The first time I went to America, I couldn’t understand why, whenever I checked into a hotel, the first thing the bell boy told me was where I could find ice. He might point out an ice dispenser in the lift lobby, or tell me which number I could call to have some ice sent over. Ice, it seemed, was the number-one preoccupation of American hotel guests, whatever the season. As a Chinese convert, though, the first thing I want to see when I check into a hotel room is hot water and the means to make tea. In the old days in China, every hotel or guesthouse would provide tealeaves and lidded mugs, and a fuwuyuan would bring you a thermos filled with hot water as soon as you arrived – one of those lovely, old-fashioned thermoses with floral patterns that evoke the style of pre-war Shanghai. Fresh supplies of hot water could be obtained from a service room on every floor where a giant steel samovar simmered away, day and night. These days, you’re more likely to be faced with an electric kettle, but the tea-making facilities are non-negotiable. A cup of tea always has to be part of the welcome, whether you are arriving at someone’s home or office, or checking into a hotel.
So hotel rooms in America always feel strangely ill-equipped. If you’re lucky, you might find a coffee maker which you can just about use to boil water for tea, but this seems to be the exception. If you call room service for boiling water, it will have cooled down too much by the time it arrives to make a decent brew, and you may be faced with a hefty charge. On my recent trip to America, I travelled as usual with a tin of my favourite tea leaves, but was unable to use them at all. And I just can’t understand why anyone would come in from the bitter cold of a New York winter and want to drink a glass of water packed with ice! But people in the States seem to be addicted to it. One British friend of mine who has settled there can barely drink anything without ice; I noticed people on planes ordering iced drinks with an extra cup of neat ice on the side, just in case; waiters were barely unable to process my outlandish request for water without ice. And when I requested hot water – I had a bad cold, I’m used to drinking ‘white boiled water’ (bai kaishui 白开水)in China, and the thought of consuming ice was unbearable – they clearly thought I was insane.
In China, cold drinks, especially in midwinter, are regarded as a bad idea. My Chinese doctor elaborated: “Iced drinks slow down the movement of your qi. Normally we say that your skin protects you from the onslaught of external cold. Drinking iced drinks is like allowing spies to infiltrate your body.”