Friday, April 2, 2010

Betelnut Moment

Taipei now has about 100 Starbucks. That’s a far cry from the way things used to be when the first McDonalds opened in Taipei around 1986 or so. Until then, people used to bring Big Macs from Hong Kong and sell them to their friends for good money. (Can you imagine eating a Big Mac that was 24 hours old, flew across the Taiwan Strait, and made it through customs?) When I first went to McDonalds in Taipei I spent around NT$300. In those days that was a fortune. I basically got one of everything, and then finished it all off. I guess I was afraid it was going to close the next day and this was my one chance to eat there. McDonalds was somewhere up in the Shilin area, close to the old Taipei American School campus.

Those of us who lived in Taiwan before the Great Coffee Revolution of the mid-90s (everything in Taiwan has to be commemorated with a ‘Revolution’ – maybe they are more Chinese than they would like to believe) can hardly imagine anything but Hey Song sold in little green glass bottles. If we were lucky, it was actually from the factory, and not some refill that some old farmer and concocted himself.

Today life is totally different, and yet oddly the same. I went to a Starbucks today to work on some assignment that I’ve been pushing ahead of me for about two years. Now, you can’t get a seat. I saw one Taiwanese guy plop down at an empty table just milliseconds before a family had a chance to sit down. At first the guy looked like a regular new Taipei metro – just wanting a place to have a piece of chocolate cake and a coffee. Well dressed, clean, sharp leather coat - nothing unusual.

Then I had my ‘betel nut moment.’ This same guy pulls a bag of betel nuts right out of his nice leather jacket, takes one out, bites off the end as if it were a fine Cuban cigar, and pops it into his mouth - in a Starbucks – in downtown Taipei – in 2010. Images of fat taxi drivers with their T-shirts rolled up over their stomachs squatting on the side of the road flooded my mind. Red-stained teeth, red stains on the roads (when my mom first came to Taiwan in 1968, she actually thought it was blood and was surprised that no one cleaned up after the accidents), rotting teeth. Not only that, but this guy popped a second one into his mouth before I got my coffee! Now, I know Starbucks is slow, but not that slow! I didn’t stick around long enough to see where he was going to spit his juice.

I guess I can digress to a lot of clichés here, but will try to refrain myself. Except to say, you can take a girl out of a rice paddy, but you can never take the rice paddy out of the girl. Taiwan will keep changing, keep modernizing, keep leading the world in technology, but to eradicate betel nut chewing, like the government is currently trying to do, would be tantamount to carving out its soul.

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