Going Shoeless in Laos

23 11 2014

734808_409663145782982_653643432_nAfter a full day of traveling on the slow boat down the Mekong River, our group of 100 locals and adventurous visitors stopped for the night at a small Laotian village called Pak Bang. It was dusk when we arrived, and we quickly found our way up the steep hill, past the men and women holding signs for rooms, to a small inn where we had a room waiting for us (at the steep price of $8). We were hungry, and ready for food, but wanted to explore the tiny village with what little light we had left.

398036_409663169116313_790757319_nAs we got checked in to our room, the English-speaking grandson of the owner told us that we would get a discount off dinner if we chose to dine at their restaurant as well. The village only had one road, about a mile long in total. After a short walk through the village to examine our other options, we decided this was the wisest choice. At least we knew we could easily translate “fish sauce” to avoid an unpleasant meal.

We walked back to the inn and followed signs for the restaurant around the sandy courtyard. We saw a wide open doorway, bathed in warm yellow light from inside, with a pile of shoes just outside the door. I paused, momentarily confused. Was this the owner’s room? 1748_409662782449685_1220354557_nI peered inside and saw that the space opened up to the river on the other side, and was filled with tables and chairs. In all the places we had traveled in Asia, we were very accustomed to taking off our shoes before entering a Buddhist temple, but this was the first time we had seen shoes outside a regular business like this. “So, no shoes in the restaurant?” I asked Bethany. She shrugged her shoulders and we leaned down to untie our laces.

Could you imagine going to a church on Sunday and everyone taking off their shoes? This is exactly what we discovered in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. While I have always believed in taking off shoes in the home, it never occurred to me that this would apply to other buildings as well. Temples, I also quickly understood. But restaurants? Shops? I was very surprised. We learned to simply remove our shoes whenever we saw other shoes sitting outside.

A Long History of Shoelessness

Many other cultures, far older than my own, have had this policy as a social norm since shoes were invented. Modern day countries such as Japan, Russia, Korea, Turkey, Thailand, India, Scandinavian, and European countries like Germany have the custom of removing shoes in homes. This is also the case in most Middle East countries and some African countries.

shoe sign3It is absolutely mandatory to take off ones outside shoes in most Asian homes, and even in some public places and business establishments – like traditional restaurants, inns and hotels, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and grade schools and kindergartens.

In Japanese architecture, homes are designed to have an area near the entrance called a genkan, which is one level lower than the rest of the house. Here, you remove your outside shoes and place them so the toes are facing outwards towards the door. You then are usually supplied with a pair of slippers, though socks are also fine in their own house or at a friend’s house.

734282_409663845782912_1649442926_nToilet Slippers?

When we were visiting the famous White Temple in northern Thailand, there was a long line of toilets outside, each with a door onto the sidewalk. At the front of the line, was a large bank of black rubber sandals. Although I did not understand, I watched as each person before me removed their shoes and donned the slippers to enter the toilet room. I suspect this was more to keep my shoes clean, rather than to keep the toilet room clean. Once it was my turn, I saw that they were squat toilets (no seat, just a ceramic base to stand on while you squat) this made some sense to me. Apparently, some inns or restaurants also have separate slippers just for the toilet room, which you are supposed to change into before entering, although this practice is slowly disappearing.

The Role of Shoes

bare feetIn Mesopotamia, (c. 1600-1200 BC) a type of soft shoes were worn by the mountain people who lived on the border of Iran. The soft shoe was made of wraparound leather, similar to a moccasin. Shoes were invented to protect our feet from the elements. A nice perk was that it meant that your feet stayed cleaner, and as dirt floors became outdated, you actually could keep your indoor floor clean!

The health benefits of removing shoes in modern society are pretty clear and numerous:

  • EPA conducted a “door mat study” showing that 60% less lead dust and other chemicals were brought into the home by removing shoes and using a front door mat. There was also a reduction in allergens and bacteria tracked into the home.
  • Shoes pick up and carry into your home pesticides, fertilizers, traces of gas fumes, industrial pollution, and animal waste.
  • Bacteria brought in from shoes can cause stomach and lung infections, especially in the young, sick, and elderly.

shoes mudBeyond health, there are many other reasons why shoes come off:

  • Your feet can breathe, relax, and return to their natural state. This is healthier for your feet and more comfortable.
  • You create a more relaxed, informal atmosphere in your home.
  • You have to sweep and dust your home less.
  • Psychologically, this act of removing shoes separates the home from the rest of the world, and can be an important ritual for brushing off the worries of your work day.

With all these good reason for removing shoes, it made me wonder. Why doesn’t everybody do this?

The American Way?

shoe benchWhen friends come over for to my home for the first time, sometimes they pick up on the cues (the row of shoes by the door, the bench to sit on, the cubbies of slippers), but sometimes they don’t notice. I wait until they’ve fully entered my home and we given our greetings, then I politely ask, “Would you mind taking off your shoes?” Most of the time, people look down and realize their oversight, and often apologize, as if they’ve offended me in some way.

Occasionally, however, I can see that someone is uncomfortable doing so, and when they respond, “I’d rather not,” I simply let them do what is most comfortable for them. I may not know why, but it’s not my place to push. My reasons for removing shoes are mostly for comfort, cleanliness, and to prevent scratches on my nice wood floors.

Why is it that we Americans have gotten away from this predominant cultural norm? Do we see wearing shoes as a necessary part of being presentable, like wearing shirts and pants? Is going barefoot akin to walking around shirtless, or walking around with your fly unzipped? Is it simply too informal? Does it come from the south, where there is a stereotype about southerners that involves not wearing shoes and/or a shirt equating to being a “hillbilly” or a “redneck?” Signs on stores that say “No shoes, no shirt, no service” may help reinforce this idea.

sock monkery slippersThere may be concerns about embarrassment as well. Some people may have fears of foot odors, or exposing their ugly feet. I have definitely found myself regretting my choice of socks on occasion, when I realized as I was removing my shoes that my thin socks had sprung a hole.

There may also be more practical concerns. Perhaps wearing shoes prevents elderly people from falling and breaking a hip. Or, also in the south, Cowboy boots don’t have laces, straps or buckles. They aren’t the easiest thing to get off if you’re not a limber person, and if we didn’t have a bench to sit down on, it would be quite challenging to remove.authentic_womens_cowboy_boots-e1358885688446

I’ve been in people’s homes where the floors were so dirty or messy, I was actually afraid that walking around sock-footed might result in a wet sock, or a stabbed sole. Here in the north, winters can be very cold, and in many homes the floors can be downright chilly! I’ve learned to bring my own slippers to visit friend’s homes, in case my feet get cold.
Regardless of the reasons, I doubt that we are so different from the rest of the world- our problems SO unique- that we could not adopt this norm. Just remember what your grama told you- never leave the house without clean underwear- or clean socks- because you never know where the day will take you!

Advertisements

Actions

Information

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: