Betelnut (buu)

These nuts, sprinkled with powdered coral, and wrapped in pepper leaves are chewed throughout Yap State.

On Yap Proper, chewing buu, or beetlenut, is more about the process than the buzz. It is not “addictive” but rather habit-forming. Before any sort of business or political discussion, people sit down, and make a chew. This gives them a chance to pause and think, to share, and go through the motions of putting together the leaf, the nut, the lime (and more often than not, the tobacco). Newly arrived and over zealous Peace Corps Volunteers are often to told “rest and have a chew” as they eagerly spit out their grandiose plans to the un-amused seen-it-all locals. There are very beetlenut few trees on Ulithi or the other Outer Islands that are mature enough to produce nuts, and these are rather jealously guarded, often wrapped with razor wire. Beetlenut usually comes in on the plane (Ulithi, Fais, and Wooleai) or the ship, and the skin of young coconuts serves as a surrogate for the orally fixated when buu cannot be found on the Atoll.

The trade in Buu is an excellent example of the resource-rooted Outer Island / Yap Proper relationship. The poor soil of the atolls does not lend it self to the cultivation of the forests of beetlenut trees one finds in Yapese villages, but the Yapese further exacerbate this problem through traditional restrictions on the exportation of seedlings . The same Yapese are of course most happy to send nuts on each PMA flight for sale, but only if there is plenty to be had in Yap. In it’s odd way Buu also speaks volumes about Yap State politics and its informal economics. Buu is grown in forests owned by each village or (less often) individual landowners. This buu supplies the villagers, and is also bagged for sale at stores throughout Yap. On one hand it is a near perfect market of pure capitalism with prices adjusted daily based on supply. A savvy shopper can walk from small store to small store to chose the lowest price. On the other hand, if you “know someone” you can circumvent this whole process, and get buu either for free, or pay cash for a huge box’s worth.

The way buu is treated provides some indicators about Ulithian thinking towards food and property. When it arrives most people keep it hidden, because there is a practically an obligation to share it. People will put some in their basket, and keep the rest stashed at home. Another Ulithian will come, and ask to “fang halai buu” (give me beetlenut to eat) or even more telling “fang haluch buu” which means give us (listener inclusive) beetlenut. The person with beetlenut will then either lie and claim there is none, or share. Anyone who is seen to have buu but not share it is a “moegloech” or stingy person, while those who give away buu too readily, are labeled “hachperang” for their efforts to win favor or approval by showing off. These are equally degrading judgments. There is a spectrum ranging from minimal obligation to excessive vanity.Finally, buu can be a gauge of acceptance and esteem for the outsider. An outsider will long remember the first time a Ulithian (not a coworker, host family member, nor close friend) offered him a chew out of the blue, or the first time a pretty girl gave a small child some chew to pass onto them anonymously.

Interestingly, some contemporary Ulithians claim that widespread beetlenut consumption is a relatively recent phenomenon. The explanation is that since beetlenut was not traditionally available, there was neither supply nor demand. With the introduction of formal civilian government structures during the TTPI period, more and more Yapese came out to the Outer Islands in order to organize and attend community meetings. In line with Yapese customs, beetlenut was brought and distributed at these assemblies, and this led some Ulithians to acquire a taste for chew. Also an increased number of Outer Islanders living on Yap Proper were exposed to Yapese, and their habitual chewing habits. Finally Yapese students attending OIHS had beetlenut sent to them by friends and relatives on both the field ship trip and the plane. In time there developed a regular supply being sent from Yap for sale at “market.”

The lack of continuity supposed by this oral tradition is likely untrue. A Micronesian Seminar listing of Foreign Ships calling on the islands in Yap tells of a Captain Knox from the USS Flying Fish. He noted in December of 1841 how the natives of Ulithi came to him with “iron tools and their teeth were discolored from beetlenut.”

Is betelnut bad for you? Maybe. Here is the medical perspective. Will that change things for the people in Yap State and those who visit? Not likely.