Living in China 101: The Water Dispenser

Note: This post was ported over from an old blog and originally written in September 2013, when I  was living in the bonafide sticks in Hunan Province, China.

It should be common knowledge that tap water in China is NOT drinkable. If you didn’t know that and are planning to visit/live in China, take note of that now. Locals who have grown up here can stomach boiling the water and drinking it, but I don’t advise it for foreigners. I suppose if you live here long enough you could try, but in general even Chinese people don’t drink water from the tap if possible.

From personal experience

I can personally attest to China tap water making me sick – the worst stomach bug I ever got was after I returned from my first visit to China over New Year’s 2011. Not wanting to venture out into the bitter cold night of Shanghai, and too lazy to buy water from the hotel, I used the kettle in the room and boiled water to drink. After all, I drank tap water in Australia and Japan all the time, and there was a kettle, so it mustn’t be that toxic right?


I was fine the day after, and actually 2 weeks after I had left China, so I’m not sure if the water was the entire cause of my stomach troubles, but I’m sure they were a factor. Whatever attacked my stomach lay dormant until I went back to Japan (where I was living at the time), so I’m thankful for that at least.

After 3 days of excruciating pain and inability to eat, I was finally urged by my supervisor to see a doctor, who was very kind and even gave me an ultrasound to check there was nothing else wrong. He then prescribed me some medication and I gradually got better. After that experience, I vowed never to fool with drinking tap water from places where it was advised not to.

The water dispenser saves the day

Water dispenser in China
An indispensable part of life in China (pun intended) 

So now I live in China, what do I do about water? Do I go out and buy 2L bottles of water everyday? Well, no, fortunately it’s more convenient and cost-effective than that. Pretty much every house in China has a water dispenser, and 5 gallon (18.9L) bottles are delivered to your house everytime you run out. You just need to call the number on the bottle. Each bottle only costs around 5-10 RMB (less than AUD$2) so it’s well worth it. Since those full bottles are pretty heavy, the delivery guy usually also helps you change the bottle on the dispenser, taking the empty one away to be reused.

Well, this was the norm when I was living in a big city like Kunming. Sometimes the call was even automated, so you didn’t even need to speak to anybody, just press some buttons ,and the water would usually be delivered within the hour.

But here, in this little town, things are bit less organised. 

The university basically has its own drinking water company. I think it’s run by a family, because I hear it’s always the same guy who answers the call. So after I repeat my address several times because he has trouble understanding my laowai accent, I wait a random amount of time for him to deliver the water. So far, it hasn’t been too bad – it’s usually delivered in an hour or two.

Yesterday I was really surprised that a lady delivered the water, as the full bottle is pretty heavy as I mentioned before (18.9L = 18.9 kg), and I live on the top floor of an apartment building with no elevator. So she had to climb all those stair carrying almost 20 kg where her bare hands. Wow, respect.

Furthermore, I was napping when she knocked, so I was half asleep when I answered the door. She placed the bottle inside near the front door, and I said “谢谢 [xie xie]” and attempted to close the door.

She stopped me and said “钱![money]”

“Huh?” I responded, brain still not fully awake

“给钱 [you need to pay]”

I suddenly realised I hadn’t paid her, and a little embarrassed said “不好意思 [sorry]” and immediately reached for my wallet to pay.

Taking the note, and stopping me from closing the door again, she then said “还有给我那个空的 [you also need to give me the empty one]”

“Oh,” I said, feeling increasingly stupid and quickly pulling the empty bottle off the dispenser and handing it to her.

She looked more amused than annoyed, and helped me close the front door after stopping me from so many attempts to do so. I laughed at myself too, as I finally shook myself fully awake.

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