Weather can be one of the hardest things to overcome in a new place. Temperatures around the globe vary from place to place. What's cold in one part of the world is considered hot somewhere else.
Coming from a place where the average temperature is 80 degrees Fahrenheit with a chance of an afternoon shower, I was not quite prepared for the searing summer streets of Southern Taiwan. But if you put yourself out there, life has a way of beating you down and showing you the truth.
“Okay, repeat after me,” Lǎoshī stands in the front of the class commanding attention. I sit up a little straighter. “Jīntiān. hěn rè!”
“Jīntiān, hěn rè,” our imitative voices are soft and disorganized. We fall behind one another, each of us trying to understand every single word of Mandarin while attempting to hit the proper tones at the same time. I try to make sense of it all, but my brains are boiling from the heat outside. The streets of Kaohsiung, Taiwan have been brutally hot as of late. I wipe the sweat off my brow and try my best to sit up straighter and concentrate.
“Yes, okay, try again, ” Lǎoshī says, clearly wanting more energy from her students, more heat. “Jīntiān, hěn rè!” Jīntiān..that means today. Something clicks in my mind. Hěn means very. That means that today is rè, but not just rè, but very rè! Alright, so Today it's very much rè. But what is rè?
Okay, I can get this, I tell myself, I just have to focus. I shake my head to try and clear it, but the insane humidity is fogging up my mental capacities.
This time we muster up the volume to go at it collectively as a class. “Jīntiān, hěn rè!” We repeat in almost perfect unison. Lǎoshī smiles and nods her head. She looks pleased with our enthusiasm.
But what does that mean? I think. Hmmm...Today, it is very rè. This fill in the blank game is killing me, it's too hot to think straight. I feel like I'm going nowhere with this.
“Good, much better,” Lǎoshī's voice enters into my muddled thoughts and breaks my concentration.
She continues, “So who knows what this mean?”
Wait, I almost have it, I think.
“Hot,” Oudi speaks up. “It means, Today, it is very hot!”
Ding ding ding! The delayed light bulb finally switches on. Of course! Hěn rè indeed...what else could it have meant? After all, today is 34°C, and at 79% humidity it actually feels more like it's 42°C.
Yes, I think to myself, you are correct...Jīntiān hěn hěn hěn hěn rè! (Warning: That was very poor Mandarin grammar.)
Lǎoshī proceeds to write the number 35 on the white board. “Zuótiān,” yesterday, “Kaohsiung was 35 degrees Celsius.”
Yes, I know, I think to myself, How can I forget?
Lǎoshī continues as she writes the number 38 on the board, “Zuótiān, Taipei was 38 degrees Celsius.”
Whoa! Sucks for those northerners! I think.
She turns around slowly to look at us and asks, “Do you know what the temperature was in Beijing?” Turning back to the whiteboard she writes 41°C.
Hěn rè! I think. Suddenly, I don't feel so bad for myself anymore.
Before coming to Taiwan I had heard about the brutal heat. I'd called up Gary and Stacey, who studied Mandarin in Tainan City for six months, to ask them what it was like.
“Oh yeah, one more thing,” Gary said, right before hanging up. “The heat is gonna kill you!”
But despite the warnings, I never took the time to really think about the numbers. Even after my arrival in March, I didn't think much of it. “Oh, this isn't too bad,” I said then. I can deal with this, I've been through heat like this before.
“Don't worry, it gets worse,” everyone else told me. “Ah, but anyways, you're from Hawaii, so you're probably used to the heat already, right?” WRONG! Well, to be fair, everyone was right about the first part. But still, they were dead wrong about the last. Yes, it's true, it definitely got hotter. But no, ohhhh no...being from Hawaii did not mean that I was used to this kind of heat.
Back at home there's a song, it goes: 96 degrees, in the shade. REAL HOT...in the shade.
96° Fahrenheit is hěn rè for us Hawaiians. But in Celsius that's just 35°, which has so far been the average in Taiwan. And it's supposed to get even hotter here. That's Strike 1 for Hawaii. Also, Hawaii's humidity averages 40%, compare that to Kaohsiung's recent 79% humidity, which automatically kicks the temp up quite a few notches. Strike 2 for Hawaii. Not to mention the fact that Hawaii gets the trade winds blowing through the islands, cooling it down even more there. Kaohsiung's winds blow hot and humid through the city. Strike 3 for Hawaii, the truth is out.
And yes, folks, the truth is ugly. I hate to break it to everyone else, but the heat in Hawaii is nothing compared to the heat in Taiwan.
But in reality, given all of this mind boiling heat, it is possible to experience brief moments of clarity. There are times when you find yourself sitting in the middle of the day, trying your best to move as little as possible, not wanting to exhaust any more precious energy than is necessary. Without the slightest bit of effort on your part, you can feel beads of sweat pooling up and streaming down your back. Your pores are opened up as if you are in a sauna, only you're just sitting at the windowsill, trying to catch the slightest midday breeze. Your mind is reeling, your thoughts are jumbled together and suddenly the whole universe seems to make sense. Until you realize that this moment of clarity is just a case of heat stroke.
Not to fear though, I've still been surviving alright here in steamy Taiwan. Contrary to what the math in my mind tells me, it is possible for humans to live and exist under these seemingly unbearable conditions.
Having grown up in the shade of tall palm trees swaying in the cool island breeze, I can't help but think that perhaps I'm just too soft for all of this hěn rè business. So I just try my best to look at this sweltering experience as something I can learn from, something that will help me build more character. In fact, I remind myself that many people are enduring even harsher numbers in other parts of the globe, and if they can do it there, than who am I to complain about it here.
So now, whenever I find myself walking down the street sweating profusely in the scorching heat, or whenever I go online and shake my head at the rising numbers, I try my best to remind myself that although it's true, Jīntiān, hěn rè,...at least it isn't as rè here as it is somewhere else. Not yet at least.
And now we'd like to ask: What is hot to you? And what's the hottest temp you've ever been in? What do you do to beat the heat?
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...