fall in GZ

Fall, Guangzhou-style

That August chill is in the air. Of course, it is December.

After last year’s cold and snow in the Northeast, this was meant to be my year without a winter, much as 1985 was my year without a spring. That year I went from China in March (winter) to Australia in April (late summer) to New Zealand in May (fall) to Tahiti (self-explanatory) and home to Boston just in time for summer there to begin. Thirty years later, I went from summer in New York to an extended summer in Guangzhou, and I must say, I could get used to it.

“What will the weather be like?” I was asked before leaving home. “Steamy is my guess,” I said, thinking back to 1985, when late March in subtropical Guangzhou, the last stop on my two-week China 101 tour, already felt like summer. And for the first month, steamy it was. All the time.

The day I arrived was gray. A few raindrops didn’t stop Angela, my administrator, from showing me some basic campus services like the supermarket before leaving me to settle in at my apartment. Nor did gray skies the next day stop Ellen, the journalism professor who had recruited me, from showing me around a little more. When we parted, I mentioned that I needed to go shopping for a few things for the apartment. “There’s a mall across the street from campus,” she said, giving what she thought were explicit directions. I set off in the lightest of summer clothes, carrying my little bright orange travel umbrella from Expo 2010 in Shanghai, but without a raincoat – unbearable in the heat.

I didn’t find the mall that day. I did find McDonald’s, by which time it had started to rain, so I took shelter and had lunch. The rain turned into a monsoon, or so it seemed to someone who had not grown up in South Asia. When it was time to go, the little Expo umbrella did not turn inside out, as so many seem to in New York, but it was thoroughly inadequate; I should have packed the bigger, sturdier Portland model. I fought my way home, normally a 10-minute walk, and arrived with clothes, sandals and skin thoroughly soaked.

The monsoon continued. The next morning I met my class for the time. I had hoped to dress like a grownup and make a good, professional impression, but the best I could do was my CUNY Journalism T-shirt, old black usher pants, the blue-and-green leopard-spotted rubbers that were never intended to go home again and the raincoat that was still stifling. My Expo umbrella joined two dozen others left outside the classroom to avoid trailing water inside. The class looked at me skeptically.

“It’s the rainy season,” people explained; when I asked, “When does it end?” they shrugged. Around early September, said the Internet, which does not shrug, and it was right. After that the weather was just steamy – all the time. For the first month, I traipsed from class to one bureaucratic appointment after another in temperatures around 100 degrees, doing next to nothing in between but going home to collapse in front of the air conditioner and think about when I could go swimming. When rain did come, it brought no relief from the humidity – just more steam.

The relief came during Golden Week on Sanya Bay in early October. When it was hot there, I could choose between the pool just below my balcony and the beach across the road. Midway through came a half-day or so of monsoon, but it did bring relief, and who doesn’t need a rainy day on a beach vacation to rest the skin and read a book?

My first few days back in Guangzhou were, oddly, chilly; oh, no, could this be fall? No, more like a cool stretch in July in the Berkshires, when you put on a cotton sweater and leggings. When those few days ended, glorious summer returned for two full months. Guangzhou seems mercifully free of the pollution that has brought northern cities like Beijing to a standstill in recent weeks; we’ve had days and days of not just blue sky, but air that felt like silk. I spent my October lunch breaks reading by the water-lily pond, just to feel the sun and that air on my skin. I continued swimming outdoors, but around late October I noticed that my first-choice pool at the Vanburgh Hotel down the street, shaded for all but an hour or so a day, was a less and less inviting place to submerge my body. I switched my allegiance to the Ramada Pearl pool, which gets full sun, paying my last visit there just a few days before Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, I’ve enjoyed the fall foliage. Here that means trees covered with pink-purple blossoms that fall to the ground like autumn leaves, to be replaced by more blossoms. “I want all of you to look out the window and notice this!” I told the class one day, pointing to the entire row of trees outside the Main Teaching Building in full bloom. The kids smiled indulgently.

From a long weekend in once-scenic Hangzhou, now among China’s most polluted cities, I brought back a nasty cold. Right on cue, Guangzhou’s endless summer ended. From upper 80s the day I had left, the temperatures have dropped to the 50s and 60s, a good 10 to 15 degrees below normal, according to the Weather Channel. South of the Yangtze, universities have no heat in classrooms or dorms, and whatever there is in my apartment doesn’t seem to have kicked in yet. So I’ve spent much of the last month as I did my first here: collapsed on the bed, now under the heavy comforter to stay warm. My cold has lingered for three weeks and is just lifting; I coughed all through Thanksgiving dinner and a dozen classes. “Do you need to go to the hospital?” everyone asks. No, it’s a cold. “Do you want to drink some hot water?” No, I’m American. “You should wear warmer clothes.” They’re in New York.

With just about a month to go in China, I admit dreading the weather ahead, although it’s reassuring to know it hasn’t snowed in Guangzhou in 100 years. It’s been hard keeping track of time; given that summer has just ended, it feels strange to hear Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” at the mall. I won’t escape winter completely, since I’m due home just in time for Groundhog Day. (Does the groundhog ever not see its shadow?) Between now and then, though, I’ll once again fly south to Australia, where my friend Beth has been known to describe Brisbane in January as “stinking hot.”

Bring it on.

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