Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Chinese Water Coolers Don’t Cool the Water: Finding and Losing Your Place in a World


You’re not really supposed to drink the water in China. So there are water coolers everywhere. Though paper or plastic cups are a bit harder to come by. I assume you’re supposed to carry your own or ask.

Ironically, though, in China, water coolers don’t cool water, like they do chez nous, in our neck of the woods. In fact, Chinese water coolers do the exact opposite: they heat water. There are, according to my current and admittedly limited knowledge of things, at least two reasons for this. Firstly, in a practical sense, the Chinese use heated water to make tea, heat up noodles, etc. Secondly, the Chinese believe that medically-speaking cold water isn’t as well absorbed by your body as warm or tepid water. (I have no idea if this is a scientific fact or not, but it makes you wonder.)

When I first saw these structures having all the tell-tale markings—waist-high, two-spouted (blue and red) boxes topped by a large, clear cylinder full of purified water, I thought water cooler. In France or the United States, this perception would have been right, at least in my experience. But here, in China, they don’t cool anything. So what should you call these things? Water heaters? But if I call it that, my whole historical network of meanings, associations and mental images imagines something totally different.

For me, it’s a water cooler that has lost its “home”–its genuine and generally assumed place in the world. But whose generally? Whose home? Whose authentic or genuine? Whose place? What place? What world?

It’s not really the water cooler that’s lost its home. It’s me whose lost his ability to place this so-familiar object into its oft-all-assumed framework. It’s not the object; it’s me whose lost his place.

~ ¥ ~

These thoughts seem trivial and pointless from our everyday perspective in which everything so seamlessly fits. But, in fact, the whole dilemma stems from the loss or shifting of such an everyday, stable, established perspective, of such all-fitting, common place in the world. We forget or fail to notice that there is a personal and social history, which built up, established and is at the base of our stable “place in the world” perspective.

But, while this stable or stabilizing perspective of the world and the objects around us is our standard, everyday way about the world, the stability of such a perspective and the ability for such an object to fit seamlessly into this one world of meanings and roles holds no universal claim. Objects hold a place in the world for us because of a social positioning not a universal fixture. Such a perspective can and does become askew. The framework no longer really holds this new picture or the picture no longer fits the frame. For us.

Everything that was before ceases to matter in the same sense. These things just don’t quite have the same place or use or meaning here as they do or used to there or over-there. To you.

All your relationships; every daily activity; your common know-hows; your general orientation and way about things has no bearing in this here and now, because this concrete body of knowledge applied to somewhere you no longer are. The lived context has shifted, and you are no longer guided by that particular, established, implicit place and role in the world. You’ve been disrupted, pulled out, ungrounded, depaysé, transposed somewhere outside of your former mastery.

This experience can be had in many situations, for example, changing jobs, going off to college, moving cities, etc. Perhaps the most radical is moving abroad, going à l’etranger, going into the foreign or strange where you can’t really even know what you don’t know; where you can’t really know what what is to them. These are places, which surprise you in a such a way you end up rethinking the places things hold, lose and regain in our worlds.

In our globalized and tourist-ified world, such strangeness shrinks and shifts in new ways. Certain objects cut across all of our perspective and experiential fields. But not all. And not yet, perhaps never. Because in some worlds this water distributor heats; in others it cools. Initially, we see this thing filled with an assuming meaning, role, and purpose. To me, I saw a cooler. To the Chinese, its perhaps a heater, perhaps I should ask again. To all of us, its a distributor and deliverer of drinkable, to be drunk, water. No object you see or experience means anything in and of itself. In the end, it is what it is…to us.