…because not all of us have our Peking ducks in a row

Dentally Yours: An Adventure in Chinese Medical Misadventure

Ask anybody who is traveling to a developing country his or her number one fear and it’s usually either:

a) getting robbed, maimed or killed (after which he/she would most likely end up in a healthcare facility); or,

b) ending up in prison (after which he/she would most likely end up in need of medical assistance); or

c) getting so deathly ill that boarding a plane and going back to his/her home country is not an option (so the ONLY option would be to end up in a healthcare facility).

When I first moved to China, I had nightmares about getting very sick and having to be treated by a doctor by the surname of MAO whose clothes smelled like mothballs.

I arrived in China armed with half a suitcase of medicine – codeine, sinus decongestant, Maalox, Centrum, Calcium pills, probiotics, B12, Tylenol Sinus and Cold tablets, Immodium (my dear, old friend) – to prevent myself from ending up in a medical facility.

So, imagine my dismayed surprise when I ended up in a dentist’s chair in China…of all places!  I was given a piece of wretchedly delicious caramel (made in China) and after chewing it for a bit, my tooth (back left molar) chipped off.

I was deeply disturbed.  The chip was about 8mm (I measured it with a plastic straight ruler), and nothing hurt.  But I figured I should go and get the tooth temporarily capped, so that I could later get the tooth taken care of in a country that believes in numbing the affected area before a procedure, instead of allowing the patient to work herself into a paranoid frenzy and eventually pass out in the dentist’s chair.

Here are some interesting tidbits things about dentists in China:

1.  Instead of giving their patients privacy, dentist offices often have glass walls, so that any passerby on the street can see a random dental patient sitting in the dentist’s chair, sweating like a pig with her mouth wide open, like a jackass.

2.  There are “grades” of dentists with different price tiers.  (Just like hairdressers!) I went with the most expensive dentist, as the cheapest one probably doubled as a janitor during off-hours.

3.  Dentists don’t give shots or gas you up during a dental procedure unless it’s absolutely necessary and Susan the patient becomes a raving lunatic.

After paying my registration fee with the receptionist ($0.12), I was asked whether I wanted to see “The Professor”, who was in “the “back room.

“The Professor” turned out to be some 60ish year old woman in a puffy Mao suit, who had black, thick-rimmed glasses that constantly fogged up.  (I was pretty much hyperventilating by that time and had forgotten to take off my China-bought winter coat that was shedding like a feral cat with a skin disease.)

The dentist’s office – with the glass walls – was equipped with a chair, some instruments and an old style spittoon, which I hadn’t seen since the 1980s.  There were no happy tooth pictures nor over-sized toothbrush cartoons.  There were holes in and mold on the wall and smudges – which I assumed were the blood of the patients who had died in the dentist’s chair before me.

“The Professor” completely ignored my deteriorating mental condition and spent the next five minutes moving somethings that looked like little nails from one glass cup to another glass cup and cleaned the instruments furiously with cheap cotton puffs that kept coming off in bits and pieces on my face.

She finally peered at me over her thick glasses and asked, “So, what’s YOUR problem?”

I explained to her the whole incident with the sticky candy, after which she tsk tsked, looked into my mouth and declared:


She then asked her assistants (two of them) and a patient in the waiting room to come in and take a look at my open mouth.

“The Professor” immediately took out a drill (not a DeWalt) and came towards me.

“HEY, HEY!  HEY!  Shouldn’t you give me a SHOT, or something first before drilling?  I mean… at least…uh..CLEAN my teeth?!”

“Now, why should I do that?  If I gave you a shot, then I wouldn’t know what was hurting you!”


“The Professor” put the drill down, squinted, and looked at me closely up and down for a long time through fogged-up glasses, “You’re not from around here… are you?”

“Well, I don’t understand.  Why can’t you patch things up WITHOUT drilling first?!”

“The Professor sighed and pointed her drill towards the wall, “Now, look.  If I spackle a hole in that wall over there, don’t I first have to clear the debris around the hole, so that the spackle will stick?  Well, it’s the same thing with your teeth!”

I was dumfounded.  This was the first time a dentist had ever compared fixing my teeth to spackling a wall.  Now I wondered what “The Professor” did in her spare time.

After twenty minutes of absolute panic and fear, during which I was composing good-bye letters to close friends and family in my head, I had…

…the MOST AWFUL filling in my life.

It was as if, instead of putting a prosthetic arm on a one-armed patient, the doctor cut off a dead and gnarled tree branch two inches too short with a few dead leaves on it, tied in onto the patient’s arm stump and told him to use it.  I couldn’t bite down on my teeth properly, and even though my face wasn’t frozen I swore it was lopsided when I smiled.

When it was finally all over, I asked “The Professor”, “So, uh…is this temporary…or should I get a permanent…cap?”

“The Professor” looked at me through fogged up glasses and sniffed, “You’re not from around here, ARE YOU?”

The final bill was over $100.00 – the going rate for a patient who so obviously wasn’t from around here.

2 comments on “Dentally Yours: An Adventure in Chinese Medical Misadventure

  1. breezyk
    November 9, 2011

    This post gave me extreme anxiety all the way through- I’m going to be having nightmares about that drill.. I can’t believe all of that happened to you!!


    • lostnchina
      November 10, 2011

      I guess I’m not doing much to promote China tourism with this post. When I got back to Seattle and my regular dentist, he just about laughed his head off at my story, but was very gracious and said the filling I got was “not that badly done”.

      Thanks for writing.


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