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Saturday, April 4, 2009

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Making my dentist smile


My very first kiss was not from a girl but from a Rawlings baseball.

The Little League diamond was strewn with the pop flies I had muffed. "OK, Dillon," snarled my coach. "This one, you catch!"

Boy, did I. Right in the mouth.

I was 10. And from that age on, I made my dentists a lot of money.

Multiple extractions. Braces. A bridge. By the time I got to Japan, I had spent more time in a dentist's chair than I had on the family sofa. Or at least it seemed that way. I was numb to any new trick that a dentist might present.

And after I arrived? Well, outside of regular checkups and an update on the bridge, dental clinics no longer rank as my home away from home. Through the years, that's been a very good thing.

For while I now believe Japanese dentistry is top notch, I can easily recall when I held other convictions.

Thirty years ago, oral hygiene had somehow eluded the Japanese miracle. Crooked, alligator smiles were the norm — even among dentists. To get a foreign resident to visit a local dentist was like pulling teeth, so to speak. Everyone saved his or her dental exam for a trip back home.

Japanese now pride themselves in their smiles, conveniently forgetting, as they are wont to do, the less than sparkling past.

My own dentist has more high-tech equipment than the space shuttle. He floats about his office too, sort of like a weightless astronaut, as his pretty assistants do most of the work.

Except when I come in, that is. Somehow the novelty of a foreign patient makes him yearn to handle me all by himself. And all, my years of patience in the dental chair are soon put to the test.

For one thing, he sees me as a free English lesson — a practice model he can keep in his chair for as long as he wants.

"Open!" he says. And I open. "Close!" he says. And I close.

"Open!" "Close!" "Open!" "Close!"

I lay in the chair and gasp for breath.

"There!" he says. "That wasn't too hard, was it?! Now let's begin!"

He adjusts the light so that it scorches my retinas. I squint and see nothing until he leans in. Only to be confronted by nose hairs the size of worms.

He picks at my teeth with a prod, and speaks, his voice against my ear.

But due to his mask, all I can hear are the words, "Iraq," "imminent crisis," "gum disease," and what sounds like, "gadzooks!"

He leans back and tugs at his mask. "Anyway, that's what I believe." he says. He raises his prod. "Do I have a point or not?"

I finger my mouth. "Actually, about my gums, I didn't. . ."

"Rinse!" he barks and I jump to grab the paper cup, overflowing with water.

I lean back, fully rinsed, but before I can ask a question, he commands, "Open!"

And, like a zombie, I open.

He clicks a mirror around my molars. Clickety-click-click. I am not sure but he seems to have found the tune to "This Old Man." He enjoys this for a while until he hits one sour tooth and stops.

"Can I ask you something highly personal?" He says this with his fingers in my mouth and his brows knitted like steel chains. He proceeds only after he has my eyes wide with attention.

"Are you fond of soccer?"

"What?" I say. Only it comes out as, "Umth?"

"That's what I thought. Most Americans say the same. Yet, you have the American dream and the American way. Must you also insist on American football?"

To which, I answer, "Umth? Umth? Umth?"

He laughs and says, "Well put! I couldn't have said it better myself !"

He packs my mouth with cotton while he rambles on about a recent vacation in Florida. He keeps working while he speaks and, after he gets lost in an anecdote, I end up with more cotton rolls than teeth.

"Now, when was the last time you had your teeth cleaned?"

I say, "Sometime last fall," but it comes out like. . . "srp mnik rpkn."

"Now, now — no need to speak Japanese. My English is not that bad, is it? But let's clean them anyway."

I say, "Gerna akl brp."

And he answers, "Why, yes, I have been working out. Thank you."

For the next 20 minutes he proceeds to demonstrate his muscles on my teeth. When he's done, I feel like he's cleaned them with a hammer and chisel.

"There. That should hold you for another six months."

I slide from the chair to the outer office, where I wait to pay the bill. Which, with Japanese national health insurance, always comes out to a pittance compared with the States.

Reason enough, I suppose, to be all smiles at the end.



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