Thor's China Diary

Barefoot Dentistry

a cautionary tale in which our hero fails to ride a bicycle

The dentist in Melbourne had been very personable and had used all the latest equipment. When we finally came out to the front desk after twenty minutes he put on a worried look of great concentration and went through the list of charges. "Mm, that was a 25b, oh, and we needed a 16c as well", he muttered compiling a formidable list and handing it to the receptionist. He smiled at me benignly, suggesting a return visit in a month or two, and disappeared. The receptionist was preoccupied with her boyfriend and didn't trouble with niceties. "That will be $200", she said. I yelped.

Eight months down the track. I had been saying nice things to my teeth to keep them in order, but a top left molar had started to raise hell. This was China, with a whole different set of game rules. I suggested nicely to the lady in the foreign affairs office that sooner or later I had to do something about living in torture. She made a vague noise, and muttered ominously about dentists being "very expensive". "Is it in the contract?", I asked rhetorically. There was a kind of oblique agreement to keep me a functioning human being. "It depends", she said darkly.

Another week down the track. Silence from the office of authority. I needed sleep. I kicked on the lady's door and stopped being polite. "Hmm," she said. You can see the doctor on Thursday". The doctor? "Yes, a doctor comes once a week. She decides what has to be done". On Thursday I went looking for the resident doctor. An ancient stick creature guarded the foreign affairs office and made go-away signals. No English. Presently another stick creature appeared in an old brown cardigan. "Meeting, meeting" she squeaked, pointing a bony finger at the office door. "I need the doctor" I said. "OK OK, come sit", she rasped. It gradually dawned on me that she was the doctor. "Tooth hurt", I said, retreating to baby talk. She suddenly grabbed my jaw with her bony claws and yanked it open, peered in. "Ha, bad teeth", she grunted at my jumbled collection of chompers.

She ambled over to a brown metal cabinet and spent several minutes shuffling through its draws. At last she emerged triumphant with a tin that might once have been a gift biscuit item. It was packed with long nameless objects wrapped in brown paper. These she unwrapped one by one, searching, at last finding a dull chromed metal thing with a pointy end. Grabbing my jaw again she began some serious excavation. Just before her metal thing ran out of teeth to assault she made a noise that seemed to mean "eureka". "Hole", she declared. Then turning the hunk of metal around, she belted the tooth with the heavy end. "Jesus!", I said. "Uh," she said, satisfied, "we go hospital".

The surgery equipment had to be put away. Again the stick crone went searching, and somewhere under a sink found a square plastic lid that once might have covered a box of glace fruit. Into this she poured three capfuls of an opaque liquid, no doubt some kind of antiseptic, and dunked the pointy metal thing. It was then carefully mummified in brown paper and stacked back in the biscuit tin.

There was the small matter of getting to the hospital. A dental hospital apparently. My doctor beckoned impatiently and skittered off down the stairs. I stumble after her. Skin and bones and nothing short of 65 she may have been, but she could move. We had to pass my apartment, and she had another inspiration. "Bike" she declared. "But you don't have a bike", I protested. "Bike" she repeated emphatically. There was no arguing with that. It's a couple of steep flights of stairs down to the road from my place. I huffed up the stairs, and stumbled back, humping the mountain bike. "Go" she demanded. "But.." "Go!" she said, beginning to sound scratchy. I shrugged and started to pedal the thing. She began to trot alongside in her old felt slippers. Stranger and stranger I thought. Suddenly the bike gave a violent lurch and started to weave across the road. My doctor had taken a flying leap onto the luggage rack. Now it's forty-five years since I've tried to double-dink anybody. We lost control and wound up in a sprawling heap, with the usual Chinese assortment of bicycles and pedestrians parting around us with centimeters to spare. I separated myself from odd bits of bicycle wheel and the old lady's bony body. She cackled. "Go" she said. God, I thought. This time I got up a bit more speed, she hopped along like a scrawny bird and took another leap. I kept the bike upright, just, and hung on grimly as we bumped and wove a half kilometre or so, dodging bicycles and taxis and kamikaze infants. "We here" she declared finally, skipping off, and then inspecting my bike critically: "One lock no good. Easy thief."

Well, the dental hospital is another story. Several stories actually. Suffice to say that I am now two fillings richer and one wisdom tooth lighter ... each step paid for while the performance went into frame-freeze on the dentist's chair, the supporting cast watched expectantly, I fished a few more yuan out of my wallet, and someone went downstairs to get a receipt duly stamped. The total, dreadful cost? About $35, 70% refunded by the ominous lady in the foreign affairs office.

"Barefoot Dentistry" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved
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