Eating Bitter

The time had come for me (Liz) to finally see a dentist here and get my teeth cleaned. It had been well over a year (sorry Dr. Gormley – I know this doesn’t please my old wonderful dentist in New Haven!). But things have been rather busy this past year and I thought regular flossing and brushing would do the trick until we got settled.

As I was leafing through some resources looking for the vocabulary to talk to the receptionist to make the proper kind of appointment, my ayi asked why I was going. I told her I needed my teeth cleaned. She said, “Open your mouth, let me see.” So I did, and she promptly exclaimed, “Your teeth look great, no need to go!” Thank you Dr. Ayi!

I went against her advice and made an appointment for the cheaper kind of cleaning (ultrasound vs. some other kind of fancy cleaning that I didn’t understand). I’ve always had my teeth cleaned in the old-fashioned sharp metal pick and mirror way, so I chose the cheaper option and went in for my appointment.

I had the exam first with the dentist, who proclaimed that my teeth looked great and had a fairly complicated conversation where I was trying to explain what kind of dental work I’d had done in years past (my vocabulary lesson hadn’t gone this deep, so I was basically making stuff up and gesturing in my mouth a lot). After that, her assistant, who had been very sweet and kind – began touching my hair and saying to the doctor, “She is just so pretty – LOOK at her hair and skin.” Which was very sweet, but a little funny. I don’t think it had registered that I could understand her or else she really was just a little overcome by my apparent dazzling beauty :). The dentist gently reminded her that I understood and that it was time to let the teeth cleaning begin.

Enter two wonderful dental hygienists, who began by telling me that if anything they did was uncomfortable, I should tell them. I agreed, calmly reassured by the fact that getting my teeth cleaned had never been painful for me in my life. That was about to change. They began the ultrasound application – which consists of a vibrating small metal point doing something to get all the bacteria and plaque off of my teeth. Youch! As they cleaned my front teeth (the most sensitive) I began to motion and make sounds of discomfort. I thought to myself, “Well, they said to tell them if it’s uncomfortable, maybe something is wrong!” The pain is like the kind of eerie icky feeling you get when someone scratches their nails on a chalkboard, only the chalkboard is in your mouth. I expected them to immediately stop and assess the situation. Their only response to my flailing around was to say, “Mei guanxi!” over and over. This means, “No relation” literally – which in this situation meant, “There’s nothing wrong with a little pain, sit back and take it like a Chinese.” I felt a bit betrayed by their earlier overtures to let them know at the slightest discomfort.

Afterward, I found out via the Internet that ultrasound cleaning can be a little painful. But at the time, I thought they were a little cruel to lead me on like that.

I must say though, after I got home I looked in the mirror and my teeth have never looked better. Whatever they were doing sure worked! I’ll be back for more and this time, I won’t be complaining.

This leads me to an observation about the Chinese resilience… The Chinese can take pain. They go through many medical operations and procedures without anaesthetics because it’s too costly. They live in huts, in back rooms, in the cold, without heat, giving up meat and other luxuries – to save enough money to send their children to school and to provide for the future. In their own language, it’s known sometimes as “eating bitter.” They can eat bitter better than any people I’ve ever met. Their history and development as a nation has required much sacrifice and suffering, especially over the last 200 years.

Maybe I can learn from this – but for now, I will know how to interpret “Mei guanxi” and be on my guard for overtures to ease my discomfort here!

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3 Responses to “Eating Bitter”


  1. 1 Emily February 28, 2009 at 9:37 am

    Hi,
    I am so excited to find your blog! I stumbled across it today while googling something along the lines of “China with a baby”.

    My husband and I live in Atlanta, GA, but we are possibly relocating to Shenzhen, China at the end of this year for my job. I am pregnant, due in July, so the baby will only be 4-5 months old when we move.

    I have so many questions about moving/living in China with a little one under the age of 2, and it looks like after skimming a few of your blog postings, you may be able to help me answer some of them!

    Please email me if you’re open to discussing your experience and answer questions – I could use advice on everything from how to tell my parents I’m moving to what to expect when attempting to breast feed after eating my firs couple of authentic Chinese meals. I can’t find this stuff in any of the 6 books I bought on Amazon!!

    Emily
    emily.langford@gmail.com

  2. 2 mjfalk February 28, 2009 at 11:27 am

    Great chapter for the book you’re going to write, but sort of a corny way to get acroos the idea that you are a natural beauty. Also, you forgot to mention the cost—if a Chinese student were to have dental work done here in the US, no doubt that would have worked it’s way into the story. Not too surprising that you would be impressed with stoic courage under fire, Liz—-you’ve always admired that trait. What ever happened to the age-old adage—no brain-no pain. The Force be with you!—Mom–in Green Bay, where all the boys have great smiles, all the girls are painfree dental hygienists, and all the orthodontists have luxury cottages in Door County.

  3. 3 Mom March 2, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Delightful read! I’ll be printing it and taking it to Phillips’ office the next time around. They always ask about you – and everyone else. In fact, that reminds me, JM. The receptionist recently reminisced about the first time she saw one of my children – you. She said it was even before we met at the office. Her daughter who played in the band was finishing up at middle school, and parents were strongly urged to attend one of the high school music concerts. Dutiful mother that she is, she went and was floored when you performed some sort of movement with the orchestra. After all these years (you’ll admit it’s quite a few) she still remembers…


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