A trip to the dentist, Malaysian style

Junior Stephanie Robichaux, a double major in journalism and anthropology, is spending the spring semester studying with the Semester at Sea program. A few times this semester she, along with other students spread out across the globe, will share her experiences and observations abroad as one of The Hatchet’s “GW expats.”

“Be on the 8:30 tender to meet the agent at the dock at 9 o’clock.” That’s all the information I had when I was told that my long-awaited dentist appointment had finally been made. The purser’s desk made the arrangements, and I was supposed to blindly follow the directions.

I met a girl on the gangway who was on her way to the dermatologist with three of her friends who joined her for moral support. My friends were going to join me until they found out that it would interfere with their precious beauty rest, and since I don’t have a fear of dentists yet, I didn’t mind.

We arrived on shore at 8:45. “You need taxi? Where do you go?” We were bombarded with offers from taxi drivers to take us to our destination. “No, we’re meeting someone here to take us to the doctor,” I made the mistake of saying.

“Doctor? I take you to the hospital. Only two kilometers.”

“No, no, no. I’m going to the dentist, not the hospital, and someone is taking me there,” I said.

My explanations weren’t helping, so, I joined with the other girls who had already decided that sitting down and ignoring the taxi driver was the better option.

Nine o’clock. Nine thirty. Ten o’clock. Police officers on motorcycles, more cab drivers, money-changers and venders had all arrived at the marina, but there was no sign of the agent. The air was getting hotter and our patience shorter.

At 10:30, the agent, a little Malaysian man in a beat-up white two-door car, arrived. He said that he would take me to the dentist first, then return to the marina to bring the other girls to the dermatologist.

I asked him if I had an appointment; he said I just had to show up. After about a 10-minute drive, he pulled over to the side of the road and stopped the car. I looked around, saw plenty of open-air restaurants and shops but no dentist office. “Where is it?” I asked, looking out the window of the car. “Behind,” he said, pointing to closed shop.

I had spent the past two days walking around the city, and I had seen what was located behind the stores and restaurants. It wasn’t a pretty sight. In fact, most of the time, I was afraid to look. Alleyways, dumpsters, stray animals – those are what I usually found behind buildings; I didn’t like the sound of this “behind” business.

In Washington, my dentist office is in a high-rise. I usually take an elevator to the door, not a walk between two buildings where trash bags are dropped next to puddles of dirty water.

I walked into an empty dentist office, which I thought couldn’t be a good sign. A petite Asian woman with a beehive hairdo greeted my driver and me. He explained in another language that I was a student from the ship and needed to see the dentist. There was no paperwork like I was used to. I told him not to leave until I was sure that I was going to go through with the procedure, then followed the receptionist to the back.

I explained to Dr. Tan Hong Pin that my temporary crown fell off two weeks ago, and my mouth was in pain so I needed him to fix it. “Temporary crown?” he said, looking a bit puzzled. “What was it made of?”

Yes, I was nervous. How the hell does a dentist not know what a temporary crown is? I wanted to verbalize this, but after my explanation, he seemed to be more familiar with the idea. I told my driver to go ahead and take the other girl to the doctor, even though part of me wanted to jump in the car with him, avoid the dentist all together, and pray that my tooth wouldn’t rot before I returned to the States.

But I figured since I was there, I should go through with it. Dr. Tan Hong Pin said that no needles or drilling would be involved, so I held my breath and hoped for the best. The procedure was pretty painless and the worst part of the whole experience was when the dental assistant dropped an attachment and instead of grabbing a new one, blasted it with air and put it on the tool.

Antsy to get the hell out of there, I took a deep breath and suppressed my germaphobia. Luckily, Dr. Pin finished quickly.

“How long you are in Malaysia?” he asked in broken English as I was about to leave. “Until tomorrow night,” I replied. “Oh, good, if it bothers you, just come back and I fix it. No problem.”

Later that day, my tooth didn’t feel much better than it did that morning, so I decided to call the dentist. I bought an international calling card and made an appointment at Dr. Hunter’s sterile, white office in D.C. for the day after I return from the voyage.

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