Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Seeing a Dentist in Ukraine

During the past year I developed a tooth cavity that needed filling. Never having set up a dentist visit on my own, I didn't know how to go about doing it. I talked to a couple friends and asked for recommendations, but didn't get any specific advice. So, after waffling for a few weeks I finally just went to the state dental clinic on the corner.

It was a lot like any Ukrainian state clinic or hospital. The interior was dilapidated, with rickety seat rows in the open areas for people to wait. Middle-aged women walked around in white robes, and information was posted near the entrance behind a glass screen. I looked at the prices for various dental procedures, and it seemed too low to be true (15 UAH for a filling, for example — that's just $2 USD). It turns out the actual prices are higher.

I asked the administrator (in Russian) how to go about seeing a dentist to get a filling (поставить пломбу) and have plaque removed (снятие налёта). I was worried that I would only be able to obtain services if I was a registered resident of the local district. The lady asked me when I wanted to see the dentist — "now" or "later." I said, "how about tomorrow?" "What time?" she asked. (This is a typical situation in Ukraine. You ask a general question, and they respond by asking you a specific question. Most people don't like to answer general questions.)

Apparently my registration, or lack thereof, made no difference. The lady took down my last name and gave me a scrap of paper with the appointment time, room number, and dentist's last name on it. The next day I came in for a filling and was in and out of the clinic in just under 20 minutes, paying 195 UAH ($24 USD) for the procedure.

The dentist was working in a large room with 4 dentists total and 4 dental chairs that appeared adequately equipped. She took a look at the cavity and told me it would cost about 200 UAH for a "good filling" and that the price could be lower for a lower-quality filling substance. I opted for the better filling.

The procedure didn't require anaesthesia, and she worked quickly and seemed to do a good job. In less than 15 minutes it was over. She told me to go to the administrator to pay, then bring her back the pay slip. I did so and arranged for a teeth cleaning directly with the dentist, and she wrote me out a note with the time and place. And that was that.

A few days later, I returned for the teeth cleaning (plaque removal), which took under 10 minutes and cost 70 UAH ($9 USD). This time I paid the dentist directly. Don't quite understand how that works.

The really interesting part was when I shocked our house guest from the U.S. by returning home in just 20 minutes after leaving to get my filling. Apparently getting a filling is a far more complicated procedure where she is from in the U.S. and takes no less than an hour. After telling her what my visit was like and how much it cost, she began to wonder whether all the procedures performed at her clinic were really justified and whether they might have been making things more complicated than necessary to jack up the cost.

I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that getting a filling in Kiev involved about 1 minute of paperwork (giving my name and signing up), almost no wait, and a bare-bones, but efficient procedure that took about 10 minutes.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Learn Russian/Ukrainian Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

With each passing year more and more Ukrainians are becoming conversational in English. Among ambitious young Ukrainians ages 18 to 30, an intermediate level of English is pretty much a given. Sure, people complain about not getting enough practice and we all know that language instruction in Ukrainian schools and colleges leaves much to be desired, but still... процесс пошел (things have started rolling). One thing that is helping bring this change is access to online courses and programs that allow students to communicate with instructors in other countries.

Ukraine is in the middle of an English language boom, and one often gets the sense that there is a frenzied race to learn English for career advancement and to grow closer to the "real" Europe, make new friends, date foreigners, emigrate, etc.

While this may be good news for the country's economy, it's often bad news for Amero-European expats who wish to stay in Ukraine for a longer period of time, perfect their language skills, and integrate into the culture — in short, to feel at home.

Very often, the people expats typically would be most interested in making friends with happen to be those who are most involved in the English language craze: young, well-educated, upwardly mobile and cosmopolitan city dwellers. Most of these Ukrainians have a goal of improving their English and tend to see foreigners through this lens.

To get people to speak a foreign language with you, you generally have to speak their language better than they speak yours. As Ukrainians' average English level rises, the bar for expats' Russian and Ukrainian rises along with it, and it becomes more difficult to get language practice. It used to be that you could practice Russian/Ukrainian with anybody. Now, you're pretty much left with schoolchildren, the less educated, and the elderly (okay, maybe more like those over 45).

Fat chance making Russian or Ukrainian speaking friends among the "young and ambitious" group. You'll literally have to demoralize them into speaking their language with you with your superior Russian or Ukrainian skills. And even then many will hope that some day their English will be good enough to turn the tables in their own favor. But how is an expat to reach that level in the first place if the only people to practice with are uneducated store workers, ticket ladies, pensioners, and language teachers whose services cost 10-20 Euros an hour?

To extrapolate where this trend is going, try integrating into the local culture in the Netherlands or Scandinavia. You might as well forget about it. You're in luck if you're from Latin America, Africa, or Asia: you can always claim that you don't know English. If you're white, that will be pretty difficult.

Ukraine will obviously take many years to reach this point, but given Ukrainians' degree of personal ambition and disillusionment with their own country, it could be as little as 10 years down the road. The time to learn Ukrainian and/or Russian is now, before it's too late! Ukraine is fast becoming a place where you have to pay (or trick) people into speaking Russian or Ukrainian with you.

UPDATE 2016:

I have finally decided to teach others my method for learning and mastering foreign languages at www.FrictionlessMastery.com. Take a look and download or order my book and/or instruction manual.