I grew up in a very liberal household and my parents have always had a very anti-prohibition attitude about controlled substances. Cannabis use, for example, was widely accepted even long before it became legally accessible to adults in my state of Washington in 2012. In the home I grew up in, inviting someone to smoke marijuana has always been intended as a gesture of hospitality and camaraderie, like offering a cup of tea or a cigar. It’s meant to make you feel at ease. Through observation and experience, this is something I have also found to be more or less true of chewing betel nut or, more accurately, the quid of seed and leaf from Areca catechu with the addition of slaked lime paste.
Having worked as a conservator across the Himalayas and southern Asia, I have been offered and enjoyed eating betel nut after meals to promote digestion, by colleagues while working on a shared project, and during long drives on dangerous roads. As someone who didn’t grow up with betel nut – though with similar intoxicant-based social exchanges – I find the ritual of sharing and chewing it somehow comforting and familiar. The taste is sometimes pleasant, sometimes reminiscent of livestock, and eating it on an empty stomach can have treacherous and efficient consequences for one’s digestion. But it’s really the act of passing it around that has drawn me into its use.
When I started looking into the collection at MAA for materials associated with chewing betel nut, I saw suggestions of its integration into several types of activity and modes of being. Carrying, storing, trading, or presenting the three components of the betel quid has, in many cultures across Asia and the Pacific, become a matter of style as well as necessity. Containers for storing the components of the betel quid are made from wood, metal, plant fibers, leather, lacquer, and silk. Some of these objects may have been used every day and others very little. Some may have been given as gifts, relied on for daily use or intended for disposal after a single transaction.Like cannabis – or alcohol in some places – chewing betel is far from universally accepted. I have friends in the region who cannot stand the smell and forbid it in their presence. In all manners of public space across southern Asia – including hospitals and airports – there are frequent signs asking people not to chew it or spit its red juice. It is well-known to be habit-forming and carcinogenic – especially when tobacco is added. Traveling in the region, one gets the impression that it visually and structurally affects the mouths of those who chew it, and the number of devices for mashing or cutting betel manually in the collection at MAA reinforces the suggestion that it is bad for one’s dental health. Many regular users have stained red lips and teeth; many older users have few teeth at all. Yet the appeal of what one medical researcher has framed as the “psychosomatics of arecaidinism” – the mental and emotional effects of chewing betel – endures in contemporary practice as well as the material record.
Though I chew it very little and only within communities where it is widely accepted – and I regret slightly its effects on decades of American dentistry – to me, chewing betel nut is associated with the warmth of being included. And though in addition to aesthetic and public health issues associated with its use it has been associated with both idleness and manual labor, in my experience, one is just as likely to find it in a government office building as in the fields. Personally, I enjoy the feeling of (slightly antisocial) solidarity that comes from offering or accepting it with the inherent decadence of any social drug.