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What my dentist wants to know

by Thomas Dillon

“Ever thought to change your nationality?”

This asked by my dentist, as he bent over my mouth and polished my molars with what sounded like a buzz saw. For full effect, repeat his words while running a power tool next to your ear. And you too can be there.

A bit of dental chair banter. Like the time he casually asked if I believed in guns.

My answer?

“Ummth.” For that’s what you say when you have a thumb in your mouth.

Yet minus the obstruction, my answer would have been, “Yes.” For something about his unblinking eyes made me take him literally. Or perhaps his dental mask just filtered out the proper English nuance.

And so I thought, yes, I believe in guns. Bullets make powerful arguments on their behalf. So count me as one of the faithful. Guns exist.

Which I might have told him if he didn’t have my mouth jacked open and I wasn’t so fascinated by his mask.

Anyway he has a penchant for social issues. Not that he cares about my answers. No matter what I say, his response is 100 percent predictable:

“Spit please.”

Now he cleans my teeth and grinds at today’s topic.

“I have this friend in the States. He’s lived there since the ’70s and at last decided to take U.S. citizenship. After all these years. So why not you? Why not become Japanese?”

To which I say . . . “Ummth.”

But this time, the translation wouldn’t be, “Yes.” The closer interpretation would be . . .

“Huh?”

For stuck in my literal world — I wonder . . . How can I become Japanese? Really?

Yes, I know people do it — in a legal sense. Family reasons, business reasons, personal reasons — the possible motives line up like the drill bits on a dental tray. They each might fit perfectly according to the need.

Yet isn’t such a change merely clerical? A new cap on an old tooth? For no one can drop his or her background. Can they?

It’s not like plopping in a set of dentures. It’s more like slipping on a different skin.

No matter what my passport reads, most Japanese are forever going to see my face as foreign. And that’s not even counting the dark side — that island nation Japan is not always so accepting of outsiders.

My dentist, on the other hand, in his white smock and brightly lit office, is never dark. He is non-accepting only of decay.

He hears me say, “Ouch,” in Japanese and assumes I am fluent. That I could BE Japanese.

But I can’t.

If my face didn’t betray me, my voice would. I speak Japanese like a parrot on a perch. With its tail feathers on fire. Both a bit predictable and frantic.

Yes, I have “Ouch” down pat. But not much else. And I speak better than I comprehend.

And I can’t bow right. I had a friend tell me that years ago.

“You bow like an old Disneyland automation.” Stiff. Slow to start. Slower to stop.

And a good bow casts a meaningful shadow. One that covers group dynamics and smooth relationships and knowledge of one’s place.

Yet, I grew up on a prairie under a high sun and my bows have almost no shadow. I don’t know my place. I’m an American all the way.

And I can’t wear a yukata. When I sleep, the obi always gets twisted around and almost ends up a noose. In fact, I don’t look right in any Japanese garment, not a kimono nor a blue business suit.

Proverb: If the shoe fits, wear it. But Japanese shoes don’t fit. I always end up buying imports.

Another proverb: Clothes make the man. Yet they can’t make me something I am not.

And I am not Japanese. Instead, I wear my native culture like Popeye. I yam what I yam. I can be flexible. I can bend. But I can’t break from my upbringing.

Be Japanese? In the literal sense, I could never do it.

“Spit please.”

When I settle back in my chair, I feel I should say something. Perhaps that I feel comfortable being the outside voice. And that if I ever crossed the nationality bridge, both my identity and my views would be compromised. Or so I believe.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he says. “And I agree.”

“You do?”

“Absolutely. You need to brush more. Brush, brush and brush. Polish up what you’ve got and it might last for years to come.”

I blink. “Gosh. You’ve read my mind.”

He packs my mouth with cotton and asks, “Now how about global warming? Are you for or against?”

So I gather my thoughts and give him the one word that — at least from here in his dental chair — can paint a thousand pictures. A word I deliver with conviction:

“Ummth.”

He nods back, well aware I’ve said a mouthful.