While hiking through Bataad rice terraces in The Philippines (with Patty and Rachel), we met an old man named Vicente. He had lived in the village his whole life. He was friendly and wanted to show us around his home. He guided us up and down the terraces and showed us some of the houses nestled between the rice paddies at the bottom of the valley. His house was perched at top of the hill (with a beautiful view of the fields) and there he invited us in to show us old pictures and letters from other friends who had visited. When we asked if it he had children he said no. He had never gotten married because he didn’t have an ox.
In China, mothers of unmarried men and women (but especially men because of the disparity in gender populations) gather in parks with resumes blown up on posterboards. Sometimes these resumes may include a picture but most of the time it’s a list of education, skills, jobs, and of course salary. This is perhaps the most important piece of information for these helicopter (or perhaps air traffic controller?) mothers searching for a suitable spouse for their daughter or son.
“He was perfect, except for the fact that he was an engineer. And mothers prefer doctors and lawyers.” – Regina Spektor(I often sing this song-one of my favorites- in complete jest to Pete. Engineers are really pretty handy, I’ll say).
Each of these cultures has some sort of traditional standard for wealth, and it’s value particularly when it comes to marriage. Traditionally, a Yapese family would’ve wanted their daughters to marry a man with black teeth and gums. You could compare this display of wealth to being overweight in imperial Europe. The fatter you were, the more you had, therefore you were rich, and thus, desirable! If your teeth are black you have been chewing a lot of betelnut and if you have been chewing a lot, then you have a lot of betelnut trees, which means you have a lot of land and therefore are wealthy! Nowadays black and red teeth and gums might not be on the top of a mother or father’s list of requirements to marry their daughter, but the look is alive and kicking. People chew at home, walking, driving, and at work. The typical chew has four components.
1. Half of a young betelnut
2. Lime (the powder not the fruit) acts like fiberglass in chewing tobacco, creates microabrasions in the gums so the drug is absorbed faster into the bloodstream.
3. Peppermint leaf. The leafs has some effect on the potency of the beletnut and tastes nice and smells divine. It also turns your spit and teeth red while you chew it.
4. Tobacco. This is a newer addition to the Yapese chew. Most of the time the tobacco is taken straight out of a cigarette and chewed with the betelnut. Sometimes people will buy or grow straight tobacco instead. It can be hard to come by and difficult to grow in a tropical climate though.
I recently found out that some people even soak their betelnuts and tobacco in alcohol for a day or two before using.
While waiting at the Laundromat when I first got to Yap I tried betelnut with a 16 year old girl who had been chewing since she was 14 (apparently she might be considered a late bloomer, most kids start chewing- sans tobacco- when they are as young as 8 or 10 years old). I skipped the tobacco.
Eventually your teeth can turn black from chewing. Gums can get pretty unhealthy and recede and turn black as well. A few weeks ago we met a group of ENT doctors visiting from Hawaii who were doing cancer screenings and surgeries. They said they assessed that almost every person they saw in clinic had some sort of cancer related to chewing betelnut (throat, gum, etc.). The doctors attributed the rapid increase in cancer rates (compared to previous years they had visited where they didn’t see such astounding numbers of patients with signs of cancer) to the new importation of Chinese cigarettes, which most people now chew. These cigarettes are even more potent and less regulated than cigarettes from the USA. Betelnut not great for you, but it’s the tobacco that that’s the real doozey.
Despite known health risks, most Yapese chew most of the time, daily. It is important both traditionally and socially. There is a saying, “Ba ah luwan uwai” or “The wisdom is in the basket”. If a group of people are working on something and come to a dead end or impass, that’s when they would say, “Ba ah luwan uwai.” As in, let’s take a moment, chew some betelnut, relax, and get some help inviting inspiration to come our way. Then we’ll be better prepared to continue. So everyone reaches into their basket for a chew.
And thus betelnut is still central not only to culture but to the economy. Yap exports betelnut to Guam, CNMI, and Palau. Teenagers looking to make some extra money have been known to steal betelnuts from other villages or families. They can make $25 for a gallon zip lock bag full. Which is lot considering minimum wage in Yap is under $2. A friend who does have plenty of trees said that because most of his gets stolen, he’s forced to buy. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if he was buying his own betelnuts for $6 a sandwich bag at the grocery store.
Betelnut is not the most interesting things about the economy of Yap though. Yap’s economy is most well-known for is its unique ancient currency- stone money. The first historical evidence for paper money is found in China. Eventually the idea migrated Eastward with the Silk Road and exploration. Before paper money people used coins, stones, shells, and other forms of currency and to represent value and exchange for good or services, or else they bartered. But as far as I know, there is no knowledge of any money in all of history quite like that of Yap.
First off, stone money is big. Also, the stone material is not indigenous to Yap. Yapese sailed traditional canoes all the way to Palau (~300 miles south west of Yap) to mine and shape the stone from the rock islands. The money is circular in shape with a hole in the middle for carrying/handling. The biggest stone money I found was about 9 feet tall, but there are some that are still bigger.
The value is not at all correlated to size of the stone, though. Nor is its value based on an arbitrary number or symbol printed on its face. The value of stone money is based on the story that accompanies its history. A small stone money that made it back from Palau despite storms is worth more than a stone money with unique markings, twice the size of the smaller, but made it home in one piece without any associated perils that were (or were not) overcome. For example, an Irish-American trader, David O’Keefe, imported stone money using his own ships to trade for copra (dried coconut meat). O’Keefe money had lesser value because it was mind with iron tools and no one risked their lives to mine and transport it. The stone money that is still around today is perhaps more valuable after the Japanese had much stone money crushed and used for road material during WWII.
Stone money does not move. After arriving from Palau, stone money was initially moved to village of the quarrymen or whichever village to which it was owed. But after that the monies are typically not moved again. Some of the stone money may have change possession between individuals or villages several times but it stays in the same place.
While in most places ancient money might hold archeological value today it is unlikely to be able to buy you anything within your society. (I remember trying to pay for something once with a $2 bill and the cashier refused). Stone and shell money (another ancient Yapese money made from a specific type of shell with a coconut rope handle) can still be used today. While you can’t go into the market and ask for fish and pay with stone money sitting in your village or one of the stone money banks, it still has use. One of the things shell money can be used for is traditional apologies. For example, if a teenager goes into another village a steals betelnut. He/she might be subject to a fine, a beating, or both. The teenager’s village or family might also be expected to make a traditional apology where the parent presents themselves and offers shell money as reparation. The village can choose to accept the apology or not, but regardless this will be taken into account if the case were to ever go through the government judicial system and having made a traditional apology would alleviate judicial pressure for sentencing. This system is very much alive today. Stone money can be used for land transactions and marriage.
Stone money doesn’t move around the island and it also cannot leave the island. It is illegal to remove stone or shell money from Yap. There are a few pieces that are in museums (one that I know of in the Smithsonian), but all the rest sit in the open air banks at village community buildings across the island. Some even sit at the bottom of the ocean and still have value! If you were to receive shell money it would have to be kept in Yap for safe storage and to maintain its value.