Betel Nut Ingénue

Binglan xiaojiemen (betel nut girls) are ubiquitous in cities and towns throughout Taiwan.  These scantily clad women sit on the side of the road in transparent glass booths, from which they dispense baggies of betel nut, a mildly narcotic locally grown substance ingested primarily by men, usually taxi drivers, truckers and so forth.  Though every so often some government official looking to score points with the high-minded morality crowd will lead a crusade to get betel nuts banned (or at least to get betel nut girls to dress more modestly), little has come from these efforts.  This story was inspired by a friend of mine who spent time getting to know some of these women.  The first words, meaning ‘tell me’, are in the Taiwanese dialect.

Ga wu gong-a!” Ah-wei laughed, slapping Ah-nei’s bare white shoulder with her palm.  “Was it romantic? I hear foreigner men are so romantic.  Tell me! Tell me!”

“Hmmmm…let me think.”  Ah-nei ran long fingers through her hair as if trying to conjure up moments past, prolonging her friend’s suspense.  “Yes, definitely.”

“Lucky! I can’t stand you!”

A blue Hyundai announced itself before the glass booth, tires crunching on gravel.  “This one is mine.”  Ah-nei grabbed two baggies of betel nut and walked to the car, flamingo-like on high heels.  Ah-nei bent down at the waist and presented the driver with a full view of the goods offered and those about which he could only dream.

“Two bags leaf-wrapped, right handsome?”

The driver was in his early forties by the looks of him; he’d bought from the stand a few times before, always on Monday mornings.  He was, by the looks of his car, a family man, and Ah-nei assumed he was a businessman.  The small struggles and low-grade disappointments of his life were just beginning to etch their map on the skin of his face.  Ah-nei imagined the man leaving a doting tai-tai at home in a big apartment in Ilan on Monday mornings, leaving her to raise their child in a healthier environment while he drove into Taipei to manage whatever his business was during the week.  She imagined that he had a small, non-descript efficiency apartment somewhere in Taipei not far from the office; he tried to drive back at least once or twice mid-week to spend the night with his wife and child.  He loved his wife, or so he told himself, but couldn’t deny that he felt as if he’d compromised somewhere along the line.  These thoughts he dealt with through drink, and the occasional debauch.  Though she did not know his name, Ah-nei knew that she represented to him just a small taste of the latter.  She smiled inwardly at the realization that in some small way she had a place in the environment of the man’s marriage.

Ganxie,” said the man, smiling.  “Thank you for remembering me.”

“Not so many handsome men buying from me, mostly pock-marked truckers.”

The driver held a 200 kuai note just inches out of the window.  Ah-nei leaned in closer; strands of long black hair, soft as corn silk, tickled the man’s wrist as he handed her the money.  “Keep the change,” he said, and slowly accelerated back onto the road.  She tucked the note into the purse dangling from her hip as she walked back into the glass booth.

“Why didn’t you just put your tongue in his ear?” Ah-wei was amused.  “You got close enough.”

“You’re such a prude! Besides, I didn’t have to.  It’s all about the implication.”

“So you say! So what did you imply with your handsome ahdogha? Tell me everything.  Where did you meet him?”

“At a pub in Ilan.  I think he is an English teacher.  He speaks good Mandarin, but only a little Taiwanese.”

“Was he nice to you?”

“Mmmm…after we left the pub, he took me dancing, and then to sing karaoke.  He could really sing in Mandarin.”

“And then? What did you do after you left the KTV?”

Ai-ya, what do you think? And you know what they say about foreign men being bigger? It’s really true.”

“Pervert!” shrieked Ah-wei, blushing. “I knew you were bian-tai!”

“Jealous!” Ah-nei said, and perched herself on one of the booth’s two high, elegant stools and set back to work spreading white paste onto green leaves while her friend occupied herself with the task of wrapping the leaves around whole betel-nuts.  Ah-nei thought about her foreigner.  After they’d made love, she lay in his arms and told him about her life, about being a betel nut girl, having to dress up and smile for strange men all day long.  Such a shameful profession, her mother said, only one step above prostitute.  But the foreign man didn’t find it shameful at all.  She hoped he would come by, hoped she would see him again.

For a few minutes, the two worked together in silence, two beautiful flamingos in a glass booth on the side of a provincial highway.  Another car pulled up.  Ah-wei was the first to look up from her bowl of betel nuts.

“Wassa…a Westerner.”

The driver, a thirty something white man with thinning hair and a pockmarked face was looking through the glass booth, staring at the two women.  His eyes rested momentarily on Ah-nei.  The man said something and laughed.  The woman in the passenger seat, a Taiwanese, laughed and said something.  The man laughed and said something back to her, then rolled down the window.

“Hey, give us four sarsaparillas,” the man shouted in Mandarin at the booth.  When Ah-nei looked up, she saw that the man was now staring straight at her and smirking with a rough familiarity.  For a moment, she stared back, feeling her skin flush before breaking the gaze off.  She spoke tersely to Ah-wei.

“This one is yours.  Go and give them the sodas.”

“But I can’t…I don’t know what to say to foreign…”

“Don’t say anything, just give him four cans of soda and take the money.”  Ah-nei kept her head down, eyes in fixed determination on her long fingers spreading white narcotic jelly onto green leaves.  Ah-wei pulled four cans of sarsaparilla out of the cooler and put them into a transparent plastic bag.

“I want to say something to him in English! Um, hello is ‘hao du yu du,’ right?”

“Don’t bother. He can speak Mandarin.  Just give him the sodas and take his money.”

Ah-wei slid open the door of the glass booth and walked gingerly towards the car, stiletto heels on gravel shoulder.  In the back seat was an older couple.  They looked like they must be the foreigner’s parents.  The father looked at Ah-wei, powerful Taiwan sunshine shining off her tight black skirt almost blinding him.  The mother stared straight ahead, and was not smiling.  Ah-wei had forgotten how to make the sounds in English for ‘hello.’  She gave the driver the sack of sodas.

Xie xie nimen,” the man said, handing her exact change. “Thanks to you both.”

The car pulled back onto the road.  Ah-wei watched it, and thought she saw from the corner of her eye the man turn and wink.  She teetered back into the booth.  She understood now.

Ah-nei’s fingers were still working furiously; now she was rolling pasted leaves tightly around the betel nuts.  Ah-wei sat down on the high stool, crossed her long legs, and took up the job of pasting green leaves.  The two women worked in silence as the sun rose higher in the sky.  A few cars stopped, and Ah-wei made deliveries and chatted with customers while her friend continued working, fingers rolling pasted leaves around nuts, squeezing them tightly.

“We have enough now,” Ah-wei said when she saw that the pile of rolled betel nuts threatened to spill from the plastic basket.

“OK.”  Ah-nei wiped her hands, and for the first time since the foreign man had come, she looked up, eyes blinking in the sunshine.  The two women sat listening to the humming of the air conditioner as the sun hovered over the mountains like a ball of jellied fire.

At last, Ah-wei broke the silence.

“Was he at least, you know…more romantic?” she asked quietly.

“No,” answered Ah-nei.  “He was only bigger.”