Almost overnight, it became too cold to be a decent human being anymore. Right around December 1st, it started to get so frigid that life would only be tolerable under a highly specific set of conditions, most of which involved huddling, inactivity, and Coronation Silver Jubilee rum.
There is some righteous indignation involved here. I mean, it’s not really that cold, not much colder than winters on the East Coast, but there are factors that make it seem considerably more painful. Insulation is not a concept here. Our apartment is made of plaster and cement, and many of the window frames warped over the seasons such that some of them don’t close all the way anymore, allowing an icy draft to permeate that entire place. Our Chinese coil heater has been some consolation, but only when we are crowded directly around it, just like hobos around a trash-can fire, right down to the unkempt beards and two-dollar bottles of whiskey. (The best that to happen to us recently was the purchase of a “Heat Convector,” which the box promises is both “powder coated” and “computer tested.” It’s called a “Blow Hot,” a kind of name which might have caused embarrassing misconceptions in less chaste Asian countries.)
In these conditions, your first thought, of course, is about the many luxuries you took for granted in your cushy Western life. You don’t think about where the water from your taps comes from until it comes directly from a glacial lake. That strand of thought passed fairly quickly (it’s such a cliché.) What’s been sticking in my mind is the idea that the formalities and social graces we hold so dear are not based on any kind of God-given cultural superiority but on the fact that we have hot water readily available. What can I do? I take pride in being a hygienic, highly civil person, but doing laundry in the sink is physically painful. After two socks, my hands are throbbing and numb. There is a point where my deep-seated need to be respected by those around me is superseded by my desire to possess working extremities that I can feel at any given time. Sometimes when I talk to my other white friends here, who all live in much nicer apartments in town, I see the looks of 17th-century British ambassadors talking about the local peoples of the Orient. “A smelly, savage people…they wear the same shirt for days at a time and spend much time laying about in bed, shameless of their godless, primitive ways. Send Bibles.” Well, no one is born a savage. You have to go awhile without hot water first.