Ears, tongues, and teeth (or Phones, languages, and dentists)

Today I made my first (short) phone call entirely in German. It wasn’t easy, so I’m proud!

The first thing is, I really dislike talking on the phone, regardless of language and conversation partner (though talking in a language I use rarely is worse, talking to strangers and officials is worse than talking to family, and talking to friends is somewhere in between). Stage fright management techniques usually help (funnily enough, I hardly have any stage fright on actual stages). Depending on mood and the urgency and importance of the phone call, I manage to hold most necessary phone conversations, and only occasionally do I end up putting phone calls off indefinitely.

The other thing I don’t like is going to the dentist. It is by no means a phobia, but the logical the result of one particular terrible experience – or, rather, a series of particularly terrible experiences with the same naughty tooth. In other words, provided that I trust the dentist, I would prefer going to see her or him to talking on the phone to anyone. But this time I’d rather hold five phone conversations than have to have that one naughty tooth treated. That bloody piece of bone has been the root of all evil. Three or four rounds of fillings in the last 15 years. Two root canal treatments with complications in the last five years. An unidentified inflammation at its (nonexisting) root, which went on for a couple of years but did not show on X-rays. More recently, three attempts to patch it up with partial temporary fillings. Needless to say, this has resulted in having trouble eating anything hard, such as steaks, raw vegetables, and nuts, for the foreseeable past. The bastard has been begging for a crown for a while (I’m not sure there’s enough tooth left even for a crown, so a bridge might be on the way). Two days ago, while enjoying a warm dinner on a dark and cold Saturday evening, I cheerily and absent-mindedly bit into what probably was this tooth’s last carrot. The dilapidated structure cracked and almost fell out, but not quite. Perhaps if it had, I’d have been more efficient in finding a doctor.

Now, why am I boring you with gory details of teeth and irrelevant confessions of petty social phobias? Because moments like this remind you that you are a recent migrant, by highlighting the deficit of several things non-migrants take for granted: trust; possible courses of action in emergency; local knowledge that extends not only to usual courses of action, but also to alternatives. They point at an interesting feature of being a migrant: intersectionality. The theory of intersectionality, initially developed in gender studies, seems very useful for understanding any type of inequality, in this case inequalities based on migrant experience. Needing semi-urgent dental help in a new city, by itself, isn’t such a drama – especially when you are a very privileged migrant: one that has a paid job, speaks a little of the host language, has access to a phone, and even knows several locals who can share potentially useful (or at least comforting) first-hand knowledge, such as recommendations of a good doctor or dentist. Equally, having a mild phone-phobia when living in a familiar milieu is inconvenient, but manageable. And, not speaking German in itself is not usually a problem (even when you live in Berlin!). My migrant status reminder thus comes not in the form of a bang on the head, the click of handcuffs, or the sound of a closing door. It is far more delicate and tacit, like thin skin peeled off exposing your metaphorical body to the world and depriving it from its usual defences (by the way, the skin metaphor has psychoanalytical roots and has been employed very interestingly to experiences unemployment by sociologist Valerie Walkerdine). But nevertheless it does come, in the form of two or more intersecting issues that suddenly reinforce each other and require urgent, active management. The result is that things are far more difficult than they should be, when seen from outside. The resulting experience is an unexpectedly high expense of emotional energy and a feeling that some of your “skin” has been “peeled off”. Hopefully, the resulting “scars” harden it for future experiences.

Luckily, the phone operator spoke clearly, repeated and rephrased stuff when I couldn’t understand, the call was over in less than a minute, and I now have an appointment in less than 48 hours.


Categories: The Idle Ethnographer

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