We were well clothed, and, though sitting close to the fire, were far from too warm; yet these naked savages, though further off, were observed, to our great surprise, to be streaming with perspiration at undergoing such a roasting.” — Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, entry dated December 22, 1834

The rain is coming down, not with any particular vehemence, but in a lazy way, as if it knows that the cold is enough to unsettle me and the other American college kids on this foggy April morning in the mountains of southwestern China. We’re here for a service project. Our job is to repair the drainage ditch for the village of Beigao, a rice-farming community of about a hundred families. None of us packed for this weather: high 30s, with persistent precipitation. We hide beneath thin raincoats like hermit crabs and eye the ground in dull astonishment.

An elderly villager approaches on our left. Her back supports a makeshift yoke, a pole with notches on either end, from which swing baskets loaded with rocks for the drainage ditch. She stops at the rock pile in front of us, stooping to set the yoke on the ground and dump her haul. Her weight relieved, she stands up tall — five feet, at most. What she’s doing is more or less our job for the day, although language difficulties have kept us blissfully unsure of our duties. I join a few of my friends to follow her back for another load. The rest of the group looks sideways and stays put. We probably have enough rocks anyway.

But I’m not sure if I’m returning to the quarry just to get more rocks, for the scene before me calls up an idea that I’ve been considering now for some time. I imagine this idea in terms of a passage from the journals of Charles Darwin, about a cold December night he and his crewmates spent at Tierra del Fuego in 1834. What he wrote about that evening seems somewhat exaggerated: one hardly believes that the Native Americans (well, “naked savages,” as he put it) were actually sweating from the fire as winter gales blasted the cape. Nonetheless, when I first read his words, I had one question: on that night, was it cold? The Englishmen thought it was. The Fuegians found it otherwise.

Here I am in Beigao, in the spring of my gap year between high school and college, facing the same question: is it cold? To be sure, Darwin’s comments have more than a whiff of colonialism about them. Beneath these overtones, however, lies the suggestion that what we call cold is merely a reflection of subjective experience. The Chinese villagers have dealt with this weather before. I haven’t, but, if I just suck it up, maybe next time won’t be so bad. The cold is a battleground for self-mastery: what fusty parents like Calvin’s dad in Calvin and Hobbes call “building character.” You need not suffer it as a passive object; you can take charge, seize it, tame it.

In previous winters, I had made sporadic attempts to wrestle the cold under my control. On runs, I wore shorts and a long-sleeve T-shirt. Some nights, I brought a booklight outside to read. I juggled soccer balls in the snow. Still, I could never make these tests into a routine, and winter winds remained brisk as ever.

Of course, during those years, it never occurred to me that what I was doing might be somewhat odd. I didn’t need to subject myself to the cold. There are plenty of other ways to chase self-improvement, many of which probably have some sort of vague practical applications beyond surviving a Jack London short story. What’s more, how aimless subjection to the cold would translate into “self-improvement” had remained unclear. But I never asked those questions. I’ve always liked unpleasant weather, or at least whatever counted for unpleasant in my hometown of Washington, D.C. More importantly, in my world, there could not be any questioning of self-improvement. “Always do your best,” my parents said, and, while they usually were talking about work and sports, I thought of that axiom as encompassing even the most irrelevant of tasks.

At the start of my gap year, while I was working on a farm in southern Pennsylvania, my skirmishes against the cold became a full-fledged campaign. I went barefoot on frosty mornings. I read outside whenever I could. I didn’t turn on the heater in my cabin during the day, so that my room would be chilly when I came back. Meanwhile, inside the farmhouse, my boss’s back issues of National Geographic showed pictures of Inuits in fur-lined parkas, their smiles reminding me that, relatively speaking, I lived in the tropics. If other humans could survive the Arctic, then, for God’s sake, I should be able to deal with Pennsylvania fall.

One October morning, picking tomatillos in a frigid and relentless rainstorm, my hands seized up. I stuffed them inside my jacket and shivered as water dripped down my back. As they began to unclench, I brought them out again and tried to continue my work. Within a minute, the rain had beaten them back into submission. By the early afternoon, I had retreated to the farmhouse.

In the rainstorm, I discovered the folly of my project. I was a fool to think I could change my experience of the cold in just a few weeks on the farm. To think I could do so in a decade, or even a lifespan — that, too, was a mistake. The cold has destroyed nations, wiped out species, subdued entire continents; it would never bend to my will. Yet I refused to abandon my project. I knew I would face many more days like that October morning, each one promising me a chance to rewrite what happened in the rainstorm, a chance to be a little more like the Fuegians and a little less like Darwin. For the next few months, I waited for such a day. When I came to China, I was still waiting.

Trudging back from the rock quarry, I see my friends conferring with our group leader. He turns my way. “That’s enough rocks for the day. Go inside,” he says. We file into the shaman’s house and light a fire on the coals, leaning forward as the warmth brushes across our fingertips. Outside, some of the villagers are still finishing their chores for the day. I don’t want to retire early, like I did that October morning in Pennsylvania. I want to be out working, even if my shoes are soaked, even if I don’t have a sweatshirt, even if there’s no work left to be done. So I go back outside and sit to watch the twilight descend.