The Korean Ice Cup and the Cultural Distinction it Hides
Sometimes, “culture” comes down to a quiet personal preference
In late 2020, I encountered an unusual product in a Chinese convenience store. It was simply called the “ice cup,” and it was just that — a plastic cup filled with ice into which one would pour a soda or other cold beverage to keep it cold. The ice cups weren’t sold for very long — not a popular product, I gathered, and space in the cold case was better used for ice cream novelties.
At the time, I almost wrote about the ice cup and the sheer oddity of the thing, but life got in the way. There wasn’t much to say, anyway — no greater cultural point to be sussed out of this thing. It’s not like I ever saw ice cups sold anywhere else.
Flash forward to 2023, and I now live in a place where ice cups are abundantly common. While not exactly a standard feature of Korean convenience stores, there are many locations (mostly connected with specific franchises) which have a small cooler in the front of the store just for ice cups.
At this point, I should mention that the Chinese convenience store was a Lawson, a Republic of Korea-based chain. This suggests that the ice cup is a Korean invention, one that they just couldn’t make work in China.
By itself, this is a minor point, but it speaks to a slightly larger cultural distinction, one that isn’t exactly deep but that might be useful knowledge for anyone looking to relocate: Koreans have a taste for cold beverages and the Chinese really don’t.
One of the first thing that many people learn when they move to China is that getting a cold drink is fairly hard. Ice is a rarity, cold cases are often turned to a relatively high temperature, and many people forego those barely chilled drinks in favor of the room temperature bottles of soda and beer that fill convenience stores. Cold water is a little easier to find, but when one is served water it will almost always be hot.
While this isn’t a major concern, it is something that Westerners often struggle to adjust to. Warm Coca-Cola isn’t appealing to most of us who have been raised with refrigerators and ice machines.
By contrast, Koreans have by and large embraced cold beverages. The cold cases in this country are actually cold and sodas in restaurants come with plenty of ice. This makes for a much smoother adjustment.
This distinction is mainly down to personal preference between the two countries, but it actually does speak to a more subtle cultural distinction. At least part of the Chinese preference for hot and room temperature beverages is tied into a specific set of beliefs regarding health. Many people in China maintain that mixing a cold drink with hot food can damage the stomach, a belief that Koreans don’t seem to share. I even had a Chinese friend who believed quite firmly that Westerners had a naturally higher body temperature and a preference for cold drinks was proof of that.
Above all, this is a reminder that culture isn’t just food, colorful clothing and dances. It inundates life fully in ways subtle and grand — and it always catches you by surprise where you didn’t expect it.
Watch the vlog that inspired this: