Our cultural thermostat (1)
GUADALAJARA, Mexico — With temperatures reaching 35 degrees Celsius in the afternoon, the climate here in Mexico’s “Pearl of the West” reminds me not just of the heat back home that people have been complaining about these days, but also of the fact that while temperature is a physical attribute, the way we experience and act on it is structured by our personal and cultural backgrounds.
Many Filipinos, for instance, find pleasure in the coolness of Baguio or even just Tagaytay, and the air-conditioning of shopping malls. How low the mercury drops in the Cordilleras each year is a constant source of fascination. To some extent, of course, we also like the heat: A hot shower is always a popular draw in hotels, and even in summer, people flock to hot springs like those in Pansol, Mambukal, or Camiguin. But “hot” and “cold” are relative terms, and we tend to avoid anything we consider to be too hot or cold, even if others may not consider it to be that way.
I realized this in the course of my travels, seeing how people’s “cultural thermostats” are set differently depending on where they are and where they come from. When I went to Iceland, for instance, I was expecting that it would be a cold journey, but I actually found their default indoor temperatures warmer than what I would prefer; ditto with the European buses I rode a lot as a budget-conscious graduate student living in Amsterdam. Conversely, European hikers—at least those I’ve hiked with—are shocked when they experience the frigid air-conditioning of our Baguio-bound buses.
Such preferences can be very local: The chilangos (i.e citizens of Mexico City) I talk to would shirk at the prospect of going to Cancún, Monterrey, or even Guadalajara on those cities’ hottest months, having been used to the relative year-round coolness of their city perched at a lofty altitude of over 2,200 meters. But the tapatíos (e.g. citizens of Guadalajara) don’t seem to be bothered about the heat.
Japan is another illustration of the cultural relativity of temperature preferences. In my ongoing quest to climb all of Japan’s “100 Famous Mountains” (So far I’ve done 33), I’ve grown to love rewarding myself with an
onsen bath after each hike, but I still find the hot springs too hot (the range is 38-43 degrees Celsius). It takes some time for me to adjust to the heat, and even then I could stay only for a short time. Indeed, the Japanese “hot spring” is different from the ones in Pansol; what we would call “hot” is for them “lukewarm.”
One obvious explanation of these cross-cultural differences is the climate itself: In countries where people experience cold winters, comfort lies in the ability to keep one’s self warm, while for those living in tropical heat and humidity, cold air comes as a refreshment. In either context, it’s important to note that people who have more resources have greater control over the temperature around them.
Still, it doesn’t explain why people living in the same latitude vary in terms of their temperature-related preferences and practices, and this is where culture matters. Japan’s bathing customs, for instance, are rooted in centuries-old traditions that link hot water with good health and pleasure; thus, to immerse in the bath is to immerse in this connection between humans and nature—and among humans themselves, given that the onsen is often a social and familial activity that for many Japanese likewise links past and present.
As for us, heat is problematic for a number of reasons beyond its unpleasant feeling. Heat is associated with illness (e.g. bungang araw, balisawsaw) and negative emotions (e.g. mainit ang ulo), and given our olfactory culture, sweating can be a profound concern. In contrast, while nalamigan is also associated with illness, cold places have generally positive associations, not least because since childhood many of us have formed memories of them. Like many Filipinos, I have fond recollections of Baguio in different stages of my life, and I cannot forget Mt. Nantai in Nikko, Japan, where, as a medical student I experienced snow for the first time.
Snow, of course, is by its nature distant for us, because unlike the chilangos who can easily gaze at the snowcapped peaks of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, our first encounter with snow is through films and fairy tales. For many Filipinos, snow represents more than water in its frozen state, just as winter represents much more than a season.
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