Friday, July 15, 2011

Take Off Your Shoes for Goodness Sake!

One question I used to get asked when I visited Japanese elementary schools was: "Do Americans sleep with their shoes on?" What an absurd question, I thought. That is until I realized the question about shoes, like the questions about guns ("Do you own a gun? I heard everyone owns a gun!" and "Aren't you afraid you will be shot?") can be tied directly to the programs my students were watching on television. When I first lived in Japan in the 90s, the selection of US television programs airing on the national networks was puzzling to say the least. There were a lot of Steven Segal movies, Full House, and A.L.F. For someone desperate to watch television in English after a long day of speaking Japanese, these were slim pickings to be sure. I mean, did anyone ever watch A.L.F.? And can you imagine a whole generation of Japanese viewers gleaning their understanding of the US from these three sources?

Finally, I decided to ask one of the third graders who posed the sleeping shoe question why she thought Americans slept in their shoes. After all, I can understand how Japanese kids would think it was odd to wear shoes in the house, but I couldn't imagine why they had the absurd idea that we slept in them. The kid's answer was simple: "Because, on t.v., we never see people take them off, and we never see where they put them. Besides, they already wear shoes in the house." (And by this last part, she meant to say that wearing shoes inside was already a filthy habit, so why wouldn't they wear them to bed?)

Most Americans know that Japanese take off their shoes when they go into the house. They assume this is to keep the house clean and to protect the tatami mats. They don't quite realize, however, how important taking one's shoes off is to maintaining proper etiquette. Japanese people, throughout their history have been concerned with keeping the pure and the impure separate. Have you ever seen a shrine gate like this?

It demarcates the separation of the unclean larger world from the purity of the shrine compound. That's why just inside the gate you will find an ablution pavilion (something that looks like a horse trough full of water and is used for washing oneself before proceeding).

There is a similar clean/unclean demarcation line in the entryway of the house and a designated space, therefore, for removing one's shoes which carry on their bottoms the uncleanliness of the outside. So, yes, taking off one's shoes is meant to keep the house clean, but no, it's not that simple.

Most visitors to our house here in the rural US don't seem to mind when we ask them to take off their shoes, though there is the occasional disgruntled person who comes with holey, smelly socks, or who is wearing laced-up boots. The problem is, though, that many of our American friends and family don't seem to get the spirit of the shoe-removal habit any more than my Japanese elementary kids understood why and when Americans wear shoes inside.

Here are some common mistakes they make:

1) They don't take off their shoes in the designated area, which is usually a swath of tile or a floor mat just inside the door. Instead, they assume that the entire entry area is like a mudroom and can therefore be tracked with shoes. They walk across the mat, across the carpet, and sit down on the steps to take their shoes off. The space for taking off shoes is almost always limited to just inside the door.

2) They take off their shoes, and then realizing they've forgotten something in their car, they go out in their socks to get it. After all, putting shoes on and taking them off again is a lot of work (she says with the slightest hint of sarcasm).

3) They get distracted and walk into the house with their shoes on anyway.

Now, don't get me wrong, I completely understand where these mistakes originate. After all, our visitors do take off their shoes as requested, even though it makes some of them uncomfortable to do so. So much of my family's cross-cultural existence is about meeting half-way. But the thing is, on some issues, there is no middle ground. There are some beliefs/cultural habits that one or the other of just us has to maintain for whatever reason. In my experience, the challenge of an international marriage (or any marriage, for that matter) is figuring out which of these beliefs/habits is non-negotiable and respecting the resulting boundaries. Sure, it gets old having to ask people to take off their shoes, and there is no easy, non-confrontational way to point out that taking off ones shoes and then getting one's socks dirty by walking outside without shoes defeats the purpose.

Sometimes Ren wonders whether people just lack common sense, and I remind him that we have common sense, it's just that the sense we share in common doesn't cover proper shoe removal etiquette. And then I remind myself that there are just certain times where it won't do any good to push him to see things my way. After all, who's to say my way is right, anyway?


expatblues said...

I've been known to ask when interviewing prospective roommates "Do you come from a shoes-on country or a shoes-off country?" If they don't know what I'm talking about then I conclude they come from a shoes-on country. The place I currently live in is built for shoes-on people--hardly any room inside the door, just a narrow hallway, and we're not allowed to leave things outside the door. (Though the upstairs neighbors pay little heed. You can tell when they have guests by the number of extra pairs of shoes outside the door. Either Saudi Arabia is a shoes-off country or they respect the fitted carpet!)

Karen said...

I grew up in Japan and have always taken off my shoes....but now I have a problem with a foot and have to wear shoes all the time. It KILLS me to wear them indoors.

Monkey's Mama said...

I live in Seattle and we're a "shoes off" household. Although when we have a party we let it slide. My parents take their shoes off at their house too. However, my mom has a foot issue now so she has a pair of "indoor shoes" that she wears all the time - but she switches shoes at the door - that might work for you Karen.

Mary said...

We always took our shoes off at home so it was no problem for me when I moved to Japan. But, not living in Germany, we have a problem. Germans will take off their shoes when there is carpet but won't when there is tile on the floor. I asks my guests to take off their shoes and they look at me like I am crazy and lots REFUSE to take them off. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr. I always take my shoes off when I visit people and my girls have always been taught that too....and when the hostess insists that I leave my sheos on, I am uncomfortable the entire time in the house.