In the west, a glass of cold/ice water is commonly served with a meal; in China, traditionally, the locals only drink hot water. In the west, a hot beverage is often enjoyed only when the weather is cold, most of the time during breakfast, and/or after a meal; in China, it does not matter how high the temperature is, it’s almost always hot water or hot tea! Does your girlfriend have the same habit?
The exception seems to be the younger generation, most of whom are soda drinkers. But even with many people in China having easy access to and being able to afford drinking only bottled water, the preference for hot water still persists. The simplest explanation that the Chinese have for this habit is that hot water is good for your health. Indeed, this belief is closely tied to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which often associates anything “cold” (air, food, drinks, etc.) with negative health effects.
It may help you better understand some of the Chinese “logic” behind drinking hot water by learning about what they think about westerners’ habit of drinking cold water.
To many Chinese, westerners simply are not used to drinking hot water. Others explain the “odd” habit more matter-of-factly when they say that drinking water directly from the tap is common and safe in the west, and so boiling water is unnecessary. Some actually believe that westerners think hot water is only used for coffee and tea (well, they forgot to mention hot coco!), which also makes sense. Many think that foreigners are just too impatient to wait for hot water to get cool enough to drink! And then some reason that westerners prefer “raw,” or unboiled,” water because they also like to eat raw food, such as salads and steak.
It is true that in China, tap water is not safe to drink and people do have to always boil their water first to kill germs and prevent diseases. This is how it has always been for the longest time in the Middle Kingdom. The practice has simply persisted even after refrigeration became common in Chinese households and after drinking water has become the norm worldwide.
Many Chinese still believe that drinking hot water is better for digestion, because cold water or any cold liquids solidify fats in the stomach and make digestion more difficult. This is basic TCM/health knowledge that is passed down from one generation to the next in China. Modern science, however, explains that it does not matter what temperature the food and drink we consume has; they quickly match our body’s internal temperature and it is the acids in the stomach that break down the food further to make it easier to digest.
Whether or not you’ll adopt the habit is up to you, of course. If you do develop a preference for hot water with your meals and you return to your home country, you should expect weird looks from your family and friends, as well as the waiter/waitress, when you request hot water. If you can’t get used to it, fortunately, you can ask for bottled water when you eat out.
It would be safest, too, if you avoided using ice while in China, even when eating at American fast food restaurants; you cannot be sure if the water used to make it is filtered/distilled/boiled. But if you “have the stomach” for it, then go ahead and quench your thirst the western way!
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