I was never afraid to go to the dentist as a child and frankly, I never understood the fear. Whenever I would say this to my peers, they turned and looked at me askance. Despite the terror depicted in cartoons and movies of children being tortured with loud sounding drills, the fear of pain, or the taste and smell of latex, going to the dentist as an Iranian American child meant something different. Instead of a stranger in a white lab coat, going to the dentist meant that we were going to see one of the various amus (or “uncles”) in our extended diasporic community in Northern California.
Having a plethora of dentists in our extended family meant that every trip to the dentist was An Event. We needed to arrive impeccably groomed and well-dressed, lest we caused gossip to carry over to the next mehmooni. The payoff was worth it when we were treated like VIPs as we waltzed in, greeting the receptionists and hygienists by name. It inevitably fell on my mother to take me to the dentist and she would always swindle extra swag bags full of toothpaste and toothbrushes in excessive abundance. The branded toothbrushes would end up littered all over our bathroom cabinets. Lying in the dentist’s chair, it was never just my teeth that were being scrutinized, but also how I dressed, whether I was getting good grades in school, and, as I got older, whether I was staying away from boys.
Despite growing up in a predominantly white suburb, my family never had a white dentist. We would always drive towns away to the dentist, to see the new offices that someone’s brother’s cousin’s best friend had opened in more affluent and decadent suburbs surrounding our own. We didn’t go to a neighborhood dentist, we went to other neighborhoods’ dentists instead. Of course, as a child growing up in the Iranian diaspora, I didn’t realize what a difference social class could make in the type of job you could bag once you migrated to the US. My parents hailed from smaller towns in Iran, far from the bustling metropolis of Tehran, and therefore didn’t have the same generational wealth as others in our connected diasporic family. After all, my mother was a cashier at Target and my father was his own boss as an electrician. The dentists in our extended family were usually sent to the US for school before the Islamic revolution and were typically stranded here after their family homes were dismantled in Iran. Yet, by virtue of sharing the same mother country, my maman and baba were granted access to the abundant network of Iranian dentists, accountants, and lawyers in Northern California.
My teeth were growing in America, with fluoride running through the pipes into my red plastic tumbler every night, calcium-fortified yogurt accompanying each meal, toothpaste ready on the shelves of the supermarket. However, when I was six years old, I didn’t understand how different my upbringing was compared to that of my parents. I didn’t understand why they would always stay longer in the dentist’s chair than me, my cleaning and polishing wrapped up in a neat twenty minutes. Once my maman and baba were released from the chair, clutching their swollen faces in pain, a burning feeling came over me. Khejalat bekesh; shame and embarrassment would wash over me. I didn’t do anything to deserve the fluoride in the pipes, the toothpaste on the shelf. I was just born in America.
It wasn’t until I was fifteen when my baba and I went to the dentist in the city, Amu Ben, that my baba confessed to me that he didn’t receive a toothbrush until he was eighteen in the Iranian military. I remember how shame squirmed in my stomach and rose to my cheeks thinking of my baba as a little boy without enough food to eat, much less the knowledge to take care of the teeth that would chew through food. Through no fault of my own I had it better than my parents, and I’m sure that’s what they wanted for me; that’s what most immigrant parents want for their children. But the shame lingered, seeping into my being.
Being born in America wasn’t the only factor that led me to have “good teeth.” It was also the fact that, due to my mother working at Target, we gained dental insurance. Before the Affordable Care Act, purchasing your own dental insurance was obscenely expensive and not worth the monthly premium if you didn’t need to go to the dentist for a cavity to be filled. But as with any preventative care, routine screenings are required to stop problems that lead to worsening health outcomes. By the time my parents got dental insurance, who knew what was lingering in our mouths?
And yet, we still judge each other on our smiles in our everyday lives; our teeth cast judgement on the moral and hygienist fiber of people’s souls if they are crooked, yellow, or gap obviously in a way that makes us squirm inside. I always knew that teeth were important. In elementary school, we would have dental health days where someone would come talk to us about plaque and gingivitis and how important it was to brush and floss our teeth. We would chew blue tablets tasting like bubble gum that foamed up in our mouths and attached to the plaque in our teeth. We would be timed for two minutes exactly as we brushed the blue off our teeth and then see how much blue plaque would be leftover from our sloppy efforts. We recoiled at those who had more blue clinging to their teeth than others. Teeth were important, more important than anyone would actually let on.
As a child, I would bare my burgeoning teeth against the mirror, see where my baby teeth protruded from my gums, and stare in awe at their precise lengths. One thing that disturbed me already about my teeth was how they weren’t really a true white but more of an off-white, closer to cream. Everyone in commercials, on television, and in movies had evenly white teeth with no variations. My teeth needed to be perfect, but Crest Whitestrips hadn’t been invented yet so I had to go without, doubtful that anyone would recommend a child to get their milk teeth whitened. On the night before my sixth birthday party, mirrors confirmed what I suspected as my tongue wiggled my lower right incisor. The tooth didn’t cause any pain but I was still afraid of it falling out. I feared my trademark grin would look lopsided with a missing tooth in all my birthday pictures.
As the party started, cousins came flooding into my bedroom, a refuge for children amongst a sea of adults. I remember how sweltering and humid my room became, packed with the bodies of cousins and “cousins” of varying ages. We all ran the gamut of K-12 ages and, despite celebrating my sixth birthday, I remember wanting to engage in what I saw as an effortless and calm self-assuredness displayed by my teenage cousins wearing brown lipstick and chic black clothing. My pink party dress was juvenile in comparison. Ultimately, the teenage boy cousins caused the most trouble with their roughhousing, culminating in an especially nonconsensual tickle fight where multiple cousins held me down as their leader in mischief, Ali, took the lead with the tickling. As rambunctious as cousins can be, and despite how much as I resisted, a well-placed knock to the face with an elbow was the final blade that cut my tooth’s gum strings. I could tell the connection has been severed, the tip of my tongue probing around in my fleshy bloody mouth, hearing my cousins exclaim in disgust as I pulled my tooth out with sticky but nimble fingers, pink-hued saliva threads following the trajectory of my first lost tooth.
My bloody trophy was the truly the best present I could have received for my birthday. As an only child, I was used to being the center of attention from my parents whether it was negative or positive. Now, as the birthday girl, I could command even more attention from the adults attending the mehmooni through my hard-earned victimhood. The cake, the kebob, the mountain of gifts, this whole mehmooni, and being the center of birthday attention weren’t enough! As I brandished my tooth, sweaty, sticky, and red in my fingers, the previous press of bodies somehow dispersed to let me out of my room. Holding my tooth above my head, I encountered my maman.
Despite how it happened, I was enormously proud of this achievement, especially in an extended family full of dentists where I could show off my tooth with gleeful awe. I had three uncle dentists present at this mehmooni. My maman’s worries were only abated with their reassurances that as long as I didn’t lick the spaces between my loosening teeth, the adult teeth to follow wouldn’t grow in crooked. This technique was paramount to straight teeth, they claimed. Same with avoiding thumb sucking. To this day, I don’t know if this is plain old Iranian superstition (cracking eggs is usually the prescribed practice to avoid a whole host of ills, including the evil eye), or actually based in peer-reviewed science. Too bad for me that I liked the strange coppery taste of the open wound in my gums, and kept poking at it surreptitiously. There’s a gay joke in there somewhere.
The only time visiting a dentist from our family blew up in my face was when one dentist amu divorced his dentist wife and she got the practice in the divorce. With dental insurance contracting, I was doomed to have my wisdom teeth removed in the same practice that was awarded to my former “aunt.” After all, when your only blood family lives six thousand miles away, across the world, anyone who you invite over for kebab tends to become family.
The reasoning and idea for having my wisdom teeth removed at a younger age than my peers was that because my adult teeth grew in so straight, I’ve never needed braces on my teeth. Some folks like to say this is due to genetics, but looking at my parents’ teeth I’m not so sure. Nonetheless, despite licking the spaces between my teeth, my adult teeth grew in much straighter than my peers, and I was never in headgear purgatory.
Because I was the one of the first in my peer group to get my wisdom teeth pulled, and I had no siblings, older or otherwise, I didn’t get any intel on what this procedure was like. Of course I didn’t think to google this information; it was only 2004. I didn’t have a pink Motorola Razr cell phone like the cool girls did. And remember, I wasn’t afraid of the dentist. I was, perhaps, a bit too trusting of our family dentists. Walking into the dentist’s office of my khaleh, six months after the divorce was finalized, I was ready to meet the oral surgeon. The oral surgeon wasn’t even remotely attached to the extensions shooting off our family tree, but he was important because he would be the one doing the wisdom tooth extraction. Because I wasn’t subject to any cavities, braces, or other dental woes, I had no idea what lay ahead. Instead of getting general anesthesia and being unconscious for the entirety of removing all four of my wisdom teeth like most of my friends did at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, or even nineteen, I had the distinct displeasure of being fully conscious and getting only a local anesthetic.
The surgeon began sinking a comically large needle into where the corners of my jaw met inside my mouth, and after doing this three more times to the top and bottom corners of my mouth, we were ready. Here’s the thing they don’t tell you about a local anaesthetic: only the nerves close to and around the area being operated on are numbed. I was conscious for the full procedure as the surgeon sliced my gums open and scooped out my wisdom teeth. No one warned me how I would be able to hear every tool clank within my open mouth. I was terrified—why had my mother let this happen to me? Fuck my straight teeth; let them be crooked if I had to deal with this “health professional” who didn’t even know when my first tooth fell out, who wasn’t there when I paraded it around on my sixth birthday. With two stitches neatly closing each incision and my corners packed with gauze, I was released from the chair.
I begged for a dentist’s note to allow me to take off from school and for as much Vicodin I could swindle from my khaleh, sobbing as the adrenaline coursed through my body. The entire time I was sitting in the chair, I was in horror anticipating what might come next. Despite not being able to feel anything in my mouth, I could hear the instruments digging my teeth out of my jaw amongst the high-powered whir of one of the tool’s motors. Every time there was a break in the procedure, I thought, This is it, we finally got to the end, only to feel my stomach sink to my kneecaps when they would move to a different corner of my mouth. Of course, my chipmunk cheeks stuffed with bloody gauze muffled my requests, but my mother brushed off my tears brusquely.
“I was so scared,” I tried to say. I wanted her to comfort me, to baby me through this traumatic experience.
“You were barely in the chair for an hour,” she retorted in Persian. “He worked so fast on you; you should be thankful for such a skilled surgeon.” It took me fourteen years to sit for an hour in a dentist’s chair. My maman had already spent countless hours in the dentist’s chair in those fourteen years. When we got home, Maman gushed to Baba about how quickly the surgeon sliced my gums open and how skilled he was and how incredibly lucky they were that we could get ahead of this surgery before anyone else.
I never asked when my parents got their wisdom teeth removed or whether they were removed when they lived in Iran. There are some questions you don’t ask because you already know the answer. I wonder what other secrets our dentists kept to themselves outside of the mehmoonis and poker games, secrets from the pain that we carried in our mouths, from where we came from and where we landed.
We Are More is an inclusive space for SWANA (Southwest Asian and North African) and SWANA diaspora writers to tell our stories, our way. Curated by Michelle Zamanian, this new column seeks to disrupt the media’s negative and stereotypical narratives by creating a consistent platform to be heard, outside of and beyond the waxing and waning interest of the news cycle. We’ll publish creative nonfiction, graphic essays, fiction, poetry, and interviews by SWANA writers on a wide variety of subject matter. All prose submissions should be between 1500-5000 words. Poetry submissions should include 4-8 poems for consideration (up to 12 pages). Please inquire for interview guidelines. Submissions should be sent to [email protected] with author’s name and title/genre of work in the subject line.