THE BETEL NUT SMILE
|American personnel serving in the Vietnam countryside will quickly
notice the "Betel Nut Smile" which is so obviously different
from the "Ipana gleam." The lips and mouth of the betel nut
chewer are very red, and the teeth appear to have been coated with black
enamel. While "betel chewing" seems to be found largely among
the middle-aged and older people, it still is seen frequently enough to
create interest in its nature and purpose.
The betel nut is the small fruit of the areca palm. The nut along with a leaf or leaves of the betel climber, a vine which is usually found growing with the areca palm, and a bit of raw limestone are mixed into a paste. In places such as Danang, you may see the user preparing this mixture in a rather small mortar bowl with a small pestle. Usually only one "chew" is prepared at a time. Sometimes in order to prolong the chew, tobacco is added.
This mixture creates a red stain which colors the mouth as well as any spot where sputum is projected. Unless forewarned of this colorful habit, when you first see it, you may think the chewer has a serious chest wound or, at the very least, is spitting up excessive blood.
While the betel nut smile is predominantly a countryside, village, and low-economic-class affair, occasionally more affluent and better-educated individuals will be seen participating. Continuation of this practice--which seems to be habit forming--turns the teeth black.
Doctors indicate that this "chew" may have some pain-killing effects. But a natural question at this point might be, "Which comes first, the betel nut or the pain?" Still, where dentists are so few, this was perhaps an original pain-killer.
When Vietnamese villagers seek help from their village mayor (or it may happen when they come to you seeking formal help), they present him with several quids of betel as a mark of respect. This is not to be considered a bribe, or even a gift, as the value is too small. Sometimes as little as one betel climber leaf and areca nut upon a plate are presented. It is understood that the plate will be returned at a later date.
The use of the betel nut chew, incidentally, is also found in a number of South American countries, particularly among the jungle and mountain people there.
While the use of the betel nut is dying out in the cities, at almost every non-Christian wedding party, along with the cakes, sweetmeats, tea, etc., the betel chew will be found.
THE LEGEND OF THE BETEL NUT
The reddened mouths and blackened teeth of the betel nut chewers of the Vietnamese countryside are a strange and startling sight to most Americans. It seems especially unusual that the betel nut mixture should be found at almost every non-Christian wedding party along with the other refreshments. Its presence there undoubtedly grows out of the legend of the betel nut which is related by a Vietnamese, Le Huy Hap, as follows:
There once were two identical brothers, whom no one could tell apart, who fell in love with the same girl. The older brother married her, but through mistaken identity the wife became involved with the younger brother. Although she was unaware of this, the younger brother's sense of guilt drove him from the home. Driven by his guilt to insanity, he soon died beside a small brook. The older brother, following the Vietnamese pattern of thought, felt compelled to leave his wife and find the brother. For while wives can be replaced, brothers cannot.
The legend continues by saying that in his search he came to the brook and leaned against the areca tree which had grown in the spot where his brother had died. Being tired, he fell asleep while leaning against the tree and turned into a block of limestone.
The wife, looking for her husband, came to the same place and, instinctively realizing what had happened, asked forgiveness and then beat her head against her limestone husband until she died. She later became a betel creeper growing around the areca tree.
Later, a Vietnamese emperor, passing that way, was told the story of the brothers. He ordered a nut, a leaf, and a bit of lime brought to him and chewed on them as he contemplated what purpose fate had in this strange drama. He soon noticed the he felt rested and not so tired from his long trip. When he spat the juices, the liquid was red as blood, symbolic of the bond of relatives and marriage.
Thus, the presence of the betel chew on the wedding tray is, to many Vietnamese, an emblem of love and marriage. In some areas, if a girl accepts an offered betel nut, she will marry the giver, if parents agree. If, upon chewing the betel quid, it proves scarlet, she believes her marital future will be a happy one.
Typical of many Vietnamese customs--this is a blending of the past, the present, the future with an infusion of religious, cultural and economic overtones.
Courtesy of the 1967 USMC Unit Leaders Personal Response Handbook