From awesome to loathsome: When a guy from the tropics experience his first snow

April 10, 2018

It was then that I noticed scattered pieces of snow falling very slowly. Yes, that kind of slow fall I had been waiting for. That kind reminiscent of most Christmas horror movies. I marveled at how it was both beautiful and eerie, but I kept mindful of the fact that it will melt at the moment’s contact. No expectations set.

January 27, 2008. Around 9:30 in the morning. As soon as the plane landed at the Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, the pilot announced that we’ll be experiencing a two-degree Centigrade temperature outside. The Filipino guy seated beside me started to wear his windbreaker upon hearing the announcement. It was his first time in Shanghai and his first to experience that kind of cold, too. I can sense his balls creasing with excitement.

I know that feeling, I’ve been to that. I teased the guy that his windbreaker won’t be enough to warm him outside, he would need a thicker coat. I was trying to sound like a well-traveled jet-setter with more than enough snow experience, though it was only my second winter in the country.

Three weeks earlier, my colleagues informed me that there had been a snowfall one evening. I did not wake up to a fleece of thinly shaved ice so I didn’t believe them. It sure had been cold though, but there wasn’t any trace of snow. Not until the following week.

Snow in Kunshan, China. 2008

My friend Liu Lin at the North Gate of the village during the great snow of 2008. Kunshan, China. February 2, 2008.

It was a Monday. I woke up in my room feeling not any different. It was cold, though not as cold as the previous mornings. My bed was at the center of the room, and less than two meters on my right was the window. It was a sliding glass type, lightly tinted brown. There was a glass door, too, leading to the balcony. The balcony itself was only less than a meter wide with metal grilles spaced one hand apart. It was intended for drying the laundry. When I went out to check the clothes I hanged the previous night, I was surprised to see specks of white continuously falling outside.

At last, it was snowing. The sight made me feel flaps of butterfly wings inside my stomach while my balls shrank with excitement. I wanted to scream but I didn’t have anyone to scream with. My soon-to-be-wed Chinese housemates were yet to move during my one week vacation in the Philippines.

I hurried to wash my face, brush my teeth, and change into my work clothes. Afraid for the snow to be gone quickly, I didn’t bother to take a bath. I ran to the parking lot for my battery-powered bike and sped up to catch the snow.

A bit to my dismay, the snow only felt like normal rain. Not the kind you’d see in the movies where it falls in eerie slow motion. It was fast. I felt the snow falling on my hair, on my skin, on my clothes. And that was it. As soon as the ice flakes touched surface, they melt into water. I can see my cotton jacket gradually filled with scattered specks of darker green. I was becoming wet. Along with the pavements.

I found out later that what I experienced was a mere case of sleet – bits of ice flakes mingling with the falling rain. But I was happy. Snow by any other name smells as sweet.

I retrieved my luggage from the airport carousel. A mere 12-kilogram suitcase which made me ponder how I was deviating from the usual Filipino definition of a checked-in luggage – must be at least two kilograms heavier than allowed and would require you to barter with the check-in personnel so you can be spared of the charge for the excess.

I went straight to the airport bus terminal to take a bus bound to Kushan, an industrial city in Jiangsu province, about an hour and a half drive from Shanghai. I was told the next bus will be leaving at 1:30 in the afternoon, and I would have to wait for more than two hours. I didn’t have a choice, a taxi would cost me at least RMB300 (about USD40) while the bus would only cost me sixty.

I waited inside the cafeteria behind the ticketing booth. It was warm inside, albeit dirty. Layers of grime were stuck along every cavity of the plastic chairs and the floor sticky with grease and mud. I had my favorite tomato-based cup noodles and went out for a quick smoke.

It was then that I noticed scattered pieces of snow falling very slowly. Yes, that kind of slow fall I had been waiting for. That kind reminiscent of most Christmas horror movies. I marveled at how it was both beautiful and eerie, but I kept mindful of the fact that it will melt at the moment’s contact. No expectations set.

Snow in Kunshan, China. 2008

My friend Liu Lin standing in deep snow at the back of Kunshan National Library. (Except for Yan Jun, I lost contact with everyone when I left Compal Electronics in 2009. I wonder where they are now.) Kunshan, China. February 2, 2008.

The airport bus was like any other airport bus I have seen – huge, spacious, clean, two rows of comfortable seats on each side, and just enough room for the knees. I sat on the left window seat. The bus was not full, no one sitting on both seats to my front, to my back, and neither on the seats to my right.

I slept on the bus on the first thirty minutes of the trip and woke up to thick mantles of white covering everything except for the pavements. Snow was slowly falling from afar, but the ones near the bus were easily swept by the strong wind. It was marvelous. I wanted the bus driver to stop the bus as I was afraid there wouldn’t be any snow where I was going. But I did not. I just let myself be immersed in the scene ahead of me. I leaned my head on the window pane like how actors do in drama series, only instead of rain, there was snow falling.

It has started to get dark when I arrived in Kushan. What was supposed to be an hour and a half ride took more than four hours. Did the bus made it back to Kunshan and I was on the second trip from Shanghai? I didn’t know. I wasn’t aware of what happened. I fell asleep again.

I took another bus to my apartment while gawking at the snow all over the place. The cheerful couple who moved to my apartment greeted me with much excitement. The guy announced his plan to buy a camera before the weekend and eagerly invited me to go out by then. He was just as excited to see the snow.

The much-awaited weekend came. There was a library three kilometers from our apartment and, in between, there was a football field. The plan was to reach the library through the football field instead of taking the main roads. Outside was cold, but not biting. The kind of cold that reminds you of fogging air-conditioning units in hotel rooms or the frozen food section in supermarkets. Not too cold to feel pain on every tip of your fingers or your cheeks, but cold enough for your nose to feel it when you breathe. I was not wearing long johns (an underwear from waist to legs) and I can feel the cold soothing from the leg openings of my pants.

Snow in Kunshan, China. 2008

At the football field. Kunshan, China, February 2, 2008

There were no other souls in the football field aside from the two of us. Or maybe there were, I never knew. My third eye has always been closed. The snow was knee-deep at the football field which made us more excited. We were diving, rolling, howling, running at a zombie’s phase. We let ourselves loose like excited fools. We gargled air inside our mouths and competed to produce the thickest fog. We shook the snow off of every tree and brushed the snow off of every visible surface – bench, ledge, everything. There were small bridges across frozen water features and we ran with one of our hands scraping the snow deposits on the handrails. We branded ourselves the “Snow Bandits.”

Snow began to fall again when we reached the library. Strange but it seemed warmer during an actual snowfall. On our way back, we took the opposite side of the road along the riverbank. There were three kids hurling snowballs in the water to which my friend gestured to refrain from what they’re doing. But as soon as we got past them, we exchanged sheepish smiles and raced to form snowballs under the bald pine trees.

We went home exhausted. The lady of the house prepared a good meal but I preferred to snack on the strawberry ice cream in the freezer because I just love ice cream.

It’s tempting to explicate the science behind eating ice cream when it’s cold but there really isn’t any. I just love eating ice cream, especially when the weather is cold.

Snow in Kunshan, China. 2008

Beside the Loujiang River. Kunshan, China, February 2, 2008

Everything remained covered with snow the next Monday. I took my electric bike to work and almost fell on the road thrice. And while the hedges and sidewalks remained as stunning with the thick mantle of snow, the roads were in a huge mess. Apparently, snow solidifies as days pass. It was the case that Monday morning. And with several people walking or riding their bikes to go to work, pieces of ice were cracking and the sun slowly melting them down, leaving patches of puddle and mud all over the place. The road became too slippery and riding a bike was a pain.

The days passed and my amazement with the snow was gradually replaced by revulsion.

In summer, the course of actions to reduce the heat is very basic – take a shower, turn on the air conditioner, wear the most heat-resistant cotton garments. In winter, however, the available options are often accompanied by several complications.

Whether braving the cold wind outside or keeping warm inside the room, wearing layers of clothes is the only viable option. But the problem with winter and layering clothes does not end with impeded mobility, the worse part is the itch. Winter means the air is dry, and dry air means dry skin. And we know well the complications of having dry skin — itching. When you’re outside in the cold and the itch arises, your multi-layered clothing hinders you from scratching. You’ll have to remove at least a few garments to penetrate the itch. And why would the itch often choose the most unreachable skin surface is a mystery that remains unsolved.

I also have an issue wearing long johns, a garment that’s neither pants or underwear. I wear it to prevent the cold air sneaking in my pants’ leg openings but it leaves patches of baldness in my hairy legs.

Snow in Kunshan, China. 2008

The village covered in snow as pictured from our apartment. Kunshan, China, February 2, 2008

Controlling the heater is another thing. When you just came into the room after braving the cold, going in a heated room is a refreshing feeling; your body immediately stops shriveling. But once your body realizes what’s going on, you suddenly feel the heat and you’re faced with the urge to undress. And when your body gets acclimated, you feel the heater burning your skin like you just stepped into a furnace. So you switched it off and the process repeats.

Riding a bike to work is infuriating. You leave the house a little later to allow the crowd to thin out a little. But the problem with getting out late is you have to speed up to make it to your workplace in time. And when you speed up, the strong wind gushing on your hands and face only intensifies the cold. With the frosty air pricking on your skin, you’ll have to take momentary stops to warm up.

Choosing the right pair of gloves is just as complicating. Switching from cotton to polyester to synthetic leather improves nothing. The synthetic leather was prone to becoming colder and putting cotton gloves on top will only make your hand hinder its movements.

And the worst thing of them all is having to take a bath every morning and every night. You see, where I came from, the weather is most often hot and humid – 75% on the average. Add to it the fact that the air in Manila is polluted. So it’s only normal for us to take a bath in the morning to prepare ourselves to brave the viscous air. And at night, to remove the grime off our skins, we take showers. Having to follow this cycle throughout our lives, it became a routine. A habit we can’t shake off no matter which part of the world migration or work takes us to.

Which means I have to bear the cold wind peeking through every slit between the bathroom door and its jamb. Not to mention the cold peeking into the bathroom through the glass window. Having access to good water heating facility is great, but when I have to turn off the shower to soap, the cold starts to creep up.

Winter is a convoluting season. And whether there are better alternatives, I had not been aware. I never found out.

Snow in Kunshan, China. 2008

A gazebo inside our village. Kunshan, China, January 30, 2008

I was in Japan for 43 days last winter. And throughout those many days, I never had to leave the house earlier than 8:00 am. In fact, there were times that I would stay in bed for as late as 12:00 noon. The only cases where I really needed to leave the house I had to shop for food, inquire something at a government office, and fetch my niece from kindergarten in the afternoon. Otherwise, I only went out to stroll around the nearby tourist spots, to take photos outdoors, or to play PokemonGo.

The point is that I never had to leave the house because I had to. And I merely exposed myself to the cold because I wanted to. Which made me realize that I never really hated winter as I’ve always thought I did. What I actually really hated was having to leave the bed early in the morning to go to work. I’d love as much winter as long as I’m on a holiday.

Snow is unquestionably beautiful, but only if you’re seeing it for pleasure.