Why do Americans think ice is so nice?

Ice blocks, Kashgar Sunday market

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.”

17 Responses to “Why do Americans think ice is so nice?”

  1. Peter Hertzmann

    Although I believe your experiences, I still find them a bit unusual. I’ve been traveling around the U.S. now for about 50 years, both large cities and small towns, and I can’t remember the last time I was told where the ice machine was without first asking. It used to be in the days of the motor hotels in the 1950s that you were told where the Coke machine was when you checked in. Maybe it’s because I carry my own bags to my room that I’m never informed of the ice machine location.

    As for ice in water, I’ve avoided ice for most of my adult life and it’s never been a problem obtaining water without ice. My 91-year-old Okanawan-American mother-in-law has drunk plain hot water as long as I can remember, and she’s never had problem obtaining that in restaurants.

    As to getting anything from room service hot: good luck. This video (http://xrl.us/bovb6b) says it all. The US has never been a good place for room service in my experience. I think if you want hot water for tea in a US hotel room you need to travel with a small immersion heater.

  2. Elizabeth Blunt

    Get yourself one of those twirly, in-cup immersion heaters — though you may have to buy it outside the EU health-and-safety zone. The one I’m using at the moment was bought in Guinea and is lethal but very effective. One of its predecessors nearly burned down the Addis Ababa Hilton…..

  3. Kiu

    My Mum thought iced drinks conterbalanced the high-meat, -fat & -sugar levels in many Western diets

  4. Dave_C

    Here in the USA we like our drinks cold whether it be soda, beer, wine or water, even tea.

    After a road trip or a day traveling, it’s just relaxing to pop open a nice drink.

  5. Caroline

    This made me laugh because I really never understood the American obsession with ice either. They serve you drinks with 80% ice and 20% liquid..what’s up with that?!? I always have to say ‘NO ice please!’ but it’s such a weird concept over there, that more often than not my drink still comes with plenty of ice!
    BTW I have all of your books and adore them all!

  6. Tian

    Nothing is more soothing to me than drinking a cup of 白开水 on a cold day. It invokes memories of life in China every time. My grandfather’s kitchen had a row of thermos all lined up – at least two for hot hot water and one for luke warm or drinkable water. Your post made me very nostalgic.

  7. mminuk

    Thanks for this entertaining post. I am also baffled by the American penchant for cooked cheese, peanut butter, weak coffee, and sugary cupcakes!

  8. Eric

    I love how traveling makes you not take things like this for granted.

    I always thought it was for booze, which I somehow automatically associate with hotel rooms. It’s probably because this American only likes ice with hard liquor: shaking cocktails, a nice gin and tonic. But I’d take hot water over ice any day if I could only have one of these conveniences. One can always make a hot toddy…

    When I was young and taken to fast food restaurants by by grandparents, I would always request no ice in my drink. “Why no ice?” they would ask. “More soda!” I’d reply. Most of the time, I think it’s unnecessary.

  9. Eric


    Americans perfected melty cheese (American cheese!). Its a key member of the panoply of better eating through chemistry wonders of Post-WWII American food.

    Peanut butter sandwiches are a childhood staple. My mother subjected me to one every single day from Kindergarten through 6th grade. To add insult to injury, my friends made fun of me because I had weird looking organic peanut butter and not the hydrogenated wonder that is Jif.

    Weak coffee is being replaced by disgustingly sugary coffee, thanks to Starbucks. Venti caramel crappuccinos are totally disgusting.

    Cupcakes are just ruggedly individual pieces of cake, which is so totally American.

    It’s muffins I don’t get. Muffins don’t know if they are quickbread or cake, and I wish they’d just make up their minds.

  10. David Ockey

    Ha ha ha! Yeah, ice… I guess it’s just what you’re used to. My grandmother would drink lukewarm water out of the tap in winter. Yuck! The thing I find interesting is that the temperature of drinks is associated with health. It’s like my mom telling me not to go to bed with wet hair or I’d catch a cold. If I have a cold, it doesn’t matter to me what temperature my drinks are. I’ve learned to like them all iced or hot, just not the lukewarm tap water.

    As for the temperature of things, cooking things or changing the temperature alters the taste. I love raw cheese and I love cooked cheese. Pizza with cheese that hasn’t been melted?! Hmmmm. I’ll have to try it. We may scoff at what others eat or drink, but remember, they’re probably scoffing at what we eat and drink too.

    As for peanut butter, I think when a lot of us were young, it was an important source of protein. Meat was expensive, cheese wasn’t eaten that much. Nobody ate yogurt. You couldn’t take milk with you to school. It was cheap and easy. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it’s full of salt, sugar and oil. A young body loves that stuff! Then you just get used to it. Just like I did with marmite.

  11. An

    This has continued to puzzle me. My litmus test is McDonald’s – I can go into a restaurant, ask for boiling hot water, and they give me lukewarm. It’s better now with the coffee craze as they get me hot water from that. When I just want warm water, I’ve asked for a cup of hot water and a cup of ice. Then I just mix it if necessary.

  12. Alex

    A great post – I am currently traveling across the USA at present and had to google the answer – which was yours. I too find their fascination with ice very odd as once you have the ice there is nothing much to do with it other than watch it melt … but yet as I type I can hear them filling up buckets of the stuff.

  13. Annie

    @An, McDonald’s will never give you boiling water, because it is too much of a liability. Ever since the lawsuit from a woman who was severely burned with hot coffee, McDonald’s has drastically lowered the temperature of their hot beverages so as to avoid any additional lawsuits. There are even signs around cautioning the consumer that the hot beverages are hot.

    I am American and love ice in my drinks because soft drinks are so high in sugar that, the ice is almost necessary half the time. The cold numbs the tastebuds so the sweetness isn’t overwhelming. Ice does this this as well as dilute the drink so that it isn’t too sweet. We find warm sugary drinks to be cloying and disgusting.
    The reason we all love having an ice machine ion each floor of a hotel is that this is often the best tasting water around. It is highly filtered.. So as soon as I check into a hotel, I fill the bucket with lots of ice, let it melt and have safe, clean, and good tasting water that is FREE. Always better than paying almost $5 for a 500 ml bottle of water from the minibar.

  14. Patrick

    They also serve burnt coffee in Starbucks and then add sugar to make it sweet. Yuck.

  15. Kat

    I don’t know if this is everyone’s rationale, but my family always goes on road trips with a cooler full of drinks; whenever we stop at a hotel, we pack the cooler full of bags of ice to keep our things cool until the next stop.

    I always feel very self-conscious whenever we resupply our ice bags; the ice machines make a horrendous rattling sound that I feel sure is irritating people up and down the hotel hallway.

  16. TomInTulsa

    Thank you for the post it was fun. I don’t know why we Americans love our ice. When traveling in Europe my wife and I always found it very strange that people would offer us “HOT” tea – we thought is was so strange. Who drinks HOT tea? We have drank tea all our lives but NEVER hot. As an adult I now know we are the strange ones. I can’t imagine the strange looks visitors to the US must get when they go into a resturant in the South and ask for “hot” tea.

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