Betel nut was what Bloody Mary chewed, “Bloody Mary’s chewing betel nut / She is always chewing betel nut…Now ain’t that too damned bad” (Rogers & Hammerstein, South Pacific). I had to go all the way to Nam to figure out what a show tune lyric meant!
Actually, what grunts thought was “chewing betel nut” was areca nuts chewed with betel leaf and tobacco. Like coffee, this is a mild stimulant and the drug of choice of mamasahns. Chewing this stuff stains the teeth a deep brownish red, which means mamasahn ain’t getting kissed any time soon… there ain’t enough Ba Moui Ba in the world!
According to Wikipedia, the areca nut and the betel leaf are important symbols of love and marriage in Vietnam. The Vietnamese phrase, chuyện trầu cau, “matters of betel and areca,” refers to the parents’ chewing betel nut while negotiating their children’s marriage. Reminds me of an old parody of an Ogden Nash poem, “Candy’s dandy / But sex doesn’t rot your teeth.” Obviously not true in Nam.
Personally, I prefer the American custom of sneaking away and making out. It didn’t turn your teeth brown, and, despite what the nuns told us, didn’t make you go blind or grow hair on your palms.
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