7.5 hours in a Chinese dentists’ office

Last night at dinner a piece of my tooth mysteriously broke off. I hate dentists, particularly ones I don’t know, and for a while I contemplated keeping my unexpected weight loss to myself. But unattracted to the idea of chewing on one side of my mouth for the rest of my life, I decided to come clean. Today friend/medical rep Xiao Mi and I made a day trip to the local dentist. This is our story…. (Fade out)

(Fade in) ….We pull up to a building of nondescript gray concrete. A sign outside announces it the XXXX University Stomotological Hospital. The building looks middle-aged – a fairly rare condition in a city where everything looks either brand new or ancient. Varicose veins of long dead-ivy run along its stocky body. The windows are covered in blue translucent film.

We are greeted at the door by the screeches of happy and terrified children. I wince in preparation for train station crowdedness and disorder, but enter into a mellow and orderly registration office instead. The room is outfitted in the tones and materials of modern transparency and cleanliness – white, large tile floor, mirrored ceiling, powder blue walls. A clock reads 9:33.

The woman at the info desk is dressed in surgical scrubs, and delivers information with the authoritative zeal of an officer. Her gestures are crisp and absolute, like a traffic cop’s. To her right, a middle-aged woman in a white doctor’s coat and nurse’s shoes sells all manner of dental supplies, which she keeps locked up in a glass cabinet not unlike those often used to store cigarettes and phone cards. Across the room, there’s a similar set-up selling sugary drinks and ice cream. I suddenly feel like I’m in some kind of medical theme park. I’m weirdly comforted by this thought, but it doesn’t last long. A sickly, over-sanitized hospital smell fills my lungs and reminds me of where I am and why. I instantly feel less healthy.

Xiao Mi nudges me forward. We head toward Line 4 and the window marked “Dept. of Special Dentistry”. “Good name,” I think, but we’re immediately redirected to Line 3 “Dept. of Prosthodontics”.

The DoP lacks the sanitary gleam of the registration office. The walls are coated in the same powder blue, but patches of off-white paint ruin its aura of purity and cleanliness. (The trouble with modern – like a child star, it doesn’t age nobly. It only inspires/reassures when it’s new. Any sign of deterioration dramatically reduces its appeal.)

Parallel Universe

Large, menacing examples of dental diseases adorn all four walls (public education? a “scared straight” strategy?). One poster displays impressive looking appliances for repairing damaged mouths – including several of silver and gold, a bizarre intersection between the parallel universes of Chinese pragmatism and American bling. The waiting couches are covered in brown pleather. There’s a small TV playing some kind of bootleg Jibli studios animation to promote the Olympics. I’ve said it before, and I’ll now say it publicly: ((At least at this point in its illustrious history)) China cannot do cute. The attempts are universally bad and give me the same awkward feeling I get watching people perform karaoke versions of ‘Fergilicious’ on Youtube.

The room is crowded, but we find a seat under considerable curious surveillance from the bored future patients. It’s crowded, but almost nobody speaks. In the distance, the shrill wiz of dentist drills taunts and demoralizes. The air conditioning is surprisingly mild. Suddenly, a corse, bullying sound like a jackhammer comes pounding through one of the side rooms. There’s a noticeable stiffening in our neighbors’ posture.

Most of people are middle-aged or older. The few children are tethered to worried looking guardians, who prod and hector the staff, exerting the coercive concern that seems so central to Chinese parenting. The oldest people are accompanied by their grown-up offspring, with whom they conduct an elaborate good cop, bad cop routine: elderly graciousness tempered by midlife bossiness.

The operating room is big enough to fit nine dentist chairs. I don’t need to count them, because each is adorned with a large, numbered tag, like the ones they give game show contestants. The whole set-up lacks the grim privacy of the American dentist’s office; relatives and others meander in, the line between patient and chaperone is disarmingly blurry. Over the low murmur of professional conversation, a sound of drilling can be heard. I let out a Pavlovian wince and enter.

(This is already too long. I’ll stop here and continue tomorrow…)

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