Since I've been obsessively writing about my desire to yet fear of wearing sandals as spring breaks upon us here in Beijing, I thought perhaps it might be time for a bit of background on the thinking that is taking place regarding when it is/is not appropriate to get out the sandals.
The crux of the matter is this: in China, one dresses according to the calendar; whereas in my culture one dresses according to the weather.
I first discovered this cognitive clash back in November of 1984, when I was teaching English at a provincial level teacher's college in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. I had a small class of only 16 students, all of whom were middle school English teachers from various towns and cities around the province. Due to the political upheavals of the previous decade, none of them had actually been to university (those had been closed for almost ten years), and most of them had studied some Russian in middle school.
By the early 1980's policies in China had done an about-face, and China was slowly opening itself up to the outside world. One piece of that was promoting the study of English. At the time this was quite amazing given the fact that just a few years before people in China could be jailed for studying English.
My students were what we called "Russian Re-treads" at the time — people who had studied, and in many cases taught Russian, but who were now being re-trained as English teachers. They were a great bunch of students, and I remember well the eagerness and enthusiasm they brought to the task. Most exciting for them (or so it seemed) was that they had the opportunity to study English with real live native speakers (I was on a teaching team of 6 North Americans). I think that none of my students had ever actually seen, much less met a foreigner before.
As you can imagine, the culture learning opportunities (in both directions) were never-ending.
By early November, the temperatures in Zhengzhou were dropping fast. The foreign teachers apartments (rooms) where we lived had been outfitted for heat, but the classrooms were unheated and cold — really cold.
On one particularly cold morning I wore my gloves to class. When I entered the room my students all stared in amazement at my hands and snickered. One spoke for them all:
He: Miss Jo, why are you wearing gloves?
Me (slightly confused by the question): Um….because my hands are cold.
By this time I had noticed that his hands were covered with cold sores, and very nearly on the verge of frost-bite. In fact, the hands of all my students looked like that.
Me: Your hands look cold too. Why are you NOT wearing gloves?
He: Because We Chinese don't wear gloves until December 1.
Me: That's interesting. I wear gloves when my hands get cold.
We stared at each other in mutual comprehension, then went on with class. And sure enough, on December 1, all my students showed up to class wearing gloves.
I had learned a very important lesson: It's the calendar, stupid!