Cold milk, hot water, and overcoming intercultural horror

     (<a href=''>Kettle</a> image courtesy of

    (Kettle image courtesy of

    “Civilization is the custom you know.” In other words, customs and what constitutes civilized behavior are not absolute like the sun rising from the East. By that standard, everybody is not up to par, for whatever is considered worldly, sophisticated, and civilized at one locale, in one country, may be just the opposite elsewhere.

    American writer Margaret Halsey once recounted her experience of ordering a glass of milk in a restaurant in England.

    “Milk?” the waitress was obviously taken aback.

    Halsey found it a bit surprising, too. The food was horrible, and she wanted to have a glass of milk instead. What was wrong with that? She repeated her order with emphasis, “Yes, a glass of milk.”

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    The waitress went to the kitchen and came back empty-handed. “Please — do you wish to have your milk hot or cold?”

    It was Halsey’s turn to be flummoxed. Why did she have to ask? Halsey was not a baby, why would she drink hot milk? Everybody knows that even in very cold weather, cold enough to send your teeth chattering, you still drink your milk cold. But this girl might be unusually dense, so Halsey simply said, “Cold.”

    In a little while, the waitress appeared again, this time looking extremely uncomfortable: “Do you want your milk in a porcelain cup or a glass?”

    “Just roll it up in a napkin,” Halsey answered.

    She was, of course, being sarcastic. After her words were out and she saw how humiliated the girl was, Halsey was sorry. Before she could say something to remedy the situation, the girl had run back to the kitchen, never to be seen again. A different waitress came to take the dessert order, and the milk incident was over.

    Getting into hot water

    Halsey’s milk experience crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a letter to the Simon & Schuster office in New York. Her colleagues at the office had a riot; they laughed so hard they nearly choked. How could people in Great Britain be so stupid, so unsophisticated that a glass of milk stirred up so much trouble!

    This happened in the mid 1930s, around the time I was born, and I have never had the luck to set foot in the office of Simon & Schuster. If I could have been there at the time, after the laughter had died down, I would have shared my experiences of ordering a cup of hot water in the United States.

    To make a long story short, my relationship with beverages, whether hard or soft, with caffeine or without, has been unfortunate. Over time and for various reasons, chief among them allergies, I’ve had to bid a fond farewell to all — except water.

    America is a huge country blessed with rich resources, and getting a glass of water is usually not a problem. At a restaurant, a busboy will make sure your water glass is never empty. However, with the exception of coffee, Americans seem to prefer cold drinks. In a restaurant, if you ask for tea and fail to specify “hot,” a huge glass of iced tea will materialize pronto. And all cold soft drinks, including water, are overpowered with ice, cold enough to numb your insides. In fact, by the time you drink up whatever beverage in your glass, that three-quarter cup of ice is still there.

    I’m fine with iced water in hot weather, but when it’s frigid outside, just the sight of all that ice is enough to make me shiver. I must therefore gather my courage to do battle: I ask for hot water.

    Of course I know the proverb: “When in Rome, do what the Romans do.” I’m in America, and Americans drink iced water. Throughout the decades, that iron-clad fact made my attempt to acquire hot water in a restaurant as hopeless as Margaret Halsey ordering cold milk in 1930s England. (My situation is much better now with the advent of globalization.) The reason for our difficulty is the same: It’s simply not done.

    A waiter, who might have approached us with a nice smile, would then turn dubious and deeply troubled, “Hot water?”

    I understand his perspective. Hot water without coffee or tea bags was unheard of, too weird, bordering on the bizarre. Waiters are adept at handling unexpected problems and schooled in the belief that “Customers are always right,” but all their expertise would collapse in an instant under my outrageous, unthinkable request.

    However, I was much older than Halsey when she asked for cold milk in England, I believed in education, and I phrased my request with great care: “I have to stay away from coffee and tea for health reasons. Would you mind bringing me some hot water instead?”

    But he was compelled to prevent my foolhardy behavior. It seemed civilization absolutely depended on it. “Are you sure you wouldn’t want a tea bag?”

    I would be equally tenacious. “I’m positive. Once you put a tea bag in hot water, it’ll be tea, and I can’t drink tea.”

    “How about a slice of lemon then?” He was making a last ditch effort, hoping against hope, as a slice of lemon would be, like jockey shorts for a man at a public beach, far better than nothing.

    ‘You can’t drink that!’

    My most memorable battle was fought some time in the 1980s. We happened to drive through a small town in Tennessee, and the alarm clock in my husband’s stomach inopportunely started ringing.

    His alarm clock rang three times a day. Like a fire alarm, it signified the dire necessity of putting out his hunger within the shortest amount of time — say, five minutes. In that five minutes, if there was only one restaurant at our side of the road, and it happened to be a fast-food joint, the kind he ordinarily tried his best to avoid, he would barge in just the same, his reason seemingly indisputable: “I’m too hungry to be picky!”

    Indeed. Only one restaurant appeared at our side of the road that day, a fast food joint no less. The place was filled with locals who obviously had never seen Orientals before and were determined to take advantage of this rare opportunity. Of course, behind the counter stood a teenager ready to take our order but too young to have ever heard of “hot water.”

    That was all right, I figured. I just had to bring her around. “You must have hot tea. Just pour me a cup from water heated for your tea. It’d be perfect.”

    Oh, no, she apparently knew the menu backwards — they served hot coffee, iced tea, Pepsi, Ginger Ale, Mountain Dew, and many other soft drinks. But they didn’t have hot tea.

    Meanwhile, my hungrier half was glaring at me meaningfully, “Don’t waste any more time! For heaven’s sake, just take the iced water!”

    Suddenly I saw salvation — resting behind her were two steaming glass pots on top of the coffee maker. The brown liquid in one pot had to be coffee, but what about the other, fabulously colorless and transparent?

    “You can’t drink that! It’s for filtering coffee!” The girl protested.

    “Of course I can,” I assured her. “Why don’t you give me some, I’ll prove it to you right now!”

    By this time, we had attracted even more attention to ourselves. Although my tenacity won me the hot water, it wasn’t very comfortable to drink it under the gaze of so many people, not all of them friendly.

    ‘The custom you know’

    Years later, I had an epiphany after reading Halsey’s milk story: She and her colleagues had a big laugh at the provincial English waitress, not knowing that they themselves were equally unworldly. They knew the American way all right, but Halsey was in England, and the English had no use for cold milk. Milk was heated and stirred in tea. Preciously few Americans visited the United Kingdom in those days. How could they blame a waitress for not having encountered a customer who wanted cold milk?

    Similarly, American restaurant wait staff not knowing hot water was drinkable could be categorized as unworldly, or uncool, but I have been in this country for decades and failed to adjust to the local custom of drinking iced water. It’s understandable I came across as a country bumpkin not knowing the way of the world.

    After being in England for a few years, Halsey seemed to have mellowed and concluded, “Civilization is the custom you know.” In other words, customs and what constitutes civilized behavior are not absolute like the sun rising from the East. By that standard, everybody is not up to par, for whatever is considered worldly, sophisticated, and civilized at one locale, in one country, may be just the opposite elsewhere.

    During Halsey’s time it was important to be considered civilized. Now a decade and half into the new century, we seem to have an overwhelming need to be cool. If you are cool in one group, you may be uncool in another.

    In her first book, “With Malice Toward Some,” Margaret Halsey didn’t have a great deal of complimentary things to say about the British — who considered themselves to be so very civilized — and was especially critical about their upper-class society. A witty and humorous volume published in 1938, the book sold an astounding 600,000 copies and established her reputation. Thirty years later Thomas Anthony Harris wrote “I’m OK, You’re OK” and sold a whooping 15 million copies. I would like to write a book titled “I’m Uncool, You’re Uncool,” but I’m afraid it might not sell too well.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal