March 26, 2013 | Mandarin

Hot Water in China, Cold for the U.S.

Our languages are very different, and so, apparently, are our drinking-water temperatures.

Sonia Gil, my guide through Fluenz Mandarin’s interactive language-learning product, just taught me in lesson 39 that if I order water in China, I should ask for bīng shuĭ. Bīng means “ice,” and shuĭ is “water.” 

Sonia with Advice on Hydration in China

Sonia with Advice on Hydration in China

“In China water is mostly served hot,” she explained in an opening video, “so if you want cold water, you need to make sure to tell the waiter that’s what you want. Many people are quite surprised when they ask for water (shuĭ) and a tall glass of very hot water is promptly brought to the table.”

A quick Internet search suggests there are multiple theories about the international water-temperature differences. Boiling water does in fact sanitize it, which is not really relevant in the U.S., but is often relevant in China. There are also both pro-cold and pro-hot health arguments, I guess, none of which appear to me to hold much water. (Couldn’t resist.)

When I was a kid, my mother used to ask for hot water in restaurants, and she would often get really odd looks from the wait staff. I enjoyed that.

I have tried drinking hot water a few times myself and found it agreeable. Though right now as I write this I am drinking some coldish.

Under no circumstances do I ever drink water with ice cubes in it. That to me is disagreeable. Ice cubes make me cold. I am all for room-temperature hydration.

It wasn’t clear to me from Sonia’s video whether asking for ice water in China will merely bring me cold water, or whether I will have to dodge ice cubes in order to drink it.

Comments (1)

Charles • Posted on Fri, March 29, 2013 - 9:46 pm EST

You’ll get cold water—there probably won’t be any ice in it.  Beer is also served warm.  The reason most often given for drinking hot water (or, non-cold water) is that cold water is bad for your health.  In the Chinese theory of food cures/therapy, it plays havoc with the natural balance and so cold water drinking is discouraged.

For boiled water, you’d ask for kaishui (open water). 

At a restaurant I went to recently with two Chinese friends. The water poured hot water for all the Chinese in the restaurant and cold water for all the non-Chinese.  We were amused by this but I also thought it showed a higher level of customer service—he was trying to make everyone feel comfortable.

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