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Published: June 26th 2010
Beating the Heat
Card players in the park
It's almost July and the hottest weather of the season is getting ready to hit Northern China. Already my office is filled with periodic exclamations of "好热!"("so hot!") uttered in a somewhat mournful tone. Here, "beating the heat" is called 消暑: 消 meaning "spend" or "pass," 暑 meaning "heat" and "midsummer." And now is the time to see the locals beating the heat; every time I walk out on errands, I pass old men playing Chinese chess under a tree on the sidewalk or shopowners sitting on their stoops with fans flapping lazily in their hands.
Being from a subtropical town, I have to laugh when I'm outside and hear people complaining about the heat. I'm so used to blistering temperatures with stifling humidity that being outside in the dry heat feels good to me. But I will admit, sitting in a stuffy office in a suit with only an overhead fan and weak air-conditioner leaves me wanting a good swim at the end of the day.
A few days ago, in lieu of a swim, I accompanied a friend to a local park in a more traditional effort to beat the heat. His idea to beat the heat
was to get out of his store (which was just as stuffy as the hotel office), grab some cold beers, take a taxi to the park and find a nice shady spot. I have been missing the lushness of my hometown and was surprised to find that here were plenty of flowers, green bushes and trees, and more species of bird than I had suspected resided locally. The smell of hot pines was the most refreshing scent I have come across in ages, so like home. And yet mostly it was all different, all the birds ones I have never seen in the States (excepting the ubiquitous sparrow) and all the trees and plants unfamiliar or distinct variations of the species I know.
We found a bench under trees facing a steep bank covered with pink- and white-flowered shrubs. The trees were filled with bizarre woodpecker-like birds, one of which gave me a start when its crest suddenly stood up, bright yellow, just like a parakeet. Competing for attention were the 喜鹊, large corvids considered auspicious by the Chinese. They are, in fact, none other than the magpie, which I had never imagined to be so large: they are
crow-sized. I also saw a chipmunk race across one of the branches. Being something of a sucker for animals, I was quite content to sit here for the greater part of an hour, drinking cold beer and shooting the breeze with my friend.
After ambling through woods and over bridges, we left the park in search of my friend's friends: they wanted to (guess what) drink beer together. We met them at their store and walked on to one of many 烧烤 restaurants in the area: outdoor grills up to ten feet long, where kebabs of all kinds are made to order and roasted. I decided on fish meatballs, a delicious Chinese food that has the comforting texture of matzo. Of course, being a foriegner and in that way a "guest," the men ordered way more food than we could possibly eat and plied me with lamb, squid, whole fishes and green peppers: enough food for an army. I politely tasted everything (except the cow tendon) and ended up with a mound of unfinished skewers on my plate. But I loaded up on the fish meatballs and lamb and the boiled soybeans we ordered as an appetizer, and felt
quite contented with those, at that.
By this time twilight was creeping in. Al fresco dining is very common in Hushi as the temperature inside the restaurants gets more and more unbearable; and with nightfall, lights strung overhead come on and give everything a romantic glow. The sunset also brings cooling breezes and the locals seem to become more relaxed and lively. Cigarettes become glowing points held in languid fingers; the beer flows and laughter rings out in increasingly quiet streets.
We finished our dinner as the shop owners were locking up for the night. Headed home in the orange haze of sodium lights, I felt how different the pace of life is here. In my air-conditioned, green-lawned hometown, where "beating the heat" is as easy as stepping inside, I somehow think that we are missing something. It feels so much more real to wait for the gift of a falling night, a rising breeze, and a glass drained with new friends.
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