The waiting room was awfully crowded for a Friday afternoon. I shifted on the plastic sofa, crossed my legs, remembered that Koreans don’t do that, and uncrossed them. The wall clock logged the minutes while a TV blared Korean soap operas. An hour had passed since we sat down. I wasn't any happier to be here.
“She’s a little scared.” I heard the familiar Korean sentence behind me, followed by an unnecessary, “She’s a foreigner.”
I was almost accustomed to the way people's gait hitched when they me, a big white girl in their dentist’s office. Kids peeked around mothers' legs. A few snuck up to get a better look at my nose and try out their English. I was a welcome distraction from the grim purpose of their visit.
And vice versa.
Dentists get a bad rep. Mostly, they deserve it. The scrape of sharpened metal against teeth, the buzz of drills, the presence of needles in proximity to my gums--not cool, Dr. Scrivello. Not cool.
Unfortunately for me, there was this toothache. I never had a cavity before, but preliminary google research suggested I had one now. Right in front, for maximum visibility. Either it was going to end up silver, or, this being Korea, the dentist was going to yank it. Either way, I was profoundly unthrilled.
One of the indistinguishable young dental techs detached from the squadron and approached us. She had a smile that said she’d never been inside a foreigner's mouth before and wasn’t entirely keen to start now. I rose. So did my friend, who gave me a comforting pat.
“She’s a little scared. She’s a foreigner," she murmured to the technician.
I smiled sheepishly, hoping I didn't look in need of a gum-stabbing. Google had provided me with a comprehensive review of foreigners’ thoughts on Korean dentists. They were, without exception, terrifying. Gloves with holes, instruments shared between patients, and an unhealthy predilection for the drilling and pulling of teeth.
The office was reassuringly clean and modern. The patients, however, looked like medieval torture victims. They lay prostrate in dentist chairs, their heads draped in green canvas. Through a hole in the canvas, the hygenists attacked their teeth with hooks and scrapers. This was not a place I wanted to be a faceless cipher.
My friend, a person of unadulterated goodness and nobility, reiterated my latex allergy while reassuringly patting my hair. It had been a while since I’d felt so hapless and childish. It evoked a mix of embarrassment and profound gratitude.
The tech nodded, washed up, and slid into a fresh pair of plastic gloves. The usual assortment of torture devices appeared on a tray beside me, fresh from their sterile packaging. The hygienist slid my chair backward until I was looking at her shoes.
She took a quick glance at my mouth and left to get the dentist. He came in, poked at the tooth in question, then set down his instruments and addressed my friend in a long string of Korean. I caught the word for ‘cavity’ and also ‘now.’
Great. Here it came. No X-rays, just a split-second diagnosis followed by a pair of pliers. I could practically hear google whisper, "I told you so."
My friend leaned over to translate. “The doctor says you don’t have any cavities. Your teeth are ok. They will clean them now, then we will go.”
“Really?” I propped up on my elbows. “No cavities?”
No $700 worth of random repair work? No Long John Silver smile to memorialize my time in Korea?
“No cavities. Your teeth are very nice,” she assured me as the tech draped on the canvas mask. Ten claustrophobic minutes later, I was at the front desk, paying my bill.
“It is 5,900 won,” my friend told me. About 5 bucks. I handed it over, waived farewell to the waiting room, and literally skipped to the elevator. My friend laughed at me, but I didn't care. The internet was wrong! Who'd have thought?
*Pulling teeth actually is a Korean dental specialty, which may be why my co-teachers brush so thoroughly after lunch. Ask friends for a personal rec on dentists. If you're in Chungju, I definitely recommend Individual System Dental Clinic, located above A Twosome Place at the intersection of Beonnyeong Daero and Gugwon Daero. Bring a friend to translate.
Allergies aren't as common here as in the States, so if you have a latex allergy make sure the doctor knows in advance and can accommodate you.