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John Wayne's Holster: Taiwan's Betel Nut Culture
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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Taiwan's Betel Nut Culture

Areca Palm Plantation

Every culture has its vices. Taiwan is no differnt. Smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol are common past-times here. Although prevalent, these vices rank well behind betel nut chewing in popularity.

Betel nut is essentially the Asian version of chewing tocacco. The locals call it bing lang. The name betal nut is misleading, as the nut itself is not derived from the betel plant. It is actually a small nut from the areca fan-palm nut.

To prepare bing lang, the palm nut is cut down the center and packed with a concoction of limestone or coral paste.

It is not uncommon to supplement the mixture with spices or tobacco. The nut is then wrapped in a small piece of betel leaf, thus giving the treat its popular name.

What exactly is the attraction to chewing bing lang? Part of the attraction is that the nut itself. It contains a mild stimulant that has a subtle effect akin to drinking tea. Users report that ,betel makes you feel strong. Your chest feels broader, your inhalations deeper, your back straighter; and an almost electric invigoration seems to run through your bones." In my own experience, betel chewing gives a mild head rush followed by a envigorating feeling of being on the top of my game. And salivation goes into over-drive. Within a few minutes, my mouth was filled with what felt like a quart of slobber. All in all, I felt pretty content.

While masticating the fibrous bolus, I began to think, "Who ever came up with the idea to mix these odd ingedients together and chew them?", and "What is the purpose of each component?" A bit of internet research, and an interrogation of my brother-in-law who turned me on to these phenomenon lead me to the following info. The alkaloids in the nut are responsible for encouraging salivation. The slaked lime mixture aids in the extraction of the alkaloids and stimulants from the nuts. Spices are added for flavor. The betel leaves are derived from a vine related to pepper. The leaves contain aromatic compounds and are also beleived to increase salivation. Apparently "betel drooling" is part of the pleasure derived from chewing.

Knowing and experiencing this, I can understand why betel chewing is the vice of choice. In fact, it is popular in many countries in southeast asia, and many Pacific islands. One statistic I read estimated that approx. 10% of the world's population chews the nuts. That beign said, betel chewing seems even more popular in Taiwan. Just about every truck driver, construction worker, food vendor, and merchant had a dolop stuffed in his cheek. I was even more suprised to learn that areca palm is the second largest cash crop on the island. Why has betel chewing arisen to be the cultural phenomonon that it is.

Perhaps the answer lies in the laps of the betel nut girls.

To drum-up business, scantitly-clad teens are hired to hawk nuts by the roadside. To get an edge on the competion, the betel nut girls essentially display their "finer charms" in glass booths that line the main thoroughfares. It's a culture unique to Taiwan.

One website describes the betel nut girls as, "a fast-living, fast-talking and fast-selling tangle of live wires". That seems apt to me.

Bing lang does have its down side. Because of its cash draw, many locals have illegally planted the palms on steep mountain slopes. Because the tree themselves have a relatively shallow root structure, mud slides are not uncommon, especially during typhoon season. Government officals have also expressed concern that the betel nut industry gives the island a bad image. Recently, direct flights between the mainland and Taiwan have been reestablished. Nantou county officals were afraid that the so-called scandalous appearence of the betel nut girls would scare away mainland toruist. As such, they forced to girls to dress "more appropriately". One Taiwan blogger quipped that the mainlanders would be shocked to discover that Chinese woman actually have secondary sex characteristics. Other negative issues are linked to public health concerns. Bing lang chewers spatter the reddish liquid on city streets and walkways, leading to unsightly and unsanitary conditions.

The chewers themselves often have grossly discolored teeth, as well as eroded and bleeding gums. Long-term use is linked with oral cancer.

Although officials have made attempts to ban or limit the practice, it is unlikley they will succeed. Native Taiwanese and Pacific islanders have a long history of chewing betel nut that goes back thousands of years. Betel proponents argue that infering with this ancient practice would be akin to cultural prejudice. Moreover, betel chewing is a vice largely confined to blue-collar or working class peoples. Restrictions on the practice would similarly be taken as class snobbery by the legislature. Taiwan also has a fairly large areca palm lobby composed of growers and sellers. They argue that many families depend on the income gained from nut harvests and sales to meet basic needs. As such, the bing lang culture does not look like it will go away any time soon.


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