How Dentists Get in the Way of Progress

One typical afternoon in our office, an elderly man (speaking only Vietnamese) came and asked for help. I approached him slowly and cautiously because I didn’t want to scare him with any sudden movements. “I need someone to help interpret for me,” he said in Vietnamese. “I don’t understand what the dentist next door is saying.”


Dental offices generally have an awful reputation. It’s like a legal torture chamber filled with tiny tools and sharp objects for poking and prodding. The only thing worse than visiting the dentist is working next door to one, five days a week. You wouldn’t believe the awful sounds I hear each day–a mix of drill bits and cries of pain. It’s simply agonizing and disruptive for a small non-profit that focuses on social justice issues.

“Do we all agree that every child in Southeast Seattle deserves an equitable education?”

“Ahhh!!! Noooo!”

“Uh…who said that? Let’s talk about this. We want to be inclusive.”

“The horror. THE HORROR!!! I’m begging you. Kill me now…”

Pretty soon, everyone in the conference room is having panic attacks while curled up in the fetal position. “All we wanted to do was help the children…”


I reluctantly agreed to accompany the elderly man (who I will refer to as “Bác,” which is a title of respect for elders) to the dental office, but in all honesty, being an interpreter sounded more painful than getting my wisdom teeth pulled out. I never formally learned Vietnamese growing up, so I wasn’t confident in my ability to interpret medical jargon. I didn’t want to mistakenly tell Bác his teeth had flowers on growing on them and kittens sleeping by his molars.

I introduced myself to the dentist, who immediately asked me to tell Bác that he had four cavities and one infected tooth that needs a root canal. “The dentist says that your teeth are…uh.” I searched my memory to see if I knew how to say cavity, but drew a blank. “Your teeth are…um…not clean.” I congratulated myself for thinking on my feet. “The inside of your mouth is very dirty.” I paused to let it sink in. “DO YOU UNDERSTAND!?” I foolishly made the mistake of thinking that talking very loudly in Vietnamese will help Bác understand me better. It didn’t.

The dentist recommended that Bác get his teeth cleaned. They were willing to do it on the spot. I thought Bác would be delighted to hear the good news.

Cleaning? Nah…look at me. I am not young and handsome anymore. I am old. I do not need clean teeth. What’s the point? Just yank them out and give me dentures.

I told the dentist what Bác said. Surprised, the dentist pulled out his tiny little mirror to show me Bác’s cavity—as if I needed convincing. I tried again to persuade Bác, but he was steadfast in his refusal.

Eventually, the dentist conceded and rescheduled Bác to come back another day for surgery and a
denture fitting. I told Bác that he should bring along a family member to interpret for him next time. “But they are busy at work,” he replied.

“I have a job to do too,” I thought to myself–frustrated by how long the process took and hoping my colleagues didn’t file a missing person’s report while I was gone. In the end, Bác thanked me profusely. He looked so adorable, yet helpless, when he smiled at me, revealing large, toothless gaps in his mouth.

From my work, I know there are so many Vietnamese seniors who do not have the social support and resources they need to live independent and dignified lives. Folks like Bác can’t even count on his children and family to help him visit the dentist. Instead he relies on support from the broader community to help him. At the same time, our organization isn’t set up to talk folks like Bác on a day to day basis. This dilemma is very real and persistent in our community: the people who often need the most help aren’t able to access it.

And a final note to our dentist neighbor next door. If you’re located in a densely populated Vietnamese neighborhood, then you should hire some culturally and linguistically competent staff to serve your clients. Otherwise, I’m going to start playing Taylor Swift songs through the walls to counteract your drilling and buzzing.


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