Much of the world right now is dealing with mind-numbing heat. But there are places where such stifling, health-imperiling temperatures are common — and air conditioning isn’t. Asian immigrants from regions where sweltering is the norm have been offering their time-tested advice on how to stay cool without electricity or technology.
In parts of Asia that have long grappled with heat waves, families have developed their own cooling rituals over generations. Some say they have slept on the floor in kitchens, where tile surfaces retain less heat, or spread bamboo mats around the house for the same reason. Others advised wearing lungis, thin cloths tied around the waist, and eating cold seasonal foods like noodles or lassi to help keep the heat at bay.
When Mehr Singh was growing up in Delhi, India, the blistering heat and frequent power cuts often left her family baking without air conditioning.
“Delhi heat is very dry,” said Singh, who moved to New York in 2016. “NYC summer is humid but not nearly as harsh.”
Experiences like this forced her to develop some life hacks — wearing damp cotton T-shirts to bed alongside an “army of floor fans,” showering in cold water, and chugging nimbu pani (Indian lemonade) were all part of her summertime routine.
“One of the things we did while living in the Philippines was homemade fans,” said Sheena Yap Chan, who lived in Cebu City until she was 10. “It can get very hot, especially between March and May, where it can feel like 40 degrees Celsius or higher. … I think the heat has gotten worse over the years.”
Yap Chan’s family had air conditioning, but the high cost in the Philippines meant it was off for most of the day. “We normally had it on in the evenings when we were sleeping,” she said.
For Karlin Chan, who is Chinese American, the solution to staying cool involves upping the heat in his diet.
“Spicy foods,” he said. “I grew up in NYC and usually don’t eat spicy foods except during the summer months. I noticed many cultures in year-round hot humid climates have a spicy diet so I tried 10 years ago. Mainly Indian food, Malaysian and Singapore. It helps deal with the heat.”
Spicy food has historically been consumed most in hot countries, studies have found. Scientists have posited that the antimicrobial properties in spices help keep food clean in places where refrigeration isn’t accessible, but there isn’t much evidence to support that.
Others who have lived in the global south say in their experience, spice-induced sweat is a good way to keep cool.
Putting a touch of water on each wrist to help cool the body through the veins is a common practice in the villages, said climate expert and United Nations consultant Saad Amer. But for vulnerable populations at the forefront of the climate crisis, these measures can only go so far, he added.
When temperatures climb and resources dwindle, simple measures are futile, leaving the world’s most vulnerable “unable to function,” he said. On the continent with the largest population, Asians are on the front lines of climate change, he said. And those who know the most about it are the ones with the least protection from the elements.
Near the border of Nepal, rural north Indian communities have faced both deluges and droughts in recent years. Laboring outside all day without an air conditioned home to return to, they are entirely exposed to the elements.
“Just recently, we could see 120 degree temperatures in Pakistan and India, which is not even heard of,” Amer said. “But in areas like this, particularly in areas where you see extreme poverty, those communities are just not able to handle that level of heat. And so you see people dying, you see a reduction in productivity. And it just sucks.”
In the villages where Amer stayed, electricity was essentially nonexistent and water was becoming scarce.
“These aren’t communities that are going to school and getting a Ph.D in climate science,” he said. “These are people who are firsthand experiencing a lot of those crises. It is the terrible scenario that people have been warned about for decades, and we’re actively seeing it hit our home communities.”