Charm Point

Charm Point

When my son was still an infant — seems long ago — I had him on my lap as I drank a bottle of beer. Without warning he snapped his large (and hard) head into my drink and cracked off half of my front tooth.  It did not hurt and the effect, I thought, was rather rakish.  Weeks went by and any urgency I felt about getting it repaired faded.

Well.  Let me tell you.  In America, there is no quicker way to be jettisoned from the upper-middle class, bourgeois milieu in which I was raised than having a fucked up grill.  A jail sentence would be less offensive.  My nonchalance regarding my broken tooth was deemed an act of class betrayal. I was surprised by this rush to judgement and my passivity turned into a hard stubbornness.  Finally, my mother, who has always been nonplussed by my downwardly mobile class status and was (mostly) accepting of my foibles, stepped in.  She was not having a son with a bruck tooth.  My chip was repaired and I now have a full set of unblemished choppers.

In our great, supposedly classless,  Democratic experiment called the USA, there is no greater indicator of being “low-class” than dental work.  Employers, college admissions directors, juries, whatever, may not care if your family is poor, but they really really care if your teeth are messed up.  Dentistry, orthodontics are billion dollar industries and families will go into incredible, punishing debt to make sure their children’s teeth are straight and white.  Not doing so is to thumb your nose at one of the core values of American society: the principle that we can change, that we can better ourselves — in other words, that we have the right to pursue happiness. Never mind that this core value may very well be a myth, just accept that it is a fundamental aspect of American thought.

It is not a value that is shared the world over.  In fact, it is the very reason that Europeans have long maintained that Americans are but naive children.  It is a young notion of a young nation and it has both served us well and will tear our country apart as the gaps between rich and poor get wider and more divisive.

When I first came to Japan, I was taken aback by the state of dentistry.  There was a lot of really fucked up teeth. Weird fangs.  Double rows of teeth.  Teeth seemingly poking through the gum at a obtuse angles.  Lots of criss-crossed, overlapping teeth.  Rows of mismatched ivories as if Chicklets and Tic-Tacs were stacked next to each other.  People that I met, successful people, people that went to the best colleges, RICH people had completely rotten front teeth.  I couldn’t understand it.  When I mentioned to my wife that a certain friend of hers had a particularly long and sharp maxillary canine tooth, she replied: “Ahhh…That is her charm point.”

Charm Point.  The very notion seemed un-American.  The charm point is that blemish — be it mole, snaggletooth, scar — that counter-balances the otherwise perfect.  It is the mark of the hand-made, the slight imperfection in pottery, the separation of the brush in calligraphy, the knot in a piece of wooden furniture.  It is, at the end of the day, the fingerprint of fate. It is a highly prized aesthetic element within Japanese culture. Indeed, as anti-American as Khrushchev banging his shoe at the UN.

The influence of America is pernicious — especially in Japan.  Slowly, the phenomenon of crazy teeth is fading out (although there is a subculture getting their teeth altered to have a charm point). I now see many Japanese adults with braces to better fit in with American aesthetics. My wife’s friend with the fang?  She now has the teeth of Vanna White.  However, the notion of fate, of destiny is still intrinsic to Japanese culture. Most people, no matter if they “like” themselves or not, seem more accepting of the personalities they were dealt; more accepting of the lives they have.  I could be totally wrong (I probably am), but I suspect that this acceptance has a lot to do with the Japanese sense of dedication and service.  In America, every waiter, every 7-11 worker feels that they are simply biding time while the next great thing is coming; in Japan, people give themselves to their work no matter what it is, and perform at an incredibly high level. So far as I can tell, the sullen cashier just doesn’t exist here.  But everything is malleable, and perhaps American notions of happiness, the right to happiness, will invade ever more facets of our global landscape and those charm points, the ability to see beauty in imperfection will be wiped away in the morass of endless striving.<p>


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