Shoes at the door

I’ll start this week’s dose with a follow up to my last one a couple weeks ago as many readers have inquired as to how my daughter Ally is doing. I’m happy to report that she’s back to 100% and is excited to start distance learning tomorrow through her middle school. Thank you all for your concern and well wishes – and I hope you and your loved ones are all faring OK during this challenging time we are in.

Given that we are spending so much time at home these days, it’s allowed me a bit of time to reflect upon some things that are somewhat different in Asian American homes than in non-Asian American homes – and one of those differences is the topic this week’s dose, which I hope you enjoy and can relate to.

A couple months ago before this all began we had a power outlet on the fritz in our kitchen. I called an electrician and was happy to hear he could come over later that afternoon. He rang the doorbell and I let him in… after a quick hello he strode right past me towards the kitchen to assess the situation while my wife looked on with jaw-dropped horror (you know the look!). Now we’ve been married quite a few years so I knew that she was too polite to talk to him in order to address what was eating at her, so I stepped up to the plate. Catching him in stride after just a few steps, I politely explained how we have a no-shoes-in-the-house policy and he looked a bit annoyed, but obliged.

It’s safe to say that I’ve come a long way in this cultural journey as it relates to footwear… growing up in Wisconsin, it was nothing to see my brother and I run in the front door with our shoes on, grab a snack, sit on the sofa to gobble it down (maybe with our feet on the footstool), then run back outside again. Inside and out, shoes rarely came off… the only exception were boot. If we were wearing boots it was because it was snowing or raining outside – boots never came into the house.

I learned quickly while living in Taiwan that this was NOT acceptable behavior in anyone’s house. And I learned that there were several reasons for this…

  1. Cleanliness:  Let’s face it… it can be pretty dirty outside. Especially in a big city like Taipei.  So the first lesson I learned was that Asians (and Asian Americans) like to keep a clean home and didn’t want to track in the dirt and dust. In fact, in many homes throughout Asia actually have a step up from the entryway (where the shoes would go) into the living space. That physical separation does a couple of things – first it serves a practical purpose by keeping any dirty shoes/gear down below and not get kicked into the living quarters. And second, it provides a physical purpose as the motion of stepping up into a different level allows someone the sense that they’re entering someone’s private space.
  2. Respect:  When entering someone’s personal space, you want them to think that you’re respecting their wishes and customs. Not removing your shoes is a BIG faux pas…
  3. Keeping the floor clean:  In many parts of Asia, Western furniture with tables and chairs were a somewhat late addition. In many countries like Thailand and India, it was traditional to prepare and serve food on the floor – grinding herbs and spices and sitting around a meal placed on a rug on the floor. You can see why they wouldn’t want dirt tracked in!  And in Japan they traditionally would sit on Tatami mats on the floor using a short table (like a coffee table) and at night roll out their futons on which they’d sleep on the same floor. Later, even as furniture styles have evolved to reflect more Western styles with higher tables and chairs, the goal of keeping the house clean of dirt and dust by not tracking shoes into the house has remained.
  4. Good health: Another potential benefit is that many Asians believe that going barefoot (or at least without shoes) can improve blood circulation. Many Asian American homes that you visit will have slippers for you to wear, but they are NOT the cushiony Western style slippers… no. They are typically flat and quite hard, and some have hard plastic nobs intended to give you acupressure while you walk through the house. (ouch!)

I imagine as many of you are spending a LOT of time in your house these days, you may find yourself wearing your slippers all day rather than shoes (if you had been wearing shoes in the house that is…). And once we are through with this quarantine phase of our lives and are able to spend social time with others in the same space (still hard to believe I just wrote that), I do hope that you will remember to take off your shoes when visiting someone’s home, especially if they’re of Asian descent.

Please, don’t wait for them ask. Show them that sign of respect and remove your shoes before they need to say anything and win some brownie points.

If you have any shoes-in-the-house stories you’d like to share, I’d love to hear them!  And until next time… stay safe, stay healthy, and stay at home.


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