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Mystery Water

This story goes to show that no matter where you are, poor (and occasionally dangerous!) business behavior will haunt you. I was visiting relatives in China with my immediate family, including my brother who was six at the time. My uncle who lived there knew all the best sights to see and restaurants to go to, and one night he took us to a place that was supposed to have great barbecued beef.

In China, rather than water, you are typically served some common tea as your complimentary beverage. When we asked for ice water, we would be given a bottle of water (along with extra charge), but we did not complain, since my mother in particular was not too confident about the state of China’s tap water. So as per usual, we sit down and my brother asks for water, while everyone else orders soft drinks or sticks to the tea. A few minutes later, the waitress returns with a bottle of water, uncaps it, and gives it to my brother. The adults are busy ordering, and I am the only one who notices him make an ugly face when he drinks it. When I ask him what’s wrong, he replies, “This tastes bad.” Noticing the label was a different color than the water bottles we usually get, I think that perhaps she has given him seltzer water or flavored water by mistake. I take a big swig and choke, spitting it out on the plate laying in front of me. The water tastes like cleaner fluid!

The adults finally notice us, and after I explain, my mother takes the bottle and takes a careful sip, also spitting the water back out onto the plate. She calls the waitress over and demands an explanation. Keep in mind that I am far from fluent in Chinese, so I caught only the general gist of what happened. The waitress apologizes and takes the bottle, promising to inquire about it. She comes out with the manager several minutes later (note: no bottle in sight), and the manager asks my mother to explain the problem. She has a quick temper, and she made her anger very apparent while retelling the story and demanding to know what was in the bottle, because unlike her and me, my little brother had swallowed a whole mouthful of that disgusting water. She points out that the bottle was already open when given to us and asked if maybe someone else used it. The manager replies that he did not see much wrong with the water. When my mother challenged him to show her why, he replied that it was gone. Essentially, he had disposed of the evidence, or at least told the waitress to!

Fortunately, we still have the water that my mother and I had spit out. Shoving the dish under the manager’s nose, my mother gets him to admit that there is definitely something abnormal about this water. Then she carefully pours the two mouthfuls of water into another empty bottle and takes it with her. She informs the manager that she intends to have the water tested and my brother seen in a hospital; if this restaurant has poisoned her son, she warns him, he will be sorry, both for that and for trying to cover it up. We leave immediately, ignoring his offers for a free meal, and spend the remainder of the evening driving around Beijing, trying to find a hospital that can see my brother and test the water.

Thankfully, my brother suffered no ill effects, but we were all terrified, because he was so young. Although I am not sure what was actually done, my mother informed me that the water had contained small amounts of some Lysol or bleach-like solution. The theory was that someone had used that bottle to hold Lysol/bleach for cleaning purposes, rinsed it out casually and filled it with water to drink later. Our waitress took the bottle and gave it to Kevin, covering up the fact that it had been opened already rather than simply turning around and picking up a new one. Very poor behavior on all counts, from employees practicing poor hygiene to attempting to erase mistakes off the record. At least the manager had the sense to offer us a free meal. I feel mean-spirited and nasty for thinking it, but I still hope that that restaurant went out of business, that the manager and waitress are in jobs in which they can do far less harm. Anyone who tries to make light of and hush up the possible poisoning of a six-year-old boy deserves much worse than that. 0327-09


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Green123 August 20, 2012, 4:25 am

    This is a very unpleasant story, but I can’t see where the etiquette issues are? Sounds like one for notalwaysworking.com or Trip Advisor!

  • Maria August 20, 2012, 6:53 am

    Green123, I was thinking the same thing…

  • Janos August 20, 2012, 7:13 am

    I think the Etiquette issue was the management trying to rudely toss out the evidence and acting like nothing was wrong… and perhaps the OP wondering if it’s alright for anger to be expressed in such a situation since her mother sort of lost it.. not that I can blame her! That was her baby for goodness sake I’d yell at her too.

  • Stacey Frith-Smith August 20, 2012, 8:58 am

    Perhaps there was more than one etiquette lesson here but one for parents would be to keep a calm head. Being in a new place should cause you to be observant and analytical. Parents in restaurants of all kinds have been in the position of having to deal with orders that are wrong and even dangerous (alcohol in shakes and smoothies, salsa and condiments whose piquancy would denude a car of paint, food served that is so hot in temperature that it burns the child who touches it, and apparently, tainted food or drink). Examine your child’s food and drink. Taste it if you have any doubts. (At least smell it discreetly and check the temperature). This can be done in the guise of cutting it, giving instructions about being sure to eat the vegetables etc. You have to be a big more vigilant in this crazy world when it comes to children. Not leaving them to fend for themselves would be an etiquette and safety issue. Children should also be instructed to taste a very small sip or to take a very small bite at first. It’s a great way to avoid being burned, surprised by extremely spicy food, or by food that is tainted or otherwise spoiled.

  • MaryFran August 20, 2012, 9:37 am

    Different cultures have different values around what they consider ok to ingest. Western countries are on the most-picky of the spectrum. I’d chalk this up to differences in cultural expectations. It was shady of them to dispose of the evidence, but I’d say that’s bad business practice/demeanor rather than etiquette.

  • Kate August 20, 2012, 10:28 am

    I’ll admit that the restaurant’s actions were both gross and potentially dangerous, but I think the lesson to be learned here is that other countries have different “etiquette” when it comes to everything from customer service to food preparation. I know that refilling water bottles with less-savory tap water is relatively common practice in Egypt, having read about it on multiple travel blogs and websites from people who have been there — I imagine it’s the same way in many other countries. If you do your research before going someplace abroad and know what to look out for, you have a better chance of avoiding a situation like the OP’s. (For the record, I did a quick search and found multiple sources that say refilling water bottles happens frequently in China, Malaysia, and other Southeast Asian countries.)

  • Vickie August 20, 2012, 12:01 pm

    Well, the restaurant covering up “poisening a 6 year old boy” is bad. But then the whole country of China covered up hundreds of deaths of mostly children in India about 5 years ago from tainted toothpaste. When I traveled in China I was told to only buy bottled water from stores where I could open the bottle myself. It sounds like the OP and her family really weren’t prepared for travel to a culture that is so different from theirs.

    The hardest part for me in China was the personal space. I like to have plenty of space and privacy, but people there don’t really understand that. It was normal there for others to just lean over and see what you are buying, or are getting out of your bag. By the end of the 2 weeks I was getting twitchy.

  • RedDevil August 20, 2012, 8:21 pm

    Sadly, it doesn’t surprise me that this episode happened in China. I work with Chinese people, both in the western culture, and in China directly. Suffice to say, covering up mistakes (not even well), and blaming others seems to be the norm, and also an acceptable practice.

    Focusing in on the etiquette – the Manager’s actions in the story shocks us westerners, but it may not be so shocking to those local and used to the practice – which should remind us that our etiquette ideals are not always the same as those of other countries, cultures, religions, and even families.

  • Kali Ravel August 21, 2012, 2:31 am

    ….I don’t think feeding children bleach is a matter of “cultural differences”.

  • llamaqueen August 21, 2012, 9:15 am

    @Kali – I am not sure this child was fed bleach.

    OP says the bottle held bleach or lysol and was rinsed out and refilled.

    Bleach does not have to be rinsed off. In the food industry, dishes were often rinsed in a mild bleach solution and allowed to air dry. I have been out of the business for sometime, but this ruling was in effect 20 years ago. The bleach does not get rinsed off with water.

    It is possible this was a similar situation here, but it does sound as if an employee was not trained properly or did not allow the bottle to dry properly before use (which in the US we would never reuse plastic bottles like this anyway, but it is obvious that it is done in China)

    Certainly if it offends a customer, it is bad business. Not sure if it’s an etiquette issue however.

  • Kim August 21, 2012, 10:30 pm

    This isn’t etiquette as much as it is a cultural thing. I spent a lot of time in China when I was married to a Chinese man and many things were like the polar opposite of how things are done here in the US. I remember seeing several things that would have been frowned upon and even illegal/ticketable in the US and all I could do was warn my then-husband that it wouldn’t fly once we got to the US. Since I was in China, though, it was a “when in Rome” issue.

  • babs August 22, 2012, 6:49 pm

    Some friends were traveling in Paris when they bought bottled water from a street vendor who immediately opened it and handed it to them. My friend’s husband was a bit suspicious and did a little poking around and found out that the man fished empty bottles out of the trash, refilled them and put them in a cooler. They were drinking from somebody else’s water bottle! Ugh. Scammers are everywhere, and I’m sure that scam isn’t practiced only in a foreign country. I know now to beware if a stranger wants open a bottle for me.

  • CollegeGirl August 23, 2012, 3:50 am

    LlamaQueen – it is worth pointing out, though, that it was a bleach solution inside a plastic bottle, which is porous and could retain quite a bit of the bleach, especially if it had held it for an extended period of time. It’s a little different than using it to clean non-porous dishes.