My adventures in Beijing have been hair-raising at times, especially on the bike as I explained in an earlier article. But the most scary experience so far was not on the roads, but in the chair of a dental clinic.

The dentist and I have never been a happy combination. The first time I visited one as a four-year-old boy in New Zealand, I let fly with my foot, landing it in the dental nurse’s face. As she reeled backwards, still holding the drill, blood streamed from her nose. Years later my mother recalled the nurse’s words: ‘Please take your son home. I never want to see him again.’

Unsure of dental standards in China and not especially anxious to find out, I made an appointment with my family dentist just before leaving Melbourne for Beijing last year. I wanted, to be sure my teeth were still in good working order, and hopefully would not require attention until my return six months later. It was painless. After a thorough examination, he polished my ‘ivories’ so bright, they sparkled with the ‘Colgate’s ring of confidence’.

My fears of visiting a dentist here were reinforced when a foreign expert at China Radio International (CRI) related his first experience. While I thought he may have been exaggerating, the detailed account of his painful procedure had my teeth ‘on edge2’, and I asked him not to tell me any more.

About two weeks later while munching my breakfast cornflakes, I crunched on what felt like a hard piece of cereal. Closer examination offered something much less palatable. The white front enamel of a lower tooth had broken clean away, revealing a skeletal foundation from years of dental drama.

‘I don’t believe it,’ I kept repeating, pulling down my lower lip to get a clearer view of the grey stump. I knew CRI could organise a dentist, but impatiently, I literally took matters into my own hands, picking up the broken part of the tooth. With a tube of ‘super glue’ maybe I could simply stick it back, I thought. Just kidding.

I remembered seeing a dental clinic near the Friendship Hotel, and decided to go there, no matter what my colleague had told me. With only a ‘ni hao’ (hello) and ‘xie xie’ (thanks) in my Chinese vocabulary, I was hopeful someone there would speak English. The receptionist gave me
a welcoming smile and called a uniformed assistant. Neither spoke any English. After showing my tattered tooth, the assistant directed me to a booth and motioned me to the patient’s chair. It was comfortable enough, but I could not relax, wondering if I had done the right thing coming to a clinic not necessarily approved by my employer.

The assistant looked into my mouth, then a man also in white uniform came over, and the two exchanged some words. By now I was getting more anxious, wondering when a dentist would appear. A few minutes later, one did, introducing herself as Dr. Wang.

While her limited English vocabulary was hard to understand, she seemed friendly. All I could do was hope she would know by simply looking at my broken tooth.

But instead of getting straight down to work, the doctor embarked on a detailed examination of all my teeth. Staff gathered around to watch as she took them on a guided tour from top to bottom.

‘Very bad’ she kept repeating, her instruments running over fillings and other repairs. I interrupted her commentary, and pointed once again to the broken tooth, but she seemed more interested in all the other work that had been done over many years. At this stage I was getting really tense, worried she was about to start a total reconstruction project I did not need nor could afford.

Again I pointed to the only tooth I wanted fixed, but she was in no hurry. Negative questions ran through my head. Is she qualified? Does she understand what needs to be done? I considered excusing myself and simply leaving, but at the moment of thoughts turning into action, the doctor moved her metal probes around the ‘target area’.

After applying some wads of cotton, she reached for the drill without asking if I wanted an injection. I have always needed one to numb my highly sensitive teeth, and braced myself, grabbing the padded arms of the chair. The whirring needle moved menacingly closer and when it made contact with the tingling nerves, I nearly hit the ceiling. There was no need for translation.

My anxiety levels rose even further as she picked up a syringe, aiming at the gum directly below my broken tooth. I tensed even more, but now I was trapped in a foreign (to me) dental clinic with a long needle about to penetrate my skin. Beads of sweat pumped by adrenalin4 started running down my forehead, and for a few seconds my life flashed before me. This was the moment of fight or flight, and I could do neither. The CRI storyteller sprang to mind.