It is often said that people from the United Kingdom have an obsession with the weather. A phone call to family in another country or even town will likely lead to the question ‘how’s the weather?’. It is also often said that the UK’s weather system is capable of producing all four seasons in one day. So much so, there was a well known song all about this. If you know it, it will now be playing in your head – sorry about that. But between these two facts, there may be a correlation.

I have spent over three years living in China, and during this time I have observed that similar to the British, China and Chinese people have an obsession with temperature. Everything seems to revolve around temperature and there seems to be an inherent fear of cold. I am not talking about a fear of being freezing – we all have this, this is perfectly normal, a survival instinct. What I have seen is that the majority of Chinese people have a fear of, and will go to great lengths to avoid being a little bit on the cool side.

Xinghai beach winter swimming, Dalian

Not all Chinese people are afraid of the cold, illustrated by this swimmer at Xinghai beach, Dalian in mid-winter.

In China, people will usually drink warm or hot water, avoiding cold water at all costs. According to Chinese medicine it is believe to encourage the release of toxins, and increase circulation of blood. A common response to reporting a minor medical irritation to a Chinese friend is “喝热水吧” (he re shui ba), and with these words the person is encouraging you to drink hot water.

Taking this further, it is normal for restaurants to serve bottled beer at room temperature. If you’d like a chilled beer you have to specifically ask for it. And going even further, if you go to a convenience store in the winter, go to the fridge to get what you think will be a nice chilled drink, and you’ll notice the fridges have actually been turned off for the winter, so everything is sitting there at room temperature, which can be rather warm with the heating blasting out.

Airports, railway stations and trains themselves usually have hot water dispensers dotted around, and it’s normal for queues to be forming around them, as everyone goes to them with flask or instant noodles eagerly in hand. Most Chinese people will carry a flask in the winter.

Instant noodles in China

Instant noodles in China are far superior to those in the west. Do make use of those hot water dispensers.

But one of the most astonishing things, and what I find very difficult to get used to as a foreigner in China, is the reaction of complete strangers who take an interest in whether I might be cold, when I am wearing shorts and t-shirt in temperatures equivalent to a British summer’s day. I am talking about temperatures between 18c and 21c. People will stare at me, look me up and down, with the phrase 冷不冷? (leng bu leng, pronounced like lung) an inquisitive, “are you cold?” being directed towards me every few minutes. This is kind of fun for the first ten minutes, but then it becomes a bit of a bore. The positive note I can take from this, is that at least total strangers appear to take an interest in my well-being. Chinese people are often nice like that. I am always as cheerful as possible in my reply as I understand no one is trying to be offensive with their question.

Certainly, if I look around at this point, I will see that many people are wearing what I would consider to be winter clothes, but in temperatures bordering 20c, with warm sun. It seems like they must be boiling, so I feel like I should be asking them whether they are too hot or not. In any case I don’t, because I feel it is reasonable to assume they are able to dress themselves in a way that they will feel comfortable, without having a complete stranger inquire as to their level of comfort given their choice of attire. I understand that we all feel temperatures in different ways.

water dispenser in China

A typical Chinese water dispenser with room temperature and hot options. This one in my office.

So there is a clear mistrust of drinking cold fluids, and also a fear of feeling any cold once summer is over. But I do wonder whether they are in any way related. Putting this question aside, what does all this mean for you, if you are travelling to China?

  •  Bring a flask or buy one here. Even if you don’t like drinking warm water, carry your favourite tea bags from home, or buy some nice green tea whilst you’re here (just avoid certain tea shops in tourist areas where you may pay more than you should). With this flask you can fill up at airports, railway stations, on trains, or anywhere else you see hot drinking water on tap. And it’s always free.
  • If you’re travelling anywhere by train and want to have the authentic Chinese experience, before boarding the train, buy some instant noodles. Instant noodles in China are far superior to instant noodles in the west, here they are often incredibly tasty. It is traditional to eat instant noodles whilst riding a train, and you’ll find a hot water dispenser at the end of each carriage.
  • When you visit a restaurant and order a beer with your meal, if you are fundamentally opposed to the idea of drinking warm beer (Americans, that possibly means you), then remember to ask for it cold 凉的 (liang de) at the time of ordering.

If you are travelling in northern China during the winter when it really is cold, always take into account that the often northerly wind in Beijing and other parts of the north is bitterly cold as it blows down from Siberia, so if the forecast predicts -5c, it may actually feel more like -15c. Something to bear in mind when deciding what clothes to bring.

At this time, if I am walking around in shorts and t-shirt, I will accept the validity of the question “冷不冷?” however if I am out running or cycling, that’s a different matter.

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