Yesterday my teammate Mallary taught an aerobics class to a group of her sophomore students. I went and tried to follow along, and it was really fun! At the end of the hour, everyone was sweaty and tired -- both Mallary (who was wearing a tank top) and the students (who were working out in long underwear and sweaters). The students didn't want to take any layers off, but they quenched their thirst with a few swigs of hot water from their thermoses. This kind of behavior can't be normal... can it?
This post will begin with a simple observation that Chinese people drink hot water. Then I will veer off into the realm of unsolicited medical advice, and end with a reflection on a central theme in Chinese ideas about health.
First, drinking hot water. People here drink hot water, not cold. You can get near-boiling water in most places -- restaurants, trains, offices, airports, homes, and (if none is available) from your thermos that you carry everywhere. This is especially handy for making tea and instant noodles without the aid of a microwave or stove.
If you happen to be under the weather, you will almost certainly be advised to drink more hot water. This cure-all is generally suggested along with a host of other unsolicited medical advice. For example, Sarah, one of the American teachers, recently had a cold. After class, a student gave her a hand-written note with four pieces of advice, including the standards (drink more hot water, wear more clothes) and one that I never heard before (wash your face well, especially your nose).
This sort of thing happens all the time. Friends and strangers in China are always telling you what to do -- it's one way to show that you care about someone. They will tell you what to eat and what not to eat, what to wear and what not to wear, when you should get married (and to whom), when to have a baby, how to care for said baby, and the list goes on. One time I was eating a meal with a few students when one of them piped up that I needed more exercise. The reason? She noticed that I don't have very big half-moon shapes at the base of my fingernails, which is a traditional sign that I'm not getting enough blood flow.
Sometimes this advice strikes me as a little funny, because I still haven't gotten used to Chinese ideas about health. Westerners tend to think about sickness in terms of germs and contagions: If you keep your hands clean and stay away from sickies, you will stay healthy. But Chinese seem to think about sickness in terms of hot and cold: If you avoid cold things, or maintain the proper balance between hot and cold, you will be healthy. This explains why people cheerfully share communal bowls of food at every meal, but will not take off their jackets during aerobics because they don't want to catch a cold.
This also explains why:
- Babies are overdressed
- New moms aren't supposed to shower for a month (because the water will make them cold, thus risking illness)
- You shouldn't sit on cold surfaces
- Girls won't eat or drink anything cold during a certain time of month
- People drink hot water instead of cold