I’ve had that dream on a fairly regular basis for as long as I can remember.
The setting is often different, but in the most frequent version I’m at my locker in my old high school, and I feel something gritty on my tongue. I spit it out to see that it’s a chipped piece of tooth. Worrying about how this will affect my appearance, I walk towards the toilets to look in a mirror, but before I can get there I’m stopped the school principal, who wants to talk to me about something. While she’s talking, I start to feel more of that gritty feeling in my mouth, and I realise that my teeth are rapidly crumbling away to nothing. I try not to open my mouth, just nodding dumbly at the principal, and then rush along the corridor as quickly as I can when she dismisses me… but I don’t get very far, because I start to choke and gag on bits of rotten, crumbled teeth and blood. I just start spitting it all out into my hands while everyone stops and looks at me in horror – generally I wake up in a panic around this point, trying to spit out my teeth, and immediately put my finger in my mouth to check that everything’s OK in there.
This has never been a particularly nice dream, but it becomes a million times more unpleasant when you start to suspect that it might come true before very many more years. I have chipped three of my front teeth over the past couple of years, for a start, and had more toothache than in all the rest of my life put together. But even worse than that has been noticing the increasingly yellow appearance of my teeth in photographs. Ugh. A lifetime of poor dental hygiene and a decade of smoking and drinking coffee/wine is making itself known, and last week I realised how bad things were getting when I decided to start cleaning up the mess by brushing my teeth more thoroughly than my usual token 30-second skim… and my gums started to bleed.
I’ve never been terribly cautious when it comes to dental care. I hate going to the dentist, and always have. I think mouths are a bit disgusting. I’m lazy – too lazy to brush my teeth after every meal (I’ve never done that), and usually too lazy to brush them before bed. On average, it’s been one quick brushing a day, in the morning. I’ve never flossed in my life. Actually, until very recently, I genuinely believed that flossing was only done by people with dental problems or those who were freakishly obsessive about hygiene. I didn’t realise that most people actually floss at least once a day, as regularly as brushing.
And now, not only are my yellow teeth getting to me, but Korea has also made me feel extremely guilty for my lack of dental hygiene. Koreans are very serious about it. Absolutely everyone brushes their teeth after every meal. At school, teachers and children alike keep toothbrushes in little sterilising cupboards in their classrooms, and at the end of lunchtime you can see dozens of kids at any given point brushing their teeth in the bathrooms. In restaurants and bars you can walk into the toilets at night and see young Korean women brushing their teeth at the sink because they’ve just had a meal or some bar snacks.
I thought it was all a bit extreme at first, but now that my teeth are giving me cause for concern, I’m grudgingly coming round to the wisdom of good dental hygiene, and wishing I’d started caring a bit earlier in my life. There’s a toothbrush and toothpaste in my desk, just like all the Korean teachers, and I reluctantly drag myself to the bathroom to brush after lunch. I resent replacing the pleasant flavours of my food with minty toothpaste. Alex (an American, and therefore one of those people I always thought were ridiculously fanatical about tooth care) is impressed with my newfound concern for my molars, and has volunteered to get some floss for me. Before long, I expect I shall be taking care of my teeth for approximately 80% of the day, and will have to give up my teaching job in order to do so.
Honestly, wouldn’t it be far easier to get them all pulled out and replaced with false ones?!