I love new cultural experiences. The excitement of trying anything for the first time gives me a thrill, so I was very excited to try Betel Nut since it packs a very tangible high aside from the novelty of the experience. \
First and foremost – Betel Nut is not only completely legal in Taiwan, but chewing it is an extremely common practice here that dates back hundreds if not thousands of years. All over Taiwan there are little booths lit up with neon lights that sell bags of betel nut to taxi drivers, truckers, and anyone else looking for a little pick-me-up. Apparently these booths are often staffed by scantily clad women in other parts of Taiwan, but this practice has been banned inside Taipei. Every betel nut vendor I have seen is staffed by a grumpy older man who is, thankfully, not wearing reveling clothes.
The betel nut buzz is nothing like that of alcohol or marijuana – it is much more akin to a strong cup of coffee. Chewing a little right now, I can attest that the effects come on much quicker than caffeine, but are more short-lived. How does it taste? Somewhere between god-awful and just plain terrible. It is extremely bitter - an acquired taste to say the least. Since I have a fondness for most bitter flavors, I don’t find it as offensive as most first-time users probably do. Even though I don’t mind the bitterness, I have gum ready to chew after I spit out the remainder of the pulp.
The downside to chewing betel nut is that it has been identified as a carcinogenic. This applies mostly to processed betel nut, not the natural preparation that you can find here in Taiwan. However, the World Health Organization does officially classify it as a cancer risk factor for habitual users. I figure that chewing a few times a month this year can’t be too deadly since I see plenty of cab drivers in their 60’s chewing it almost constantly.
Although I don’t think occasional use will do me in, this is one part of Taiwan’s culture that I won’t be bringing back with me to the US. I’ll stick to my coffee and tea.