OWhen I was in third grade, I was sent for a semester to Taiwan, my parents’ hometown, as part of an effort to be less dishonored by my ancestors. The idea was that I, an unruly little snot, would benefit from Chinese language immersion and exposure to the superior self-discipline and obedience of Formosa’s youth. Three months later, my Mandarin remained mediocre and I had managed to bribe my class with shared snacks and American comics.
But I learned a great lesson, courtesy of my aunt Chih-Mei, a towering figure who left high school to help raise nine young siblings, was pressured into running for national legislature by her awestruck neighbors ( and won, serving effectively for decades), and had no patience for the mischief of unruly little brats. On my first day at her house, I had walked through the threshold still wearing my sneakers and was instantly tossed with a chilling rebuke: “When you walk into my house with shoes on,” she said, “you cross my heart. .”
For the next three months, I dutifully took off my shoes in the hallway and put on one of the many comfortable pairs of slippers that she and all the other houses in Taiwan made available to guests.
It made sense. The road from school to her house was dusty and my cousins and I were often distracted chasing lizards or playing with cats. Why would I bring the filth and detritus of the outside world into his personal sanctuary? (Apart from the occasional lizard.) And that was also, as my aunt said, an important element of symbolism as well. The small act of removing shoes shows deference to the host’s hospitality and care of business. It also engenders a kind of intimacy: outside, in your shoes, you are a stranger among strangers, but in your stockings at home, you are part of the family.
That’s why last week’s Wall Street Journal essay the section’s associate editor and self-proclaimed humor columnist Kris Frieswick left me appalled. First came its headline: “Here’s Why I’ll Keep My Shoes in Your Shoeless House.” So – insult to injury! – its raging caption: “Why do you assume your guests’ shoes are dirtier than your floors?” Which was followed by 800 odd words of nonsense triggering Aunt arguing that lack of shoes was a recipe for broken toes and broken feet; that everyone’s homes are already engulfed in bacteria and feces, so what’s the deal with a little more; that guest slippers are pest-infested death traps; and that, hey, bringing a little funk into your house actually gives your immune system a boost.
I write this without hesitation: he is someone neither Aunt Chih-Mei nor I would ever have in our home – with or without shoes. And if you believe and behave the same way, you’re not welcome either.
The basic arrogance of dismissing the customs of my house is already staggering, but to do so while suggesting that my floors are probably dirtier than the soles of your gutter-glazed shoes – and that even if you follow the trash into my home , it’ll just make me and my kids healthier? My welcome mat doesn’t currently hide a spring-loaded catapult that will shoot you off my front porch and down the street where you belong, but don’t think I’m not planning on setting one up.
Here’s the problem: In Asia and many other parts of the civilized world, there are social customs that focus on preserving the health, comfort, and safety of those around us. Some of these customs require a bit of personal sacrifice, like trading in your dress shoes for cute Hello Kitty slides when you walk in. Or, say, wear a simple mask to keep your mucus spray from splashing everyone within 10 feet when you cough or sneeze. I guess it’s no surprise that a nation that can’t keep people out of a house with shoes on also can’t get half of its population to mask up during a pandemic that has killed nearly a million Americans and still going.
But that’s because naked people feel the same about masks as they do about shoes: their convenience is more important than your rights or your safety, and the choice of not wearing masks – or wearing shoes – is a freedom given to them by God, or nature, or guns, or something. Their feet, their choice.
Here’s my compromise: you can wear your shoes at my house, as long as you take your socks off first and put them in your mouth. It can make it a bit difficult to eat or talk, and your socks can be a little damp and smelly, but it’s a scientific fact that there are actually more bacteria in your mouth than on your feet. Plus, a little funk just boosts your immune system!
I read it in the Wall Street Journal.