'The Betelnut Experience'

By Trista di Genova. Originally published in The China Post 3/29/09

Kelvin “MC Insatiable” Alders is from Edmonton, Canada.
I chew betelnut every time I hang out with my Taiwanese boys. Half my hiphop crew chew it, so whenever they come around we chew it together. There are two types — I like the one wrapped in a leaf in a bag. I don’t like the one that comes in a box with pictures of scantily clad women. It doesn’t have a leaf around it, and it’s got some different paste in it that makes your beer taste sweet. Yech!
I think it’s quite amusing you can drive by and see a pretty girl selling beer, cigarettes and betelnut. They can’t have the betelnut stands in Taipei, but they still let it go on where I live in Chongli.
Last night, I had a king betelnut. Usually it grows facing down, but once in a great while it grows upward. The chemistry makeup of the king betelnut is different; the effect on the body is 100 times stronger, more extreme. So for 5 minutes I had double vision, had to go to the toilet and empty my stomach. My heart was racing like a madman and I was sweating hard. I didn’t know, but if you get a king betelnut you’re supposed to spit it out and not continue. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but my friends told me, “Ohhh! you won the betelnut lottery.” They say if you chew betelnut you may never get a king betelnut, but I’ve had three of them since my stay in Taiwan, off and on for nine years.
Usually the ladies think it’s gross. When I’m around my fiancee I won’t chew it, just around my Taiwanese boys. In Taiwan it’s the men that chew it; in Thailand it’s the ladies that chew it.

Elissa Russell is a poet from Georgia, and a marketing and advertising consultant for local companies here in Taiwan, such as McDonald’s Taiwan and Western Union.
That chewy substance that all the taxi drivers like to eat? The chewy nut that we can can find in the front seat of most of our local taxis? When you get in a taxi, you know whether or not he’s chewing it, because of the smell and notorious spit cup, which is either right there on the armrest or lodged between his thighs. At least this has been my experience taking taxis between Jianguo and Hsinyi Rd. [in Taipei].
The taxi drivers that chew betelnut are the ones who have the frilliest cabs. They’re the ones who are quite energetic and full of conversation — quite buzzed and excited although don’t speak any English. But they try, and you sometimes get that little bit of slobber, spit on the seat when they turn around and say something to you, or see that crust of betelnut juice dried on their lip. But they’re nice guys, I have to admit they are the nicest taxi drivers. And they like to share their betelnut experience and the culture of the betelnut, they always offer, even insist that I try it.
I’ve not tried it for the 8 years I’ve been in Taiwan, and I think I can leave the island never having that experience.

Other experiences with betelnut:

Richard F., is from Glasgow, Scotland:
It was a horrific experience. I was in a cab at nighttime in winter, when it was gloomy and a little wet. It frightened me when he turned around; he was saturated in betelnut. I saw this red spooky bone cavern of a face. He looked like a vampire or that somebody had taken a metal pipe and bashed him in the chiclets, because he had only fragments of teeth left.
You see the betelnut stands everywhere here in Taipei County, and that glowing green neon spiky sign, indicating what they sell. Generally at least some of the stands look like brothels or something. I dare say, a while ago some of them were prostitutes; one down south looked ridiculous, like she had just jumped out of a cake. You also see a lot of people chewing here, like it’s the home of the Charleston chew here. And the spitting, and what looked like a puddle of blood you later find out that it’s just the betelnut spillage. When you look at one of those cups, it looks like a cup of dog testicles or something.
Phillip Charlier turned me on to my first betelnut. He said “try this,” and that it’s a natural stimulant, and “don’t swallow.” And yes, try it if you want to stimulate teeth decay, and a hot rush of nausea. The flavor’s not appealing either, like biting into a piece of bark. It’s gross, actually, if you think about it. It’s worse on girls. A couple times I’ve seen pretty girls open their mouth and their teeth yech, it’s got a red hue you never forget, like bull’s blood.
A lotta people like ’em though. I don’t see how it can be such a social thing because of the spit and disposal of a soup of secretion; it’s really satanic looking. Gross, man! Not very social when you’re spittin’, chewin’ and dripping. And it’s a bastard getting it out of your clothes. That stuff stains. You could use it as a natural dye, no problem.
When they tell you not to chew it on the train (MRT), You wonder what they’re talking about. That’s a good thing betelnutting’s not allowed — it’d look like a warzone filmset after a shootout or something.

— Interviews by Trista di Genova, The China Post

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