As I returned home from a long day of teaching and program planning (as well as a short sit at my favorite coffee shop not too far from my apartment) the moment came that always comes when entering a home in South Korea:
The moment when we take our shoes off before stepping inside.
And, to be sure, I love this moment.
This isn’t a foreign concept even for those of us who are from the West. A good number of people embrace the concept of one taking off one’s shoes before entering a humble abode. Although, this embrace is hit or miss in the States. In the States, the homes I entered where the person or family had just moved in, they’d often ask visitors to remove their shoes because of the plush, beige carpet or shiny hardwood floors that no one wanted to wear down too soon. For many of those who had lived in their home for years, and the carpet wasn’t new or bright or light, they wouldn’t bother with asking their visitors to do such a thing. Perhaps, the home’s floors were past the point of no return, or folks didn’t want to inconvenience a guest by having them bend or squat down and unlace. Generally speaking, the freckled moments in my mind of removing my shoes while in the USA, before entering a home, mostly came during visits to new or well-kept homes. However, even with some well-kept places, it just isn’t the norm to require shoe removal.
The thought crosses my mind as I step up into the main section of my Seoul apartment: would I be comfortable stepping into any home in the rest of the world without taking off my shoes? I stop walking towards my room, realizing for a second the simple large idea that has just been conjured in my mind.
This shoelessness of mine is not a duty, or tolerance of the myopic kind.
It is a preference.
One time out here in Korea I was rushing to class, and I just threw my shoes on, with no socks, came to class, and then got asked to lunch by one of my adult ESL students. As I would any other time I was free, I decided to go. I didn’t remember I had no socks until I got to the restaurant and the moment came for taking off our shoes.
Ok, so I’ll just go ahead and confess: sometimes my feet can stink. Working and walking and standing can do that to feet, especially when walking around with shoes and no socks. So when we first sat down to have lunch I was trying to gauge if my students or if anyone else in the restaurant were smelling a strange smell. I tried to keep my feet underneath my legs, sitting Indian style, or keeping them under the table.
But after a few minutes…whatever. “If they catch a whiff, forgive me,” I thought. These are the kinds of moments one can face, in a land where shoes are taken off while inside many places, these awesome moments.
The way in which I relish these experiences notwithstanding, it honestly isn’t the most convenient thing at times, having to remove your shoes when you get home, if, for example, you gotta really go to the bathroom. Or, you are wearing shoes that take 10 minutes to take off. And more than a few times I’ve tripped over the many pairs of shoes that remain in the entrance area of my apartment.
All in all though, the practice is awesome. I dig it more than a little bit. It symbolizes respect, promotes cleanliness, embodies cultural richness and tradition, and is just more comfortable, because even if the widespread practice of this hasn’t hit the West as it has in the East, there is a common thread. There almost always is a common thread:
It feels good to take your shoes off, kick back and relax. You’re at home.
No shoes inside when you come to Korea. Embrace it.
Go here if you are in the States, or any other western country, and you want to implement the ‘shoes off’ policy in your home. I imagine it could be difficult at first, but in the long run, maybe you’ll be glad you did.
I’m not sure if I’ll be comfortable with my shoes on in a home ever again. That’s alright with me.
*Originally published on www.marvmillsblog.com
This story was curated by Marvin Mills.