Following last month’s post on expat moments, we start a new series focusing on little moments of expat experience — moments that at the time seemed pifflingly insignificant.
The dentist I went to as a child was located in a Victorian terrace which had been converted into a practice. What must have once been a gloomy living room where the family of the house had sat in sullen silence had now become a gloomy waiting room where the patients of the current occupant sat on musty couches until called for their appointment. When it was finally your turn, you would make your way up a staircase just off from the waiting room; a staircase that always seemed too steep, too narrow, too dark.
There at the top of the stairs were three rooms; two always had their doors shut, but the third would always be open. This was the examination room; no threadbare carpet or peeling plaster here. The smell of must from downstairs replaced with the sweet smell of eugenol. Clean and white with foreboding looking machinery, the centrepiece being that chair, it all felt futuristic and at odds with the rest of the house, and to my imagination it was as if I had stepped through the wardrobe or into the TARDIS. I was in the unknown.
Not so now; there is no peeling plaster, musty smells or dark Gormenghast shadows to navigate at my current dentist’s. I am in a box within a box; that is, like nearly every business in this part of California, the practice is to be found in a strip mall and the examination room is in a perfectly square room that reminds me of the prefab annexes I was sometimes taught in at Secondary school. My mouth is in the painful process of being “Americanized”. A molar is ground down in order to be crowned and slowly a childhood’s worth of NHS fillings, the colour of slate, will be extracted and the teeth will be capped gleaming white.
Bereft of a crumbling Victorian house my nightmarish fears of the dentist may have gone, but they have simply been replaced with a fear of humiliation and mockery. Opening my mouth in a dental surgery here I feel self-conscious. When my dentist starts scraping around in there I feel a whole nation’s health system being judged rather than my own admittedly poor choices.
British teeth and their perceived awfulness have become an established American comic meme popularized by The Simpsons and personified by Mike Myer’s Austin Powers. It’s an entrenched stereotype and always good for a cheap laugh.
When I open my still predominantly British mouth (it’s only partly been Americanized, the vowels and consonants it forms are still resolutely British) it inspires my American dentist to grandiose plans of what she should do with it – rip out those British pegs and start from scratch and craf me an all-American smile.
My understanding is that a teeth whitening course will be a compulsory part of the American citizenship test.
This post was first featured on Culturally Discombobulated
STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, a poll on Wimbledon by Kate Allison.
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img courtesy morguefile