China's go-to beverage? Hot water. Really.

China's annual legislative sessions are in full swing in Beijing. Thousands of delegates are convening daily at the Great Hall of the People to listen to speeches, discuss government work reports, and review economic plans for the next five years.

Essential to keeping things moving? Hot water. Brigades of young women (and a few men) are toting thermoses around the massive building all day, pouring drinks for delegates. Some use the steaming hot liquid to make tea in paper cups that read "Great Hall of the People," but many others simply drink it straight.

For many Westerners, the idea of drinking plain hot water is odd. But most Chinese (among others) think Americans' habit of chugging ice water is equally bizarre, and even unhealthy.

As the daughter of a traditional Chinese doctor, I am a devoted hot water drinker.

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I drink it the first thing in the morning, and throughout the day. Even in the summer. I cannot live without it. In the big family I was brought up in, no one would dare to pour even room temperature water – doing so would risk a chorus of criticism, with parents, aunts, cousins and grandparents chastising you almost simultaneously: "Cold water gives you cramps!"

Some people trace the hot-water habit to the founding of Communist China in 1949, when tap water quality wasn't high.

"I remember the government promoted drinking boiled water a lot when I was a child," said Li Zhenhui, 68, whom I met recently at a movie theater, where he was sipping hot water while watching a film. "There were boiler rooms in every [workplace] and community, and people delivered hot water to each household. They would do it very early in the morning by filling the containers you left outside the door. They kept saying it was for our health and hygiene."

Under the precepts of Chinese medicine, balance is key, and hot or warm water is considered essential to balance cold and humidity; in addition, it is believed to promote blood circulation and toxin release.

When I tried explaining this to my husband's friends while on a trip to his ancestral homeland of South Africa, I was met with blank stares. But in fact, my husband has become a hot-water convert too.

In 2013, while on a road trip from Scotland to England, I endured cold water for four days as we drove through the foggy countryside. On the fifth day, my Chinese stomach could take it no longer, and I begged my husband to stop somewhere to have a proper glass of steaming hot water. My husband, a Brit who has been in Beijing for over five years, readily agreed.

We ended up in a lovely local cafe and were received by a friendly waitress. I figured we should order tea rather than trying to explain our request. Of course, the teabag would just be a ruse to get a plain cup of hot water.

But my husband insisted there was nothing to be ashamed of, and we should directly ask for "hot water only." He cleared his throat and in a posh British accent said, "Can I have a glass of hot water?" He paused awkwardly, then added, "Please?"

The waitress' eyes widened and her mouth suddenly popped open, like a cartoon character receiving unexpected news. She was so confused she looked pained. She stuttered a reply: "To … to … to drink?"

After she puzzled over whether to serve our water in a tea cup or coffee mug, we eventually received the precious steaming liquid (in tea cups) but felt cold stares from every corner of the cafe.

In China, requesting hot water doesn't make you an outsider, but rather puts you in a welcoming club. On a chilly December day, I was at the Beijing airport, which has numerous water stations for passengers. Five people queued impatiently in front of one dispenser in Terminal 3. Two were carrying instant noodle cups, the others were toting water bottles. Although there were three options (hot, warm, cold), everyone pressed the first button.

"I can't drink cold water in the winter," said Chen Hui, 27, who was holding a red Tupperware-type of heat-resistant water bottle. She was on her way to Thailand for a two-week holiday. "That's why I chose Thailand. I figured if I don't get to drink the hot water, at least it is so hot that my stomach can take cold water."

Flight attendants quickly learn Chinese passengers' needs. A few years ago, on Emirates airlines I was served by a Lebanese flight attendant, Aaliyah Safaar. She spoke no Chinese, but could say "re shui" (hot water) surprisingly perfectly.

"One big difference between Chinese tourists and non-Chinese is you'll be called dozens of times for 're shui,' and fewer people drink alcohol," she said.

A dispute involving hot water turned violent aboard an AirAsia flight in 2014, when a Chinese couple threw the scalding liquid and noodles at a flight attendant. Upset about their seating arrangements and other details, the pair's anger boiled over when they were forced to pay for hot water and received change in Thai baht instead of Chinese renminbi. The flight was diverted and they were later "blacklisted" by Chinese tourism authorities.

Hotels overseas are getting hip to Chinese tourists' needs, adding amenities like slippers, Chinese-language newspapers and, yes, teakettles.

But there's still a way to go. Before visiting Italy in 2013, I went on several tourist forums to prepare for my trip. "Bring a kettle!" was the heading of one of the most discussed topics on www.qyer.com, a popular travel website.

These days, many Chinese have portable kettles. But Beijing still has a few boiler-room masters and re shui deliverymen, who fill and distribute thermoses.

On a recent cold morning at the Tianyu market in northeast Beijing, 50-year-old Li Mingquan was in the boiler room, busy loading his motorized tricycle with colorful plastic flasks to deliver to stall owners.

The boiler is kept humming by a 62-year-old man surnamed Chen. The room is a relic left over from the days of the centrally planned economy, and used to be part of a state-owned company.

Chen arrives daily around 8:30 a.m., opens the gates, and gets down to business. "I've been doing this job for years, so I know how many containers of hot water I need to boil, depending on the season," said Chen. Two hours later, his shift is over, and he secures the gates with a rusty black padlock.

The job is a simple one, but Li says it's part of the fabric of life.

"Some stalls are a bit far from here, people don't want to walk in the cold with flasks filled with hot water, so I deliver these to them," said Li, who charges about 75 cents to deliver each thermos. "They pay me for it. We all are happy. I have lots of customers. Most stall owners in that building need my service."

Liu is a special correspondent.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 13, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "China's beverage? Hot water - People drink it first thing in the morning, through the day, even in summer - On the ground in Beijing" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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