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Chinese Tooth Torture

Thought I'd save on three hours sitting around in corridors at the dental hospital. My friend, XB has a private dentist, who is really an army dentist making a bit on the side. Didn't take him long to decide to pull out my lower right wisdom tooth. Nothing flash about this surgery. No dental nurse. No water to rinse with. A plastic bucket on the floor half full of gobs of blood and bits of toilet paper tissue. Pale cream walls splattered with unspeakable stains and a couple of peeling wooden cabinets. One door was open onto a dusty courtyard in the army base, and another into a medieval laneway with ragged vendors selling pirated cassettes and plastic combs between the piles of rubbish.

Mercifully the dentist did use an anaesthetic, but considering what was to follow the dose could have been tripled. XB took me there, doubling as interpreter, nurse and comforter to squeeze my shoulder and make sympathy noises. The fucking tooth eventually broke into five pieces. The roots wouldn't come out. Turned out that it was fused to the jaw bone. The dentist was a puffy faced young man with an easy smile. His face became redder and redder. He began to sweat, and fetched a succession of ever larger and more violent looking extraction tools. At last he put a sort of cold-chisel against the tooth and got a girl from the next room to belt it with a stainless steel hammer. I jest not. But her blows were not enthusiastic enough. He took time out for a cigarette while my jaw throbbed.

The next recruit was an army sergeant in uniform. A small crowd of interested spectators gathered from the street to watch the long nose being tortured. The sergeant definitely had more muscle power. Mr Dentist wrapped my head in a bear hug and each blow came with a crescendo of pain. Still the tooth didn't move. They took time out for another cigarette and I spat gobs of blood, while XB wiped the blobs off my shirt and coat.  The jackhammer work eventually took an hour and a half. If some third world dictator ever hangs me up by the thumbs to get a confession, he won't have a hope. Torture? Been there, done that. Finished up with a major, very messy excavation site and a sprained jaw; lost a fair bit of blood.

They put me on a drip for three hours, and I had to go back daily for the next three days to get penicillin injections. The first quote on all this was Y50. By the time I got to pay it had escalated to Y77. That's what the receipt said. Just before I left the dentist demanded another Y40 to put in his pocket, perhaps for having to put up with watching the pain in my eyes, or maybe his mobile phone bill was due. Ah well, in your money, that all comes to about $23.50. I wobbled home and cringed in a corner with a scarf wrapped around my head, stuffed full of codeine and finding it hard to talk or swallow.

The three days on penicillin turned into three weeks, which must have killed every bug in my body. I got to know a select club of drip-enthusiasts in a drab room of the university clinic. Perched in wooden chairs, tethered to an overhead bottle-wire, this motley crew would relive their lives for a couple of hours every day. Mrs Zhang, with her blotched face and old purple cardigan would nod at me knowingly; a small boy who had "the flu" would sulk and wimper as his father taped his little hand to a cardboard box lid, and the nurse missed his artery for a second time. A young man with bad breath brought me tapes of French soul music, and a rather sexy girl plucked up courage by the third day to tell me in spikey English that she taught law. We watched each other's bottles, and energetically called for a hushi xiaojie (nurse) when the fluid ran out and somebody was threatened with a coronary embolism from air bubbles in the catheter.

All good things come to an end. Eventually I sought out and paid a professor of dentistry to reassure me that I wasn't about to get gangrene. Another, um, slice of life in China...What's the point of  living in exotic places if you can't have a memorable experience or two?

"Chinese Tooth Torture" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 12 March 1999
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