Yesterday was my first trip to the dentist in years. The last time was just before moving to Mexico, in the summer of 2001. As you might imagine, I was not entirely expecting a clean bill of dental health. The fact that I had once again ignored my dentist's advice to floss daily was not improving my outlook one bit.
So it was with some trepidation that I went to see Dr Nakasawa yesterday afternoon at 3 o'clock. I stepped into the office, swapped my shoes for slippers, filled out some forms, and took a seat in the waiting room, attempting to pass the time by reading ads in Japanese for Sonicare toothbrushes.
Eventually, I heard the receptionist call out "Bracken-san!" The door swung open, and I was escorted to a chair and told to have a seat and wait for a few moments with nothing to do except stare at the assortment of torture instruments laid out on the table in front of me.
Now, in Canada, this is the point where the hygenist comes in, cleans your teeth, tells you what a poor job you've done of brushing your teeth over the last six months, asks you whether you've actually bothered to floss even once since the last time you came, then takes off and the dentist comes in and pokes around. In Japan, it goes only slightly differently. The dentist comes straight in, cleans your teeth, tells you what a poor job you've done of brushing your teeth, asks you whether you've actually bothered to floss even once since you last came in, then starts poking around. Normally, that is.
Chotto akete kudasai. I opened my mouth. Dr Nakasawa looked around for a moment, poking at things with his tools, then paused.
Kono chiryou wa Nihon de moraimashita?
"No, didn't get 'em here. I got all my fillings in Canada."
Another pause. Aah, Canada-jin desu ka? Daigakusei no jidai, Eigo o benkyou shimashita kedo, mou hotondo wasurete-shimaimashita.
"That's ok, I'll try my best in Japanese."
Dr Nakasawa takes another glance in my mouth, does a bit more poking and says to the hygenist "Number 14 looks like an A. 18 looks like a B. 31... is A-ish." Dr Nakasawa sits back in his chair. Another pause.
"These fillings... the grey ones," he says, "how long ago did you get these?"
"I don't know, maybe when I was in middle-school. A long time ago. I haven't had a filling in years."
"They're really old. This one here looks like it's chipped away on the edge and the tooth underneath has a little bit of discolouration that may well be a cavity. We don't really do this style of filling in Japan anymore, but what I'd suggest — it's up to you — is that we remove these, check for cavities underneath, do any cleanup you need, then replace them with modern fillings."
"Sure, the last dentist I talked to mentioned these were getting pretty awful too, so sure... sounds good. Let's do it."
"Okay, I'm particularly worried about this one here, so let's start with this one."
"Would you like to book a time next week, or if you have time I could do it today?"
"I've got no plans for the rest of the day, let's just get it over with."
"Alright. Masui wa dou? Hitsuyou desu ka?"
Now here I want to remind you that although I can get by in day-to-day life and carry on a conversation in Japanese, one of the unequivocal facts of gaijin life is that there are some words you simply don't know, and to keep the flow of conversation going, you skip them and pick up the general idea from context. So when someone says to you "What about masui? Would you like it?" in a tone that suggests that really, you probably wouldn't, your instinct tends to be to say "no, no."
One of the wonderful things about living in another country is that occasionally you're pleasantly surprised by turn of events that leads to an experience that you'd almost certainly never have stumbled your way into back home. These experiences often upend long-held, fundamental beliefs that you'd have never even thought to question in your life.
However, I am going to tell you right now that there is no question at all that getting your teeth drilled with no freezing hurts almost exactly as much as you'd imagine it does.
The full meaning of Dr Nakasawa's question, and of what was about to transpire, became crystal clear as he picked up the drill, looked me in the eyes and said "Open wide, and put your hand up if at any point you can't handle the pain." I swear I detected just the slightest hint of a smile on his face as he said this to me, but I didn't have long to think about it because it was it was at this point that I began focussing my entire being on keeping my hands clamped in a death grip on the armrests of the dental chair.
I walked out of the office that day with a shiny new hole in my tooth and a temporary filling while they create the permanent one. I managed to do this without once raising my hand, but Dr Nakasawa's lucky his chair has still got its bloody armrests attached.