Of Water…hot and cold

Cultural differences are tricky little buggers.  They catch you at the strangest moments.

An internet friend has just moved to Singapore and is tweeting/blogging about her experiences apartment hunting.  Her most recent comment was her dismay that there was no hot water in the kitchens.

Which led me to all the cultural differences I’ve stumbled across here in Singapore, regarding water…hot and cold.


As KJ noted, hot water in the kitchen is uncommon.  Uncommon to the point where I’m certain I’ve never seen it.  To an American, this is unfathomable (I’m not going to say Westerner as I don’t have enough global experience to speak on a larger scale).  We have this deep cultural belief that hot water is NECESSARY to clean things.  Especially dishes.

It’s not my field of history, but I’m willing to make a bet that the obsession with hot water is a post WW2 change in our culture.  That was the point that more people could afford nicer homes and luxuries like in-home washing machines and dryers.  With the push to move women out of the workforce (they’d entered it in unprecedented numbers to replace men who were at war), there was also a renewed emphasis on the home and keeping it clean.  Germs were a relatively new discovery in that era, and a national obsession with beating germs began.  With television came commercials touting cleaning products.  And there was a cultural moment where women (white, middle class women specifically) often subjugated their own ambition and desires and were told that fulfillment lay in a clean home.  This was all coming after a period of great deprivation (the Great Depression of the 30’s) and war (the early 40’s) so in some ways, the obsession with modern clean homes was a rejection of the negativity that came before it.

Today Americans are big believers in the cleaning power of hot water, the disinfecting power of bleach/anti-bacterial cleaning products, and all manner of product to help us kill the germs.

If I ever washed dishes using just cold water, my grandmother would have told me that they weren’t clean.  And after years of that…I, like many (most?) Americans have internalized that.

I never even asked if the kitchens had hot water in Singapore.  I assumed it would be true.  So I was shocked to learn that they didn’t.

In our home, B heats water in the electric tea kettle to do dishes.  She thinks we’re a bit crazy, but she indulges us.

Warm Water

My most recent cultural “huh?” moment surrounds warm water.  At snack time at E’s school they give the kids some cereal, a bit of fruit, and a cup with water in it.  I picked up the cup to hand it to Elanor and was shocked that it was warm.

“Do you know it’s warm water?” I asked the teacher, concerned.

She looked at me like I was a bit dim.  “Of course.”

Which was when I remembered something.  That many Asian cultures believe that warm water is better for you–that it’s better for the digestive system, if I recall correctly.

Americans are all about the freezing cold water.  It would never occur to me to give E warm water.

The next time we went to school, I had a sippy of cool juice that I offered E instead of the warm water…assuming, stupidly, that since I wouldn’t want to drink warm water that neither would she.  She refused her juice in favor of the warm water.
Cold Water

As I noted, Americans love freezing cold water.  When I order water in a Western restaurant I usually get ice water, no problem.  When I’m not in a Western restaurant I often forget to be specific, and it takes a few tries/extra communication to get what I want.  I occasionally get a look that communicates quite clearly that I’m a crazy ang moh to want such a silly thing to drink.  Don’t I know it’s not as good for me as warm/hot water would be?

What has been your strangest experience with water while traveling or living abroad?

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24 Responses to Of Water…hot and cold

  1. Pingback: How could it be one year??? « Expat Bostonians

  2. Maria says:

    More Singapore surprises for me, years after leaving! I always had hot water in my kitchens when I lived there. The only place I didn’t have hot water was in the maid’s room, and as I never had a maid, it wasn’t a bother. In my second home, I even had aircon in the kitchen (which I understand is a rarity.) I can’t believe I didn’t know about the hot water in the kitchen thing!

    • Crystal says:

      Wow…what condos did you live in and are they still standing? I want to live there! (Especially the one with air con in the kitchen!)

  3. Laura says:

    I clearly am very fortunate in our condo as we have hot water in the kitchen and a proper oven. I didn’t even realise hot water was not a standard feature of a Singaporean kitchen and only, from chatting to other people, discovered that a lot don’t have a proper oven. The only place that doesn’t have hot water here is the maid’s wet room, I clearly do still have a lot to learn! Thanks for sharing.

    • Crystal says:

      Please email me your condo name! When our lease is up next year, I want to move there (although I’d still haul my beloved oven along with me). It’s interesting to see the variety. I wonder if it’s a new condo thing? Our condo is “older”…maybe newer ones have it? I’ll have to get specific next apartment search now that I know such magical things exist.

      • Laura says:

        Imperial Heights, Ipoh Lane off Tanjong Katong Road on the east of the island. I think it is a pretty new condo blcok so that may well be the reason. We are going to have to move next year as they want to sell our flat so I need to keep this in mind too!

      • Crystal says:

        I’m going to keep a mental note. I’d KILL for an apartment with hot water in the kitchen.

        I wonder if age does potentially affect it? Our condo is “older” (which I think is code for 20-30 years old).

  4. Zach Woods says:

    Hi Crystal –

    Cold water was thought to be dangerous / unhealthful for drinking in the 18th and early 19th Centuries in the American Colonies / U.S. I would have to hunt down some of the original documents that I have encountered that state this but I believe the concern was that cold water would be too extreme a shock / too great a temperature difference for the body to handle.

    And there is an interesting research project around the question of how many women were convinced by the “patriotic industrial complex” to leave jobs they had even before WW2 . . .


    • Crystal says:

      Zach, wasn’t there also something about water not being healthy, which is why colonial children usually drank a watered beer? I’m forgetting specifics, as it’s not my period, but I seem to recall something about that.

      My undergraduate thesis looked at 5 Massachusett’s women’s college’s between 1920 and 1950 and how the institutions reconciled such a “masculine” education with turning out appropriately “feminine” women. Had I completed my MA/PhD, I wanted to take it to a national level and look at a wider period (perhaps to 1960/70) and also look at what some of these women’s lives were like post-college. There wasn’t enough data, but I saw some things that make me theorize that women of “lower” social classes and minority women often completed all four years and worked longer post-graduation than those of middle-upper class families (for whom a college degree helped make you a better asset to your husband and his work/socializing). I’ve long since held a fascination for that whipsaw period of 1945-1950….I have a great book of advertisements from that era…things like a a woman with a baby and the caption is “She’s a MODEL mother, but can she be a model MOTHER?”

      • Zach Woods says:

        Hi Crystal –

        Re: water safety – As in many third world areas today, water was not necessarily safe to drink and this lead to lots of alcohol consumption by all ages (the fermentation process and alcohol content killed the bugs . . .). At the time they did not all fully understand the importance of keeping drinking water supplies separate from septic / animals / drainage / etc. and/or could not fully justify the expense and trouble of keeping safe water supplies separate.

        Re: Rosie the Riveter throughout history. I have long been interested in the following pattern that I see repeating at least since the late medieval period: all but the wealthiest women are working, and there is often relatively little differentiation between men’s and women’s work until a war occurs. The war makes it necessary for women (and young and old men) to take over even more of the men’s work. When the men return from war it is important to get them back to a sort of “normalcy” / good old days before the war and often fewer women end up working after the war than were before. Before the next war, more balance is achieved with more and more women again working until a new war causes a repeat in the cycle. WWII both removed more men from the workforce than prior wars (given it’s size and worldwide scope) and then had a more effective media / propoganda capabilities available to preach the myth of men’s vs. women’s “traditional roles”.


      • Crystal says:

        I remember reading a book called “Liberty’s Daughters” which, if I recall (it’s been 5+ years since I’ve picked it up) was about the introduction of the “domestic sphere” and the rhetoric post-Revolution about how women needed to be home because we were raising the next generation of patriots and a load of propaganda to that effect. If you haven’t read it, you might like it.

  5. Jim says:

    Whether or not you have to pay for water in a restaurant is also a culturally specific thing. In the U.S. and Canada, you get tap/mineral water for free, but typically have to pay for sparkling water. In Europe, you have to pay for any water you order at a restaurant, although they’ll give you mineral water instead of tap in that case.

  6. KJ says:

    Thanks for the shout out! We are back in Australia after our 3 night trip to Singapore. Our heads are spinning at the vast amount of information we have tried to process in such a short time.

    Singaporean landlords are still shaking their heads at the crazy Aussies who are obsessed with hot water in the kitchen. 10/12 low-rise condos we looked at were new builds, and not all of them had hot water (although they all had ovens). The one we have settled on (Chancery Residences near to Novena), we could not check the hot water situation as power and water were disconnected. We have put in the Letter of Intent that if it’s not connected we would like an instant hot water system installed.

    That is something entirely new to us, being able to negotiate with a landlord on things that need doing before you move in. It’s pretty much expected you will ask for stuff. We have also asked for it to be repainted inside and for the roof terrace to be repainted. Our agent thinks we are not asking for enough things! She is concerned that there are different window coverings in each bedroom and would look better if it was all uniform. I don’t really care, the curtains/blinds are tasteful and in good condition.

    So, if you move remeber that you can ask for hot water to be connected!

    • Crystal says:

      That’s a great idea and not something I’d thought of!

      The move and initial transition is the most dizzying. Once you’re settled in, it’s much easier (although as I can tell you, you sometimes run into something and draw a blank on the correct next move–such as the day we lost power).

  7. R says:

    Haha! My Singaporean hubby and I (an American) are completely switched in this way. At restaurants, my husband always asks for ice water and I always ask for warm water (I have sensitive teeth).

    And, yes, it’s hard to find hot-water kitchens. I think you might find more hot-water kitchens in landed properties and newer/higher-end condos and less (or never) in HDBs. We just bought a DBSS flat (a nice HDB flat), and we had to pay our contractor to extend the hot water pipes to the kitchen. I also wanted it for my washing machine. [I was tired of boiling water in the kettle and pouring it in the washing machine to wash the towels and bed sheets in our rental HDB.] My Singaporean contractor just couldn’t fathom why I needed hot water to wash dishes. We almost got into an argument over it as he didn’t think it was needed. I wanted to say, “Because the World Health Organization recommends it — that’s why!” But I refrained. 🙂

    • Crystal says:

      That’s funny!

      I never even though your could mess with the washing machine/hot water situation. I’m going to have to email you about that. We have allergy covers that need a hot water wash…I’ve sent htem out for dry cleaning, but if there was a solution for our home, I’d love it.

      My poor helper has to use the electric tea kettle to make hot water for dishes, but I’m dreading if the baby ends up on bottles…all the sterilizing we’d have to do by hand as opposed to just tossing everything in the dishwasher.

  8. Tabea says:

    I kinda have the opposite take on this, having grown up in Singapore and then leaving at age 18 to go to college in New England. Where I shocked my American housemates by using cold water to wash the dishes. That was the first time I realized you could actually get hot water out of a kitchen tap. In Singapore, you only get hot water if you have an electric heater installed for your shower. And it’s totally normal to have a hot shower, but nobody would ever think of using hot water for the dishes.

    I think each system works in each country. Cold water in Singapore works because firstly, the water is never truly cold but more like tepid. Greasy dishes also never congeal in the way that they can in a cold climate. So this is definitely a climatic issue.

    I now live in the UK and you know what is truly disgusting? The traditional UK way of washing dishes is to fill up a big bucket with hot water and washing up liquid, then immersing dirty dishes in it. RInsing is optional. That is truly gross. And the washing up bucket at the end of the evening? Urgh!

    Another cultural issue is that in many older houses in the UK, there are no mixer taps. There is a hot water tap and a cold water tap. And the water coming out of the hot water tap is boiling hot.

    It is normal not to have ovens in Singapore kitchens. Because most people don’t really cook the sort of food that needs to go into an oven. But virtually everyone will have a mini-toaster oven.

    • Crystal says:

      The whole cold water thing is something I still have yet to accept, and if we do move, it’s my number one priority in a new place (I’ve had a few friends find newer apartments with hot water and open kitchens which I want with all of my heart). After 30 years of having “anything but hot water is unhygenic” drummed into my head, I just can’t accept that it isn’t. Until we move, B and I heat water in the tea kettle and do our best. This is one of those things where I accept that I could be totally wrong, but I’m going to cling to my cultural norm.

      Far more of a pain in the ass will be sterilizing everything relating to #2. Pacifiers, bottles, nipples, breast pump parts (I plan to breastfeed, but I’d like her to be able to take the occasional bottle after it’s established) all need to be boiled. In the US I could just toss them in my dishwasher. Here we’ll actually have to boil them (or I may buy a steam sterilizer…looking into those). Where it’s far less of a big deal about the plates and such (we all have established immune systems, after all) the baby doesn’t and does need to be protected for the first year of life as she builds her immune system and gets her first shots.to

      It’s really interesting to hear about cultural norms in additional countries (and one of my favorite parts of writing this blog). I had no idea that was considered the norm in the UK. I have friends in the UK, but we’ve never discussed doing dishes, and they’re an American/Swedish couple, so I don’t know if they would necessarily know the norm, either.

      I’ve totally accepted that most people don’t have an oven, and having spent over a year making dinner in my kitchen fully understand why. But our western tastebuds demand one 🙂

      • Zach Woods says:

        And cold vs. tepid vs. hot is also a technology / time period related “norm”. Cold water was accepted in situations / time periods before hot water was “easy” (ie came out of the tap) for dish washing. As water heaters became more common but temperature control / was not yet easy and dishwashing machines were not yet common washing dishes in basins / buckets (often with one tepid / warm one plus detergent to wash and one hot / water only one to rinse) was very typical. This transition may be similar to the phenomenon of vacuum cleaners ending up raising the standards of what we all would accept for cleanliness rather than saving us time on cleaning . . .

      • Crystal says:

        Quite true.

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