For the past few days I have been fighting off a spring cold, complete with sniffles, sneezes, and, as usual, my ears filling with fluid. While valiantly fighting the cold and the annual ear infection that always accompanies such colds, with the myriad of drugs I, semi-legally, carted into Japan, the decongestant ran out. Knowing that, while my mother would be more than willing to send me more decongestant, my ear was at the point where it would become infected by tomorrow if I didn't do something about it today.
So, prodded forward by the many painful memories of past ear infections, I asked my Sensei where I should go to by decongestant. Well actually, since the words "ear infection" and "decongestant" and "ears filling up with fluid" are not listed in my dictionary, a shocking oversight in my opinion, I first had to make him understand what was wrong. Using known words like mizu-water, mimi-ear, and itai-ouch, along with new words like teieki-body fluids, and jibiyou-infection, I managed to make him understand. His response, like the responses of most Japanese people, was immediate, you should go to the doctor. Now, as a westerner living in Japan, I have heard vague horror stories about Japanese doctors, and everyone knows a friend of a friend who had a cousin who went to the doctor in Japan and was never seen again. Besides I knew that I just had to take the decongestant for a few more days, get lots of rest, and then would feel better. But this is Japan, and apparently self-medicating is not something the Japanese do. So after some polite arguments on my part, and equally polite counter-arguments by my Sensei and the people at the students office, I was given the address of a Ear, Nose, and Throat Doctor, and sent on my way.
So I took myself home, muttering to myself all the way. But, I was caught, if I didn't do something today I was going to end up with an ear infection, and I really hate ear infections. So I took a deep breath and called my friend Steph who lives in my apartment building, to ask her to be my moral support and reader of the all important Kanji. To my great Joy and Happiness she agreed and is promoted to Angel Status.
Off we went to the doctor's office, which looks remarkably like American doctors offices with a waiting room filled with couches, sick people, over energetic children, and a soap opera showing on TV. The questionnaire even asked the same questions, although they were in Japanese, and I was extremely thankful that Steph came along to help with the Kanjis. The first sign that I wasn't in Kansas anymore was the nurses who wore pink nurse dresses that looked like they came from the 1950s with cute little nurse hats, you know the ones that don't stay on a person's head unless they use hair pins. So I answered the questions, filled out the forms and waited.
After a while the nurse called my name, and I got up thinking, okay now to see the doctor, but no, they lead me to a secondary waiting room where people almost ready to see the doctor wait. Steph amused herself with playing her gameboy, while I amused myself by trying to listen in on the conversations of people around me. In the first waiting room an older man, who had gotten there before us was sitting there, and another man, who obviously was a friend came in. He walked up to the man sitting next to us and joked "So are you going to die?" and the man sitting next to us said "Well you never know." In the second waiting room, two older ladies sat there discussing which parts of their bodies the were there for the doctor to see. It was kinda interesting in a "look I can understand what they are saying" kind of way.
When not eavesdropping on the conversations of people around me I was examining the parts of the doctor's office that I could see. The strangest thing was this device that blew medicated air, through a tube, up a persons nose, or down their throat. It was a very popular device as a large number of people seemed to come in just to use the device.
After the normal long wait, we finally got to see the doctor, and I got my first shock. Unlike in America the doctor's exam does not happen behind closed doors, but rather right in the open where, if the people using the nose device were to look diagonally behind them they could see everything going on. Then their was The Doctor, who as opposed to the nurses looked like he came out of the 1850s with his white coat and round silver eye thing that you see doctors wearing on their heads in historical movies. Not a comforting sight by any means. In attendance on The Doctor stood three, yes three, nurses, whose only job seemed to be to assist The Doctor with his examinations. So I sat down in a chair, that unlike the normal exam chairs, looked more like one of those chairs that they electrocute criminals in. The Doctor was sitting at his desk near by, and without looking up from his desk asked me "what's wrong?" I was not really paying attention and was waiting for him to look up. After a short, uncomfortable silence he looked up, shot a sharp glance towards me, then towards the nurse standing next to me, then down to his papers. The nurse immediately turned to me and repeated the question "what's wrong?" Shocked, and slightly intimidated, I responded in my broken Japanese "mimi ni mizu ga tamatteitte sucoshi itai desu" or "my ear is filled with fluid and hurts a little." The Doctor then grunted, yes actually grunted, and motioned to nurse #1 who got my chair turned 90 degrees, while nurses #2 and #3 scurried around preparing things.
When the preparations were done The Doctor looked up and slid is chair over to the exam chair. He then moved his scary metal eye thing in front of his eye, stuffed a cold metal tube in my ear, and looked in my ear, motioned to the nurse to turn my chair 180 degrees, looking in my other ear, motioned to the nurse to turn me back around and then look in the first ear again. He then said something fast and technical which I didn't get at all and then, when my confusion was obvious he said something slightly less technical and I got that my ear was red. I nodded, yes the ear was probably red because of the imminent ear infection. He then proceeded to look in my ear and use a Japanese ear cleaning utensil, which looks like a q-tip except with out the cotton on the end. It hurt, and I flinched. Nurse #1 then politely said "it will hurt but please bear it." The Doctor then took, what I later learned from my friend looked like a large needle, and as far as I can tell, poked a hole in my ear to release the fluid. It really hurt, but I managed not flinch so as not to be scolded by the nurse again.
While I was still recovering to the sudden pain in my ear The Doctor quickly moved to my nose, shoving a metal funnel like thing up it and looked at it through his scary eye thing. He then came at me with a scary pipe cleaner look alike utensil as I began to back away. He shot an exasperated look at nurse #1 who yet again said "it will hurt but please bear it" and stuck the thing up my nose to take a sample. He then sprayed fluid up my nose and down my throat, and slid back to his desk. "Does your ear feel better?" He asked.
I again sat there in silence looking at The Doctor. This time I wasn't confused, I was trying to find something polite to say to The Doctor. This is Japan after all... The response in my head was "of course it doesn't feel better you dumbass, you stuck a needle up it! It hurts!!! What do you think your doing sticking needles in me without asking!? And damnit look at me when you talk to me!!!!!!!!" However, my response was "not really." In Japanese that was rude enough to get The Doctor to look at me with a slightly shocked and very exasperated look. The Japanese never outrightly contradict doctors, but as observed I am not Japanese, and his scary look was less intimidating then the weird metal eye thing he was wearing. So after some more technical Japanese that I didn't understand at all, he sent me with nurse #3 over to the first machine in the office that I recognized, which was weirdly comforting. So after some happily non-painful tests, I was sent back to the waiting room for a short time before being summoned before The Doctor once more.
The Doctor informed me that he thought the fluid filled ear feeling was cause by a little bit of wax and implied that the problem was very small and time-wasting. He then proceeded to ask me if I wanted to have some medicine to get rid of my (very small) runny nose. I, now ceasing to be shocked by his manner, told him I thought it wasn't that serious and I wasn't really bothered by it. He then replied, in language that you would use with a very small child, that wouldn't it be better to fix the problem. I, hanging on to my foreigner in Japan politeness by very thin greasy threads, made small non-committal noises and stood up to end the examination, paid the small fee not covered by my insurance, and left.
It's a few hours later now and my ear still hurts, but the fluid has drained some. But in truth even if I do get an ear infection I'm not sure that you could drag me back to the doctor for anything. As my neighbor said, seeing a Japanese doctor makes you think it would be worth the cost of a flight home to go to your own doctor that see a Japanese doctor.