The Water Walla

In a previous post (Bingzi Walla ) I wrote about the meaning of the word "walla."  In Urdu (the language of Pakistan, where I was born and raised), it means a man or person who does something like a trade.  There was the fruit walla, the vegetable walla, the fish walla, and so on. Each of these tradesmen came to our house each week to sell their wares directly to us.  Since we don’t have a good term in English, and Chinese is bereft of one as well, I’ve taken to just using the Urdu term here to describe the various tradespeople that I interact with on a reguar basis.

The water walla was just here, delivering a 5 pound container of Wahaha (yes, that’s prounced just as it is written) drinking water for the handy water cooler I have in my kitchen.  It’s a great system.  When my container is empty, I make a phone call, and 10 minutes later the water walla shows up at my door to take the empty one out and put the full one in.  I pay him the equivalant of a dollar and a half, tell him to ‘go slow’ and that’s that.

Tonight, as he was putting the new container in the cooler, he noticed that I had the refrigerate function turned on.  That means the water that comes out if nice and cold.  There’s a heating function as well, which is nice when it’s time for a cup of hot chocolate.  But mostly I like drinking cold drinks.  Even in the morning.   I need to have a big glass of ice cold water to get me going in the morning.  It’s my funtional equivalent of a cup of coffee.  Anyway, as he was leaving he looked at me and asked, "do you really still drink cold water, now that it’s winter???"  Yup, I do.  At that he just shook his head and went on his way.

You see, once winter sets in, people in China rarely drink cold drinks.  And it’s not just a matter of comfort; rather there seems to be this deep-seated belief that a glass of cold water drunk when it’s cold outside will lead to certain and immediate death.  I’ve been with friends who have gasped with horror as I drank a cold pepsi in January.  Round about mid-October, it starts getting difficult to get a cold coke or pepsi in a restaurant.  Yes, the refrigerator stocked with drinks still sits prominently in the room, but since it’s now winter, it’s unplugged!  Don’t want the patrons to get sick now do we?

When I first came to China in the 1980’s, this aversion to cold drinks wasn’t limited to winter, but was year-round.  Even in the heat of the summer, it was impossible to get a cold drink.  Street vendors sold luke-warm "qi-shui" (gas-water, or soda), but in every other venue the only option was boiled (and usually boiling water).  Everyone carried around a flask of boiling water with them.  In the guesthouse where we lived, a maid dutifully made sure that our two alloted flasks were kept filled with boiling water all day and night.  If we wanted to drink something other than hot water, we had to pour the water out of our thermoses into a pitcher, and let it cool.  As unappealing as room temperature water was, it was better than drinking hot water.  I once offered some cool water to a friend, and her reply was "I dare not." 

But things have changed here, and in the summer, lots of folks now drink cold water and beer and soda (at least in the cities).  Things started to change in the early 1990’s with the advent of bottled water.  I well remember my first life-saving encounter with bottled water.  I was in the desert in Xinjiang the summer of 1992.  The temperature was near 120 degrees. My friend and I had been hiking around some ruins.  We were bemoaning the fact that we’d have to go back to our hotel and drink hot water.  But as we were leaving we noticed a small shop that was selling bottles of water.  That meant the water was not hot.  It wasn’t cold, to be sure, but it wasn’t hot either.  We bought all we could and guzzled them down.  The bottled water industry took off, and by the end of the 1990’s the water coolers had appeared.  No more having to boil, then cool drinking water.  It truly was a great day. 

And with the advent of the home water coolers, of course there was a need for new profession now, the water walla.  We love the water walla.