Ask me to list three things I can't live without on a hot summer day, and I'll say an air conditioner, a back-up air conditioner and several glasses of sweetened iced tea - or what we southern Americans call "sweet tea".
I had high hopes when I first set off from Florida to Beijing in 2002. At the time, I didn't know much about China. I knew it had a lot of people. I knew those people ate food with sticks. And I'd heard the Chinese knew how to make a good cup of tea. To my great disappointment, however, I found that most Chinese like their tea served hot - even in the middle of summer.
"Why do you guys drink hot tea in the summer?" I have asked incredulously on many occasions while wiping my sweaty face with a napkin. "I drink iced tea even in the dead of winter."
"You what?" they ask, themselves incredulous that I would drink tea cold - and with twice as much sugar as is found in a can of Coke.
"Fuwuyuan!" they call out quickly, sending the waiter on a mission for sugar rocks that - they hope - can make the Chinese tea a little more palatable (I'm grateful for their genuine concern, but it can't).
This isn't to say that I've refused to adapt to the tea culture around me. On occasion, I drink whatever tea everyone else is having. In doing so, I've learned that just about anything that has roots can be turned into some sort of tea in China.
And I have great respect for the tea stewards who can twirl their long-nosed teapots like a rifle and pour tea from behind their back.
But when it comes to drinking tea hot, well, I'd just as soon have a cold Coke, if you don't mind.
In my quest to find a palatable cold tea, I've mostly had to experiment with the bottled variety on grocery store shelves. I can't read the labels, so I mostly just buy, cool and then sip blindly - at my own risk, I've discovered. Everything that fails my taste-test is condemned to the kitchen sink.
Some teas do pass the taste-test, but, out of the bottle, they lack the most essential of ingredients: ice.
Perhaps that's why, against my better judgment, I decided to take a friend's suggestion a few months ago while eating at a Cantonese restaurant. Like the good salesman he is, he pitched to me a glass of bing nai cha - iced milk tea.
The idea of mixing milk with iced tea is a kind of blasphemy for anyone who grows up south of the Mason-Dixon line. You simply don't mess with iced tea. If you do, you're bound for hell (that's anywhere outside the Bible Belt).
Still, for some reason, I gave it a try - call it desperation. The glass was dripping with condensation - a good first sign. Upon further inspection, the glass rattled a bit when sipped - I could hear the ice. The drink itself was a little murky, but I swallowed anyway - to great delight.
While not equal to the sweet tea my momma fed me from the womb, iced milk tea sure is a worthy substitute - at least until I get back to heaven.
(China Daily 08/23/2007 page20)