Sunday, February 25, 2007

Visit from Home: The Allure of the Bin Lan Culture

One of the first things my friend Bernie and I did when he came to visit me here in Hsinchu, Taiwan, was to stop by a Betel Nut stand and buy some "Taiwan chewing gum." I won't go into too much detail about what Betel Nut (bin lan) is, as I'm sure there is a lot of better information somewhere out there, but suffice it to say that betel nut is a kind of palm seed that people in Taiwan (and I assume other Southeast Asian countries) chew to get a kind of buzz. It is sold in small stands all over the place, and the people selling it are often scantily-clad young women.

When Bernard was looking into information about Taiwan, he came across some stuff about the betel nut girls, so when he got here, he was interested in seeing what that was all about, as well as in trying betel nut to see what it is like. I, on the other hand, had never heard of betel nut before I came here, so my reaction to the whole thing was more one of surprise than interest. For me, and I think this is true of most foreign males in Taiwan, the main point of interest is the girls. I don't mean to sound lecherous about it, but any warm-blooded heterosexual man has trouble ignoring cute, 90% naked young women.

I'd tried betel nut a couple of times before, but it never really did much for me. Probably because when I tried it I had been drinking a bit and that disguised the effects. After chewing it a few times during Bernard's visit, however, I've developed a taste for it, as well as for the ear-warming body buzz that comes with it.

One thing that always strikes me as odd about the whole betel nut culture is the contrast between the "bin lan beauties" who sell the product, and the people who buy and use the product. These guys are often heavy-set, usually come from the lower economic levels (i.e., the laboring class), have a relatively low level of education, are somewhat lacking in the social graces, and generally strike a sharp visual contrast with the cute little platform shoe wearing underwear girls who sit all day and night in their brightly lit booths.

Chewing bin lan is like chewing tobacco in that the chewer has to continuously spit. Bin lan "juice" is red, and it looks somewhat like blood. In fact, a lot of people--myself included--thought that the red splotches all over the streets and sidewalks were blood from car accidents. People who chew the stuff a lot have really bad teeth, and they look like they have been feasting on raw meat because their teeth and lips are all red (the teeth that haven't already either fallen out or turned black).

I have to back up a little here and say that not all people who chew betel nut are gross. I mean, some people chew it discreetly and don't just spit the stuff all over the place. Still, there is a certain social stigma associated with it which is not completely undeserved.

You might notice that most of the photos I have here are kind of timid. That's because most of the time the girls don't like to be photographed. We even asked one girl if we could take her picture, and she got a kind of scared look on her face and told us we couldn't. She didn't mind me sitting in her chair while Bernie took my photo, however.

I heard a story that at one time the betel nut beauties wore even less clothing than they do now. I even heard they were buck naked, but they were causing too many car accidents, so they had to start wearing g-strings and stuff.

Truth be told, most of the girls don't have very good figures. They are generally too skinny for my taste, and are somewhat lacking in the curvature department. Also, you have to wonder about the personality of someone who chooses to make a living by using her body to entice men to buy a product that is known to be unhealthy. I don't mean to sound judgmental; everyone who works for a living prostitutes him or herself in some way. It is not any different than models who pose for beer ads, but I believe there is a matter of degree that can be considered. After all, a model sits for a few hours one time to make an ad; these girls sit in those booths all day. I'm not making a moral distinction. I just wonder what kind of mental state these girls are in. At least they are supposedly well paid.

You can see that when it comes to betel nut and the betel nut culture, most of what I know comes from things I've heard from other people or that I've picked up here and there from blogs and other anecdotal sources. The nature of a blog, I suppose, makes it unnecessary to make a disclaimer like this, but I'd hate for anyone to take my comments as being somehow definitive and reliable.

Let's just say that my friend Bernard and I got a kick out of doing some bin lan chewing during his visit, as well as out of the couple of experiences we had in buying the stuff from the betel nut beauties.

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