Warm as toast? Exploring diverse cultures of thermal comfort

The author spent a number of years living in hot Tanzania. Photo credit: ThinkStock

The author spent a number of years living in hot Tanzania. Photo credit: ThinkStock

By Natascha Klocker

Think about a time when you’ve lived in, or visited, another country, one where the climate is very different from what you’re used to.

How did you adapt? Were your strategies for keeping warm (or cool) dissimilar to those of the local population? Was your thermal comfort threshold noticeably different?

When I was a PhD student, I spent a number of years living in Tanzania.

Thankfully, I spent most of my time in the country’s temperate Southern Highlands, but I was also a regular visitor to Tanzania’s largest city: bustling, humid, hot and coastal Dar es Salaam.

My days in Dar es Salaam were spent in constant search of reprieve: an air-conditioned supermarket, a (rare) cool sea breeze, an ice cream, a swim, a cool shower (or three), a cold beer. Jeans and closed shoes were torture devices – to be avoided at all costs.

While I was sweltering, I watched Dar es Salaam locals walking about in the midday sun in three-piece suits, without raising a sweat and even managing to drink cups of hot tea.

As most people couldn’t afford air-conditioning, local buildings were designed to help residents cope with the heat: houses with outdoor kitchens and long verandas on which to while away the evenings; windows with flyscreens and metal bars but no glass (designed to keep malarial mosquitoes and thieves out, but to allow the evening breezes in).

When I think about the challenges of coping with thermal discomfort in an unfamiliar place, I also remember the many visitors from my Austrian homeland who have come to spend the Sydney winter with my family.

Despite coming from a country of snow and ice, these visitors have bitterly complained that they have never felt colder than in Sydney. Why? Because although Austria can be brutally cold, their houses are well-insulated and central heating is standard. People do not need to huddle around a single oil-filled column heater in ugg boots, a woolly jumper and a blanket.

As part of the Warm as Toast project team, I’m interested in how diverse migrant groups practise household sustainability. This includes thinking through the ways in which migrants who settle in Australia come to cope with the weather and building designs that greet them – and the sustainability implications of their actions.

Dar Es Salaam Harbour, Tanzania, where the author experienced many unique ways of coping with the heat. Photo credit

Dar Es Salaam Harbour, Tanzania, where the author experienced many unique ways of coping with the heat. Photo credit

Australia is a country of immense ethnic diversity. In 2011, one-quarter of the country’s population was overseas-born, and a further 20 per cent of us had at least one overseas-born parent.

The source countries of migrants to Australia have shifted enormously over time. Although many migrants continue to come to Australia from the United Kingdom; in recent years a growing share have arrived from China, India, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. But most household sustainability research in Australia has neglected this diversity, and has positioned Anglo-Australian households as the norm. Yet we know that environmental values and practices are shaped by ethnicity and migrant status. The composition and size of households, and the ways in which they are managed in everyday life, also differ across ethnic groups – with important implications for household sustainability.

My own preliminary survey research based on a sample of 578 Wollongong and Sydney households, shows that some ethnic groups (for example, Chinese Australians) are almost twice-as-likely to live without a home heater than Anglo-Australian householders (33 per cent versus 18 per cent).

On the other hand, just 10 per cent of households of South Asian ancestry reported living without a heater. Chinese-Australian households were also more likely than Anglo-Australians to report low rates of heater use in winter: 68 per cent said that they use a heater ‘some days’ or ‘rarely’ compared to 47 per cent for Anglo-Australians. Meanwhile, more than one-third of respondents of South-East Asian ancestry stated that they use their heaters continuously in winter, or at least for a few hours every day.

Through the Warm as Toast project, and particularly through its Twitter stream, we hope to learn more about how home heating is shaped by the ethnic diversity of the Wollongong population.

We particularly invite those of you from migrant backgrounds to share your experiences of adjusting to (and coping with) Wollongong’s weather, as well as your strategies for maintaining thermal comfort in the winter months.

Natascha Klocker is a Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural Geography in the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research at the University of Wollongong

Previous Warm as Toast blog posts

Poor households do the heavy lifting in energy consumption

Why do we want to know how you’re keeping warm?

How do you beat Wollongong’s winter chill?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *