Here’s why your shoes will be staying the hell out of my house

The Wall Street Journal essay about keeping shoes on left me aghast. As my Auntie Chih-Mei put it: ‘When you walk into my house wearing shoes, you are walking across my heart’

When I was in third grade, I was sent away for a semester to my parents’ native Taiwan, as part of an effort to make me less of a disgrace to 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 Formosan youth. Three months later, my Mandarin remained middling, and I’d managed to corrupt my class with shared snacks and American comic books.

But I did learn one big lesson, courtesy of my Auntie Chih-Mei, a towering figure who’d quit high school to help raise nine younger brothers and sisters, was pushed to run for the national legislature by her awestruck neighbors (and won, serving effectively for decades), and had zero patience for nonsense from unruly little snots. On my first day at her house, I’d stepped across the threshold still wearing my sneakers, and been instantly speared with an icy rebuke: “When you walk into my house wearing shoes,” she said, “you are walking across my heart.”

For the next three months, I dutifully removed my shoes in the corridor and stepped into one of the many pairs of comfortable house slippers that she and every other home in Taiwan made available for guests.

It made sense. The path 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 grime and detritus of the outside world into her personal sanctum? (Other than the occasional lizard.) And it was also, as Auntie said, an important bit of symbolism as well. The small act of taking off shoes shows deference to hospitality and care for the belongings of the host. It also engenders a kind of intimacy: outside in your shoes you’re a stranger among strangers, but in your stocking feet at home, you’re part of the family.

All of this is why last week’s essay by Wall Street Journal deputy section editor and self-proclaimed humor columnist Kris Frieswick left me aghast. First came its face-slap of a title: “Here’s Why I’ll Be Keeping My Shoes on in Your Shoeless Home.” Then – insult to injury! – its rage-inducing subhead: “Why are you assuming that your guests’ shoes are dirtier than your floors?” Which was followed by 800-odd words of Auntie-triggering nonsense arguing that shoelessness was a recipe for broken toes and shattered feet; that everyone’s homes are already engulfed in bacteria and fecal matter, so what’s the problem with a little more; that guest slippers are parasite-infested death traps; and that, hey, bringing a little bit of funk into your house actually gives a boost to your immune system.

I write this without hesitation: this is someone whom neither Auntie Chih-Mei nor I would ever have in our home – with or without shoes. And if you believe and behave similarly, y’all aren’t welcome either.

The basic arrogance of rejecting the customs of my household is already staggering, but to do so while suggesting that my floors are probably more foul than the soles of your gutter-glazed shoes – and that even if you do track trash into my domicile, it’ll just make me and my kids healthier? My welcome mat does not currently hide a spring-loaded catapult that will shoot you off my stoop and into the street where you belong, but don’t think I’m not considering installing one.

Here’s the thing: in Asia and many other parts of the civilized world, there are social customs that are focused on preserving the health, comfort and safety of the people around us. Some of these customs require a little bit of personal sacrifice, like swapping your street shoes for some sweet Hello Kitty slides when you come inside. Or, say, wearing a simple mask to prevent your mucosal spray from spattering everyone in a 10ft radius when you cough or sneeze. I guess it’s hardly surprising that a nation that can’t get people to not stomp into a home with shoes on also can’t get half of its population to mask up during a pandemic that’s killed nearly a million Americans and counting.

But that’s because the barefacers feel the same way about masks that they do about shoes: their convenience is more important than your rights or safety, and the choice to not wear masks – or to wear shoes – is a freedom granted to them by God, or nature, or guns, or something. Their footsies, their choice.

Here’s my compromise: you can wear your shoes in my house, so long as you first take off your socks and put them in your mouth. It may make it a little hard to eat or talk, and your socks might be a little moist and smelly, but it’s a scientific fact that there are actually more bacteria in your mouth than on your feet. Besides, a little bit of funk just gives a boost to your immune system!

I read it in the Wall Street Journal.

Jeff Yang in Los Angeles

The GuardianTramp

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