Victim skin

The seasons have changed from spring to summer in Suzhou (rather quickly, I might add), and another shift in seasons means another learning curve this new expat and her skin.

My first seasonal transition as an expat was from late summer to autumn–in late September–and it was pretty pleasant. The temperature dropped slowly. I enjoyed October even though the end of it was incredibly rainy. November brought rapidly changing then falling leaves and a tinge of winter with a long dry spell, then suddenly winter closed in like someone slammed the refrigerator door, trapping us inside.

This stretch from September through December was not unlike life in western Pennsylvania because my body knew how to handle the temperature shift and some anticipated dryness, mostly caused by turning on the forced-air heating. But when the real, climate-driven winter dryness really set in? My skin couldn’t handle it. January and February were spent trying to find solutions to my itchy scalp, irritated skin, and the reaction of both to the questionable quality of water we bathe in (which is most likely over-chlorinated, definitely hard and calcium-ridden (based on my weekly bathroom scrubbings), and potentially sprinkled with heavy metals like chromium.)

Additionally, I had never before lived in a place where there wasn’t consistent indoor, forced-air or radiator heat. In the south of China, the government doesn’t permit indoor heating like in the north (where they burn lots of coal for such purposes), so your options are 1) to shiver, 2) put on more clothes, or 3) turn on the “heat” setting on your air conditioner.

I did all three. We used the heat at home with mixed results. At school, I used it in my office and my classroom, but the hallways and common areas are largely unheated. Thus, my body would go from warm enough (heated area) to not warm enough (unheated area) to too warm (getting on a heated bus with lots of other people while wearing a down coat, possibly after running to catch said bus = profuse sweating). The yo-yo temperatures made the winter unbelievably difficult for my skin.

By March, I had a routine down that meant no itchiness or dryness. I had visited the U.S. in early February and brought back some hair, skin, and nail vitamins to help nutritionally. I looked and felt good.

Then spring began. Again, I struggled to keep track of the weather changes alongside my busy teacher’s life and daily wellness routine. April was okay, but I started having night sweats and it wasn’t warm enough to turn on the air conditioner, but the air outside was too polluted to open the windows. (Andy isn’t an “open the windows” kind of guy anyway, so we turned on the fan in the air conditioners.) Then May heated up quickly (hitting 90ºF regularly) without humidity, and then leveled off in summery temperatures (between 78-90ºF) with more humidity than my skin knows how to handle.

It’s late June now, and I’m really struggling again. My skin is a disaster, my scalp is worse, and now the mosquitoes are back in full force, meaning the potential (read: likely) added bonus of a histamine reaction! Pink wheals dot my skin from mosquitoes who are all too happy that I’m too hot to wear long pants in the oppressive humidity. We have bug repellant plug-ins in our apartment, but bare skin is captive meat in the short elevator ride to the ground floor from our apartment. There is no hope in a mirrored box making a controlled fall–there is only swatting. And welts.

I’m often a sweaty mess just walking from our apartment to the bus stop (about a 0.25 mile walk) and the deodorant I brought with me has basically stopped working.

Nutshell: Just in case you were worried that #expatlife is super glamorous… it’s not.

I knew I was moving to a subtropical climate, but I didn’t realize that the largest organ of my body would react so poorly to the climate, water, and air. Every season I’m fumbling to keep up with unnoticeable incremental changes in moisture and dryness that end up feeling sudden and, as a result, quite difficult to navigate. Everyone talks about culture shock when moving abroad, but no one talks about climate shock.

My skin is a seasoned veteran of the seasonal victimhood of acclimatization. There is no one adjustment to a new climate… It’s constant and, as obvious as that seems now, I didn’t anticipate it.

We’re in the rainy season (China’s famed “plum rains“) at the moment, which is especially humid, so we finally had to break the budget and buy a dehumidifier. It is making our living quarters more habitable, for sure, and perhaps I’ll sleep without night sweats soon. I can only hope.

My greatest hope, however, lies in the collected wisdom of a year gone by. Maybe I’ll be prepared for the shifts when they start, now that I know what they bring.


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