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How to survive a big chill
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So you've lived in London, maybe Toronto or New York and feel you know how to cope with frigid winter nights. Perhaps you're prepared with a warm coat, wool scarves and plenty of DVDs. But the best way for unseasoned expatriates to survive winter in Beijing - or even a bit more south in Shanghai - isn't to confine oneself in the apartment until spring.

Winter in China may feel like winter anywhere in the world but many experts agree Chinese winter is different in some ways compared to North America or Europe. In addition to frigid temperatures, the air is dry and dusty which may be more noticeable due to the absence of regular snow and rain.

And for those expats who hail from warm tropical climates, such as Southeast Asia or Latin America, where the only type of cold air is blown out of air conditioners, winter is winter.

One of those is Charmaine Clarke, a Jamaica-born woman who is part of the Caribbean Association of China and a graduate student at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. She says seven years in New York City did not prepare her for the bitter cold and biting winds that flow from the Huangpu River. "I'm Jamaican, so cold is just cold no matter where I am," says Clarke, who came to China in 2005. "But in Shanghai, when the wind blows, oh my God, it's like a knife cutting through the layers no matter how many layers you're wearing."

Hundreds of kilometers up north in Beijing, biting winds from Mongolia and Siberia can blanket the city and make it feel like a large freezer. The combination of cold air, dry atmosphere, dust and other factors create unique conditions that require extra attention to avoid a hospital bed, some medical experts say.

The general advice for newly arrived expats is to dress in layers including a sweater that can be removed if you step indoors where it's warmer. Gloves and a hat are recommended, because heat escapes through the head, along with thick winter socks and long underwear.

The coldest month in Beijing and many parts of China is January. In Beijing, the average temperature is minus 6.4 C or about 21 degrees Fahrenheit. Homes or apartments without adequate heat should be properly winterized. Window seals should be used on windows or doors through which heat escapes.

Dr Gilbert Shia of Bayley & Jackson Medical Center in Beijing says several health issues could arise during the winter. While cold weather doesn't trigger colds or flu, the viruses that cause colds are "more active" in the winter.

"This is certainly a good reason to make sure that you continue to ventilate the rooms you live and work in throughout the winter, even it it's just for a few minutes each day," Shia says in an e-mail.

There are a few positive things to winter in China compared to other foreign cities such as New York where darkness arrives at 4 pm during the dead of winter, he says.

"From a positive point of view, it is less likely that people living in Beijing will suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) because we are not subject to misty oceanic weather here," Shia says. "Also the days are not as short as in other higher parts of the Northern Hemisphere." The dry air may feel terrible but that is also a positive. "Extremely dry weather means there is less moisture in the air making it more difficult for viruses and bacteria to spread," he says.

Greg Macisaac, a video coordinator and teacher at the Western Academy of Beijing who left Ontario many years ago to flee the frigid Canadian winter, says he's noticed some changes in the air during his 13 years here.

"The air has changed a bit," he says, compared to the late 1990s. "It was very dry and it was easier to cope with. Now because they are seeding the clouds and trying to create more humidity in the air, I find that the air is more moist in the winter time."

He says moisture in winter makes it feel much colder. An official with the China Meteorological Administration told China Daily that the human-induced moisture is intended for plants, not people. "There has been a drought in northern China, including Beijing, since 2005, because of the worldwide climate change," he says. "Plants that are seeded in the autumn need water in the winter to grow and the government has, since that year, made frequent artificial rains."

French archaeologist Damien Leloup, 33, who is building a museum in northeastern Liaoning Province, says winter there is bearable only with the right clothes, gloves and absence of wind.

"If you forget to take your gloves it's something you realize right away," Leloup says about going outdoors in Northeast China's Liaoning Province. "Your muscle just gets stiff and you can't move your fingers, and it happens really quickly, just seconds."

If you spend the winter on the couch, chances are you may gain a few pounds. In addition to staying active and eating vegetables and other healthy foods, there are ways to fight the winter pounds, according to British registered dietician Nina Lenton of Bayley & Jackson.

She says the lack of sun means less vitamin D which can be obtained by drinking milk. Otherwise, a dietary supplement including cod liver oil is good. Another common issue in winter is dry or chapped skin which can be eased with moisturizers. Shia offers an unusual suggestion to fight dry skin.

"It may be advisable not to bathe or shower every single day," he says. "The skin produces its own oils and anti-bacterial substances to re-enforce its protective barrier and these have to be replenished each time you take a shower."

He adds, however, that not showering doesn't mean avoiding all washing.

Another doctor at the hospital, Raymond Xu, a pediatrician, says children are prone to colds, gut flu and diarrhea in winter. He says seeing a doctor isn't always necessary but if the child has a persistent fever, is less than a year old, produces highly colored mucus from the nose or throat, a doctor's visit may be warranted.

For some people, winter is a time to dress up in fancy sweaters, coats and boots. In Shanghai, a common sight is girls and women in skirts, leg warmers and boots. "I love winter clothing because you get to wear those nice boots," says Clarke, the Jamaican in Shanghai.

Wang Shanshan contributed to this story.

(China Daily December 7, 2007)

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