A Canadian in Beijing: Big Toothy Grin at the Dental Hospital

There’s so much to write about and so little time left. I’m here for only one more week and then I can hardly believe that I’m leaving. Canada again? It’s going to be so strange not to be here, a place where I feel so at home. I have a rhythm here that feels musical in my step. I will so miss this place. And yet, my Canadian senses are also drawing me home the way fresh baked bread on the breeze will draw someone into a warm kitchen on a summer’s day. If only I could duplicate myself to be in both places at once!

In the midst of this delicious rhythm, I’ve really stopped being a tourist in so many ways. I have found friends and a vibrant community and my adventures are centred around their lives and their worlds. Not to say they haven’t been given insight into mine, but they have invited me in to theirs and shown me so many different aspects of Beijing. In many cases, I have seen parts of this city that I would never have seen had I just been looking through a guide book for possible adventures.

Take yesterday, for example, when I toured Beijing’s preeminent dental hospital: “Peking University Stomatological Hospital.”

One of my friends is a dentist studying to be a dental surgeon. He invited me to his hospital and I must say that it was an experience that left an impression. Not only did I constantly want to brush my teeth while I was there, but I felt shy about smiling for fear that everyone was looking at my teeth!

Now, on a practical level, what struck me most was the fact that the hospital looked like a hospital from the 1970’s. Much of the equipment was up-to-date and modern, but the décor and the layout reminded me of the hospitals of my youth. Not to mention the fact that the walls were often in disrepair with peeling paint or cracked plaster and the pipes were exposed and rusting.

Not unlike the buildings at the school or my dorm, though. Perhaps I should just chalk it up to different interior design standards here in China versus Canada? And, after all, it’s not really about look and much more about function, right? In North America, we are taught that if a place looks shabby then the quality of the service must also be shabby. I think that assumption is far from true here. Standards could very well be high (if not higher than home), even if the walls need painting.

My friend took me up floor after floor of identical floor plan: the central area was a waiting room with hard-backed chairs all attached to one another like students chairs in a university lecture hall. Each floor had a reception desk and then dental rooms branching off on all sides. Each dental room held several dental chairs that weren’t separated from one another with walls or dividers. I’m not sure what dental hospitals look like in North America, but I wondered if perhaps privacy is not as important here or if this is standard for a dental hospital versus a private clinic. (Anyone know?)

In the stairwell, when we rounded the stairs to the fifth floor, he pointed to the entrance and said that we couldn’t go in there. He continued to climb the stairs to the sixth floor and I paused at the fifth and asked “why?” He stopped and turned around and in a very matter-of-fact tone explained that this was the floor where the government officials are treated. “So?” I asked, naively, and he said that no one was allowed to go onto this floor except a select group of doctors and surgeons. He further explained that there is actually a full hospital that is just for government officials elsewhere in the city. It, too, is off limits to the regular Beijing denizen or visitor.

Well then.

These are the moments when I recall that I’m in a Communist country.

Another interesting point is that the orthodontic floor was the most modern and clean. Of course, my friend explained, this is because it’s the most expensive of all the services. (So, money will buy paint and take rust off pipes, I suppose!?) I also liked the kid’s floor. The little chairs were cute and they tried to decorate it with a bit more colour for the little ones. And, most amusing to me of all was the educational rooms with the fake heads with removable jaws for learning how to work on teeth. Of course these are needed, but I’ve never seen such a thing before and the image of all these slack-jawed dummies made me laugh.

After the tour, we came back to the main floor and into the central lobby. Here were glassed-in kiosks that looked much like ticket wickets at a train station. The patients line up in front of these windows to be registered at the hospital, though it is not an emergency reception room. My friend also pointed out the pharmacy window, which was also a kiosk. The patient takes their prescription slip to this window and presents it to the attendant and the attendant fetches your prescription. Almost like a drive-thru window, I thought, and it was strange to hear my friend define it as a pharmacy. In Canada, pharmacies look a lot different!

Suddenly there was a grand commotion. They were blocking off a section of the outer sidewalk and people were being directed to move their bicycles immediately as the doors were to be locked to one of the exits and any bicycles would be trapped outside. At least, this is what I gathered. There was also something about not being able to access a neighbouring building through those entrances/exits, which seem to inspire a lot of running back and forth before the locks were engaged.

Apparently they are working on the building next door and there was a risk of falling debris. They were blocking it off so that no one would get hurt, but to block off the area they only used flimsy tarps that flapped in the wind, one at either end of the section of sidewalk – easy to walk under and/or around. In North America, I could already imagine people completely disregarding these tarps and taking the risk. Here in China, rules are rules.

The urgency of this closure was palpable. In fact, it seemed as through there was some sort of panic to gather items from one building to the next as though there would be no way to get between the buildings afterwards, which I soon discovered was untrue. The blocked walkway just forced a person to go around. Still, it seemed like the end of the world was coming for those few moments and I just watched with amusement and curiosity.

In my curiosity, I walked outside and photographed the area, much to the horror of one of the hospital workers who warned me that I could still get hurt even while on the “safe” sides of the barricade. (By the way, I didn’t see a single particle of dust fall from the adjacent building while I was out there!) I am grateful I went outside, though, because I discovered this building behind the hospital (I have no idea if it’s part of the hospital or not) that is covered in vines. It looked like a living and breathing creature and I had to photograph it.

When I went back inside, the drama had subsided and I accompanied my friend to a large auditorium where I watched groups of students gather on the stage and perform various songs and poems or sketches for each other. There were perhaps five hundred students and each group was of approximately ten students. They filed on and off the stage with embarrassed giggles and cajoling from their friends in the audience. The most popular performance was karaoke in style with backing music being provided by a laptop hooked up to an overhead projector and piped through auditorium speakers. In fact, many of the songs sung were English songs and any poems that were recited were also in English. That did not make them very clear, however, and it was funny for me to say that I “ting bu dong” (don’t understand) something when it’s supposed to be in my own language!

Two hours later, the performances were winding up and I had had enough of “people watching.” It really felt like a high school variety night (which was the only thing I could relate it to), only this group of students weren’t my fellow students and this wasn’t my school! I felt good to have supported my friend, but I was ready to go. Such an event was definitely culturally specific to China. I can’t imagine a bunch of university and masters students in Canada engaging in this kind of activity, but I have to add, to their credit, that it was great to see these students having so much fun.

I left via the back entrance (due to the blocked doorways) and I thanked my friend for such a unique experience. How often does a person get to tour a dental hospital in Beijing and then watch fifty amateur performances in two hours? I’d say it would go in the once-in-a-lifetime category!

I went home and brushed my teeth right away.