For my writing group.......
Same Old Grind
It turns out my husband grinds his teeth in his sleep. I’ve never heard the noise but I am deaf in one ear and I miss half of everything—good and bad. That said, I haven’t heard even half a grind. He’s now wearing a nighttime tooth guard, which he molded using our microwave to heat the molding goo and which has left our kitchen redolent with the pungent aroma of epoxy. It’s all been too much! We’re going to Bali to recover. It will be our eighth visit.
In Bali, teeth grinding is a good thing, although different from the nighttime kind. Richard could get his teeth—well, some of them—ground down in a religious/cultural ceremony there. As animist Hindus, the Balinese believe life is a constant struggle between our humanity and our animal instincts. In their culture, they file the sharp canine and incisor teeth which they believe makes human faces less animalistic and smooths away the savage aspects of the soul.
Tooth filing takes place when a person becomes a teenager—it’s a coming-of-age event. I wonder if they would even do it for a senior citizen? It’s impossible to be cremated with fangs so they must do filings on older people when necessary. If you are unlucky and die before having it done, there’s a specialist for that—the corpse tooth filers.
I love Bali because the traditional culture is so different than ours. Not only the teeth filing custom, but every aspect of life, even naming children, is unique to Bali. There are only four names used: Wayan (most mature), Made (middle child), Nyoman (remains or the last). Balinese, for centuries, were encouraged to have only three children. After the third one, they were supposed to know better. If a fourth child was born it would be called Ketut (little banana or “bonus child”). If a fifth child came along you had to start over and he or she would be named Wayan or Wayan Ball (another Wayan). If the name is prefaced with “I” he’s a man, with “Ne” she’s a woman. If there are a bunch of Wayans in one place, they use nicknames which are affectionate and funny—Made Gemuk (fat Wayan).
Artistic expression is such an integral part of life that the Balinese language originally had no word for an artist. Dancing, playing an instrument, painting, sewing, flower arranging, carving was simply part of living. They believe artistic activity is another way of separating humans from animals. Even the most talentless person must do something. Once we asked our cab driver what he performed in his Banjar. The driver explained he had little talent but he played the gong in the Banjar band. “It doesn’t end until the gong rings,” he told us with pride.
So charmed were we with Bali that my husband and I were married there in 2004. Before the ceremony, we had to go to the American Embassy where I swore I wasn’t being coerced and we both had to swear we were free to marry with no incomplete divorces in our past. After our five-minute religious ceremony, a uniformed woman and her assistant roared up to the villa on a motorcycle carrying her gavel and board, set it up where the altar had been and after several minutes of paper signing and gavel pounding, we were legally married. They didn’t care that our teeth were unfiled.
As a final note on tooth filing . . . probably no more strange to other cultures than Balinese tooth filing is to us, is our obsession with tooth straightening. We accept that our kids, almost all of them, get their mouths filled with metal or plastic clamps for a year or more, to force their teeth into perfect rows. If you view the practice objectively, you can understand how odd this appears to people from other cultures, even to Europeans, where less-than -perfect teeth are acceptable.
And to me, the weirdest of all tooth-related shenanigans is a recent Japanese trend. A mouthful of crowded teeth is youthful and innocent to the contemporary Japanese. Many young fashionable Japanese women have an extra set of teeth installed in their mouths to get that look. We had a guide with double rows in Kyoto. It interfered with her speech as much as metal studs in the tongue do. For some strange reason this is considered attractive. Unbelievably, some Japanese women have pointed caps added to their rounded incisors! How ironic is it that the while the Balinese are filing their points, the Japanese are adding fangs.
As I said this morning to Charlie,
There is far too much music in Bali.
And although as a place its entrancing,
There is also a thought too much dancing.
It appears that each Balinese native
From the womb to the tomb is creative,
And although the results are quite clever,
There is too much artistic endeavor.
Noel Coward, traveling with Charlie Chaplin, entered this verse in the complaint book of the Bali Hotel.