Some things that are no longer common for me, are an integral part of the Taiwan experience (see: Who Cut the Tofu?). Of these experiences, the one I’ll talk about today is betel nut, or more specifically betel nut juice.
Betel nut, or areca nut, bianlong (檳榔) is grown on a feathery palm tree (Areca catechu L. Family: Palmaceae) throughout southern Asia. The nut is chewed in a manner similar to tobacco, the effects are also similar to tobacco. It can give you a low-grade—head-spinning—type of buzz, similar to nicotine. It is a stimulant that can increase alertness, stamina, and give a sense of well-being. The effects are part of the reason that physical laborers, taxi drivers, and truckers are the primary chewers of betel nut. I suppose that’s why it used to be called the poor man’s opium. Personally, I enjoy the taste and feel of betel nut, but I’m unusually 台客 in my appetites (see: Are You Gay?).
There are numerous ways to prepare the betel nut quid. Two methods are common in Taiwan. One is to simply take the nut, wrap it in a betel vine leaf, with (white colored) slaked lime collected from seashells. The lime is important as it increases alkalinity, aiding absorption of arecoline, the nut’s stimulant. When prepared this way there is none of the characteristic red dying of the chewer’s saliva. The other way betel nut is commonly prepared in Taiwan is by cutting the green nut in half and placing red slaked lime along with a slice of the female part of a flower into the nut. The flower comes from a plant in the pepper family. It provides the safrole that is mixed with the lime, dying it red. Safrole is used in the illegal production of MDMA and is responsible for much of the betel nut high.
The red colored lime paste used to cover Taipei’s streets and walkways as users expectorated in a manner similar to someone with a tobacco chaw. Mores have changed thanks partially to government education programs and an increasingly cosmopolitan attitude in Taipei. But, my stories are from the good ol’ days when the crimson juice flew everywhere, and Taipei’s streets looked like there’d been a massacre.
My first trip to Taiwan was almost thirty-five years ago. Things were different. One of those things was the rate and carelessness of spitting. In 1987 Taiwan, hawking phlegm balls was practically a national sport. On one disorienting occasion I watched a stunning Taiwanese woman, dressed in a beautiful qipao, walking elegantly down the street. Her hair, makeup, clothes were all perfect. But, as she walked towards me, she was—with verve and gusto—trying to gurgle up a ball of throat butter. I half expected her to close one nostril with her finger and suck up the mucus, for added volume and color. When she was just a little ways off, she spat, gave the catarrh a self-satisfied glance, and continued rolling her hips down the street, in one of the sexiest walks I’ve ever seen—well,…you know,…except for the whole phlegmy tuvan throat singer thing.
My point is, there was a lot of spitting going on, and it was pretty socially acceptable. It was heaven for the dedicated bianlong (檳榔) chewer. As you might expect, the sidewalks were often stained almost red.
Also, there was a pretty cavalier attitude among some about where exactly the spit was going. During this time, it was semi-common for people to hawk a loogie off their balcony, without much regard for what was going on below. On one memorable occasion someone spat a giant load of betel nut schmegma off the balcony. It plopped down right in the center of my traveling companion’s head, and rolled down his face, like a flock of pigeons with Irritated Bowel Syndrome had been doing a fly by. It was damn funny. [I was nineteen, and not yet the fully evolved and enlightened human being you see now]. And then it happened to me.
Just after moving here, I was riding a scooter on a stretch of freeway, zinging along as fast as my scooter would go, when the driver in front of me rolled down his window and spat a massive wad of bianlong juice out his window. I watched it, almost in slow motion, roll and tumble into the open, curve towards me, and then with my 70+ kph closing speed, hit me center mass. I unconsciously swerved and swiveled, nearly crashing. If I hadn’t observed what was happening I’d have thought I’d been shot. The red gore spreading across my white t-shirt was a reasonable facsimile of a high caliber chest wound. These things are much less droll when they happen to you.
It is all an example of something that’s changing in Taiwan. There’s a lot less public spitting, less betel nut chewing, and less unmindful spitting. Not something I miss.