principles which include cold and heat. A condition such as arthritis is caused by too much wind, too much cold and too much dampness. Considering my hot and lethal temper, my bout with arthritis came as a shock to anyone who knows me. The basic tenets of TCM have, I think, seeped into people’s consciousness to the point where the real weather is seen as the culprit, rather than the internal elements. Thus if you stomped in a rain puddle at the age of 4 and your mother didn’t stop you, she is branded as a bad mommy. In other words, she’s as negligent a mother as the woman I’d see at the local convenience store back in Oregon who bought her kids cough drops for breakfast every morning so they’d shut up and behave at school.