In my workplace cafeteria I remember a large hand printed sign posted above the racks of clean water glasses: “Do NOT use for HOT WATER!”
The company had just relocated to a new site in Toronto and the food services group was getting used to the strange habits of a two thousand odd tech team. One of the more perplexing issues was the amount of breakage due to people dispensing hot water directly into cold beverage glasses.
With some curiosity, I had watched employees (all Chinese) by-pass the stoneware coffee mugs in favor of the more fragile, non-tempered water glasses. They filled them up with boiling hot water and ignoring scorched finger tips transported them back to the lunch tables. Odd, I thought but cafeteria services being the least of my worries at the time, I forgot about it.
Years later when I was stationed in Beijing, I was charmed at the many little courtesies afforded to visitors in business meetings. Almost always I would be seated around a meeting table where paper cups of hot water were already set in place. My first couple sips were surprises and after the startled responses to my request for cold water, I learnt to appreciate the gesture and ignore the paper cups.
In this article from the Sixth Tone ‘The History of China’s Obsession with Hot Water’, the mysterious habit is explained. It’s a fascinating explanation of a custom that has followed generations of Chinese from old world to new. It’s good reading.
Toronto, Canada. September 2017