A row of neatly paired shoes forms a common sight at the entrance to most, if not all, Chinese homes: outdoors, functional shoes for everyday street wear line up side-by-side with slippers and comfortable house shoes for wearing indoors. There’s a very practical reason for this custom – when walking outside along the streets, your shoes get dirty and pick up all sorts of rubbish and filth, and when you enter a home, you don’t want to carry that dirt into the living space. Tradesmen and temporary visitors often pull on small plastic “socks” to cover their shoes as they enter the house – these are then thrown away when they leave; but more permanent guests are invited to remove their shoes and to pull on a pair of slippers – it is an invitation for them to feel at home, to be comfortable, to be welcomed into someone’s “inside” space.
For me this was an easy custom to adopt. I grew up in Africa: in summer, walking barefoot both indoors and out; and in winter, kicking off boots and sneakers as soon as I got home to wander about in shoe-less, stockinged feet. In retrospect, it is surprising that we didn’t all take our shoes off when coming home – it would have made so much sense not tramp all that dirt into our carpets. It is amusing to watch some of our overseas guests arrive at our apartment; see the line-up of shoes and look puzzled – what am I supposed to do now? Do I need to take my shoes off too? There’s a certain vulnerability about removing that small level of security that the common shoe brings to one’s socked (and possibly smelly!) feet. There are often signs of an internal struggle – I want to to what is expected of me as a visitor in this home, but it doesn’t really fit into my frame of reference, so do I really have to do it? Sometimes there is no deliberation – they either do not see or choose not the see the parade of shoes and bring in whatever bits of the outside world has clung to the soles of their shoes.
In so many ways, when we step into another culture, it would be wise to leave our preconceived ideas and stereotypes at the door, and learn to put on the customs and practices of our hosts; slipping into their way of thinking, and their ways of doing things. When we march in with our perceptions and set of standards and values about what should and should not be, we bring the worst of our own culture into a jarring clash with the culture of our hosts. It is so easy to become critical when we feel insecure and out of our comfort zones – the loneliness and isolation and feelings of inadequacy when we can’t communicate in another language drive us into making unfair comparisons. When we don’t understand this strange environment that we find ourselves in, the natural tendency is to be condescending, to find fault. It says so much more about who we are, than it does about where we have found ourselves.
I’m not saying that any culture is without flaws or complexities, or that we should give up our identities as soon as we move into a foreign place, but if we cannot release some of the perceptions and thinking patterns that we have “brought in from outside”, we are unlikely to ever feel at home and at peace in this new and strange space. It will be like marching though the house in boots and high-heels, scratching polished surfaces and leaving clumps of dirt and grime along the way. We need to find the customs and ways that we can work with and adapt to and use those as a base for becoming immersed in our new culture. It might be the scenery, the food, the friends we make, something, anything, that we can make our own. Once we have taken a step towards “putting on the slippers of our new culture”, we have started the process of making it our home. It’s unlikely to be a totally smooth transition, but it can be done, and I guess it all depends on our attitude (as with most things in life!) and how we deal with the bumps along the way.
So – welcome, come inside, relax, make yourself at home, but please leave your shoes at the door!