It gets hot in this part of China, especially as you move south. Shanghai isn't even too bad, it hits 36C (that's 100F, yanks) regularly in July and August. The nasty thing is the humidity, which is constantly above 90%. Makes the climate extremely muggy and uncomfortable. It gets worse in Canton. Hong Kong is infamous for its utterly unbearable summers. But then again, it's even worse in India and the Middle East. I cannot even imagine how hot it gets there. Cornell weather has conditioned me a bit, it seems.

Anyways, many folks can't afford air conditioning in China, so they seek alternative methods of cooling. My sister in Houston, Texas, says no one will survive without AC there. Other than the usual methods of drinking lots of water staying in the shade, people here have a few other methods of staying cool in the blistering heat of August.

Seats covered with bamboo mats. These help a lot, because they hardly ever heat up. Even wooden seats get hot after a while, but these are cool even after long exposures to heat. Sweat doesn't soak into it, so it is comfortable even after long seatings.

Big bamboo fans. Swing to create an illusion of air conditioning. It's cheaper than an AC machine.

Green tea. A common convention is this: People get those big vertical glass jars that hold instant coffee. They rip off the paper covering, put their choice of tea leaves into it, and fill it with water. The sun brews the tea! What's better, it is lukewarm, the best temperature for cooling down. Cold Chinese tea is icky.

Watermelon works wonders. They have open street markets for selling the stuff here. People bring in their harvest, and it is sold by the pound. The best ones are big and striped, the flesh red and juicy. Yummy. This leads to the next custom.

After dark, people bring out their big reclining chairs and sit out in the streets, eat watermelon, talk, discuss life, play Chinese chess, and have a good time. Since the houses here are very small and cramped, it's much more interesting to sit around outside and mingle. I walk around in the summer at night once in a while, play some Chinese chess (and lose horribly to the old folks), and talk to the people about China. Always a very interesting experience.

Various Chinese foods cool the body. Green bean tea, red green ice. Winter melon soup. Pickled cucumbers. I was surprised, but it actually does help you deal with the muggy dead heat of summer. It's also healthy.


On a sidenote, another popular Chinese way to blow off steam is to fight and brawl. Fights are much more frequent in the summer here. See Chinese street brawls.

Except for the bamboo mats, DMan's description of summer in China sounds awfully like summer in North Carolina when I was little -- we had the electric fans (as well as hand-held cardboard ones, which used to be distributed by businesses as an advertising gambit), sun-brewed tea, and watermelon. Sitting out on the porch in the twilight, talking, quilting.

I would add: swimming (lake, ocean, stream, pool, whatever), or running through the output of a hose or sprinkler. Sucking on a piece of ice. And the South is where both Coca-Cola and Pepsi were invented, as well as regional drinks like Cheerwine.

Get free air conditioning today! Nothing to buy!

I live in a part of the world that's temperate in summer, where air conditioning in the summer is optional. Most people don't bother purchasing it. But there are always periods in the heat of the summer when ya really aren't going to be very comfortable without it.

Which is when Nomentatus's system of "poor man's air conditioning" comes in handy. If you have a refrigerator, some empty yogurt containers or similar, and something solid that's metal or stone to put under your feet you too have free air conditioning or if you prefer, "temperature regulation" available to you, right now. (Well, it's free if you aren't paying the electricity costs directly.)

The trick is to use the freezer to time-shift the cold, as it were. In the evening, fill up a half-dozen or so of those plastic yogurt container with water - about three-quarters to seven-eighths full, no more, because water expands and can split the container. You'll probably find that thin-walled containers work better than sturdier plastic because they're more flexible and more likely to expand than split. It may also help to squeeze the containers as you snap the lids tight on them so that the sides of the containers are pushed in somewhat.

Now in the night, when the heat is not so insufferable, your freezer will go to work slightly raising the room temperature of your kitchen - but you'll be glad tomorrow.

When the day begins to heat up, go get a frozen yogurt container, by now frozen solid. If you have a concrete floor, as I do, take off your shoes, put the yogurt container between your sock feet, and carry on typing or whatever it is you're doing.

The ice will cool the floor, and the floor will cool your feet. True, the air around you will also be a bit cooler, but what will really keep you comfortable are your big feet. They're terrific heat exchangers, by design - it's part of what they're supposed to do, in nature - you know, that place where there aren't any shoes (even on horses).

In an hour or two, switch to the next block of ice, putting the now liquid water in the used container into the fridge or down the drain. Don't put it in the freezer during the day unless you're really lazy. It's best to wait until night to start the freezing part of the cycle again because your freezer is a heat pump, and the more you make it work during the day, the hotter your place is going to get.

Now, you may not have a concrete floor, of course. You might be cursed with unhygienic carpeting. In which case you need a slate of marble or ceramic tile or stone or metal (aluminum's a great heat conductor so you could use a fairly thin piece of aluminum) to put the ice block (still inside its small plastic tub) and your sock feet on.

For more cooling

It's best not to put your feet or ankles against the ice. That's a bit extreme, not quite what bodies are designed for, and you shouldn't find it necessary. On very hot days, I do use a couple of containers at a time, however. It's also very useful to start getting a container or two out and down on the floor at least an hour or two ahead of the time when you'll really start feeling the heat. That way, the concrete floor is already cool when you need it to be - and you may be able to slightly delay the time when the heat is oppressive. Another technique I sometimes use on very hot days is to use a couple of containers at my feet and to shift them back and forth about twenty centimeters from time to time so that I can put my feet down on the concrete where the containers have been sitting for some minutes, for an extra blast of cooling.

For less cooling

For less extreme cooling, wrap a towel around the yogurt container. If you're going through a lot of ice containers, you may wish to cool the surrounding air less. So in order to cool just the floor, not the air generally, wrap a towel around but not under the container.

If you can't find anything like a marble slab to put under your feet, you can wrap the container in a towel and put it beside you - but I don't recommend this as, aside from the bottom of our feet, our bodies aren't built to be extreme heat exchangers. So if you do this, shift the container around a lot so as not to cool one part of your body too much - that sort of differential cooling just ain't that natural. Better: just go find a slab of something.

For only a little bit of trouble, you can enjoy a significantly cooler body and a maybe even a slightly cooler environment during the hottest parts of the day. You might even want to use this instead of your present air conditioning on some days, if you only need to cool yourself and not the whole house and you want to be a little more green. On a final note, it would be nice to have a nifty solution to the problem of the yogurt containers cracking sometimes from ice expansion. Using thinner containers helps, but I keep thinking that something like a stick of styrofoam long enough to go to the bottom of the container slipped in there while the water's liquid, or even better, a sealed plastic tube filled with air that's not quite as tall as the container, might absorb most of the expansion - but I can't think of anything common and cheap that would do the trick, so I'm looking for suggestions. I suppose you could save old toothpaste tubes and blow them up again, but there's a bit of an ick factor, there.

first article posted June 6 2004
last revised July 19, 2004

I don't know what people do in places like South East Asia or the Southern USA, where the summers are hot, muggy and humid - in fact I don't know how civilisation ever survived in such climates, they are so trying on the organism... Where I come from, anyway, we have very hot but also extremely arid summers, with dry dusty winds that blow a sandy pall over everything and give everyone sinus problems. There are all sorts of ways to combat these effects without recourse to modern technology, most of them in use around the Middle East and North Africa since the time of the Ancient Egyptians at least.

We do use many of the methods described above - watermelon, grapes and other juicy fruit are a staple of the summer diet, most socialising is done after dark and out of doors, tea (with cooling mint or sage) is ubiquitous, etc. Below, however, are a few things that, if not unique to Israel, are at least characteristic of the region:

  • In the words of a particularly memorable instructor on an archaeology dig, "if you don't drink you basically dehydrate, and if you dehydrate you basically die." Pretty much all non-alcoholic drinks have been invented in hot climates: tea in China, Sherbet in Arabia, Cola in the American South, coffee in Mexico, and in Israel, chocolate milk. In a bag. You just bite off one corner and suckle to your heart's content - very therapeutic, and of course extremely Freudian. We also lead the world in varieties of iced coffee and all kinds of slushies and milkshakes of course, and we do drink lots and lots of water and soda, but cold cocoa is special to us, and is the staple breakfast (combining liquids with calories as it does) of many an Israeli schoolchild.

  • Israelis go to the beach a lot (there's a lot of beach - one whole side of the country is sea-facing). A lot has been said, and indeed many songs have been written, about Brazilian and Californian beach culture. Well, Israeli beach culture is inferior to that only in scale. And has a few more armed security guards, which can be off-putting, but who cares. Us landlocked Jerusalem nerds used to go to the pool though, and there was hardly a household when I was growing up that didn't have a season ticket to one of the many and excellent public pools around the city and environs. It was practically a weekly ritual, and even more common in the summer holidays. And we also had many, many water fights - we even have Yom Hamayim, or Water Day, a uniquely Israeli holiday that coincides with the first few really hot days of the year and on which it is absolutely compulsory to drench everyone you meet and get drenched in return (anyone who remembers their childhood will be able to instantly conjure up the vision of intra-gang campaigns of ruthless warfare that this gave rise to in the "Our Neighbourhood" community of kids).

  • Traditional Muslim architecture is extremely well equipped to deal with the heat, and many of its hallmarks have been passed down the chain of occupation to us. Apartment blocks tend to be built in groups, creating a central public space that is sheltered from the maddening hamsin, the desert wind, and is kept shady for most of the day by the overhanging walls on all sides - bit like a scaled up patio. The shade from stone walls, being solid and slow moving, is also much cooler than the shade given by trees or umbrellas.

  • Most Israeli houses are built as standard to include a type of rolling shutter in the windows. It is pulled up and let down with a sash arrangement, and when let down loosely is perforated in such a way that about 40% of the surface of the shutter let the air through. Opening all the windows and pulling down all the shutters is a wonderful way of keeping a house cool by letting in the breeze but not the sun. On airless and dusty days, the thing to do is drench a few bed sheets in water and hang them over the shuttered windows. The evaporating moisture cools the air within, and is surprisingly effective in lowering the overall temperature.

  • When all else fails completely, get some ice cubes out of the freezer and lie on the floor. The overwhelming majority of floors are stone or tile precisely out of deference to the climate. They stay cool for most of the summer and feel wonderful on overheated feet and backs. Lie back, place an ice cube on each chakra, and you're guaranteed to be blue-lipped with cold in no time.

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