One of the first queasy expat moments comes when seeking medical care for the first time. Here we’re at our most vulnerable. It is a genuinely uncomfortable needing medical assistance and facing support staff, nurses, and often dentists or doctors who do not speak English, or speak medical jargon and have that confused with English. Seeking medical attention in a system different from what you’re used to tests the mettle of many.
Luckily I’ve not faced major health issues for most of my time abroad, but even insignificant health problems can be a bunghole tightening experience. My first toothache crashed down on me early in my Taiwan stay, twenty two years ago. I had a cavity that was impossible to ignore. I tried. However, eating was an obstacle course of pain and nerve twinges food had to run through my debilitated beerhole. Every morsel I masticated, every sip I supped, had me skittering around like a cat being ambushed by a cucumber [Video]. There was no getting around it, I needed a dentist, but I didn’t know where to turn. I’d seen many dental clinics walking around Taipei. Usually through the office window you could see a straining dentist hunched over an antsy patient. Window shopping for a dentist didn’t ease my mind. My friends were know-nothing newbs—totally unhelpful. So, I did the only thing I could think of, I went to the lone dentist advertised in the English newspaper. He claimed to be Harvard trained—that sounded reassuring.
Like anyone embarking on a dangerous mission, I did a little recon first. The clinic had nice modern looking chairs and cute dental assistants. What do I know about assessing dental competency from a brief walkby? I made an appointment.
At the appointed time and hour I timorously made my way to the clinic.
A little background information is necessary to explain my apprehensions. Before coming to Taiwan I had lived in Korea. While there, I had talked with people who’d gotten dental care. In Korea, at that time, it was common for dental work to be done without anesthesia. My roommate had some cavities filled without freezing. She claimed it was fine. She wore headphones to drowned out the drill’s noise, which according to her made all the difference. She was delighted to save a few won skipping the injections. Color me skeptical. I really don’t think a Walkman is any substitute for the oblivion offered by modern pharmacology. I personally was horrified. I’m pretty sure these dental practices were mentioned in a book of medieval torture I read in school. I belong to the knock me out as much as possible school of thought. If someone is going to be drilling, cutting, yanking, or otherwise messing with my mouth, I don’t want to feel anything—damn the expense. My foremost priority on my Taiwanese dental adventure was to ensure that I got novacaine.
Different from a dental office you might find in the West, the dentist in Taipei had a waiting area that was not really separated from the his workspace. The receptionist’s counter partially obscured the view, but waiting clients were privy to much that was happening in the business end of the clinic.
After waiting, and watching, it was my turn. I made my way to the dental chair. When I sat down in the chair the dentist found I actually had two cavities, one on an upper right side molar, the other on the lower left side.
During the examination I maintained a laser focus on my priorities. Number one: freezing. The dentist grabbed a needle—without prompting—and froze my lower left molar. My stress flew away. I relaxed knowing whatever happened I wouldn’t feel it. The dentist then grabbed his drill, buzzed it menacingly a few times, but I remained nonchalant. Then he proceeded to drill the upper right—unfrozen—molar.
The tension that shot through my spine bowed my body into a banana shape, with only my heels and head touching the dentist’s chair. (I used to have abs). My pelvis and legs were shaking in a pretty decent parody of Josephine Baker’s Banana Dance. I’d have leaped right out of the chair, but with the buzzing drill in my mouth, I was scared of being cut to ribbons. I kept my gaping maw as still as possible, but it was at the end of two hundred pounds of wildly flailing protoplasm, so, you know, accurately drilling out a cavity was probably tough. The dentist gently cooed at me to take it easy. It worked a charm—I calmed right down. Idiot. Despite the power drill screwing into my tooth I managed to make it absolutely clear that the molar was not frozen. He seemed to already be aware of that, and just laughed and told me to calm down. Yeah, right! I don’t know why he was drilling the unfrozen tooth. I think maybe he was conducting an experiment to see if a white patient would put up with the same shit an Asian patient would. Nope.
He continued drilling; I continued reverse twerking.
I have to admit, despite being a freaky sensation, the drilling did not hurt. It was just weird—and then he exposed the root.
My heels and head lost contact with the chair as I basically hovered above it like a yogic flyer, only just descending to the chair long enough for the skin on my back to contract and launch me back into the air. My feet and legs were shooting out in all directions. Eventually the dentist gave up, reached for a syringe, and with a condescending laugh froze my upper jaw…and everything calmed down.
I’m tall, so the receptionist’s counter did little to hide my legs dancing like a criminal’s on the end of the hangman’s rope. The entire waiting area sat enthrall to their every quiver. They also heard my gurgling high pitched moaning. When I left, I was greeted by five very anxious and pale faces. It seems like the layout of Taiwanese dental offices needs reconsidering.
It took an inordinate amount of time for my upper molar to heal. It was a mass of jangling nerves for at least a month. The slow healing was a direct result of the lack of local anesthetic. I left that office feeling physically abused. Over two decades later, I still feel enmity towards the dentist. I must admit that he, apparently, did very good work. Every dentist that I’ve seen since, both in Canada and Taiwan, have complemented his handiwork. All I know is it was too painful. When I told the tale of my tribulations to my Taiwanese girlfriend, expecting a healthy dose of sympathy sex, all I got was laughed at and called a pussy (孬種).
Is this namby-pamby attitude towards dentistry just me, or are all foreigners the same?