When an odd job or two needs to be done around our place, my mum welcomes the likes of contractors, plumbers and furniture delivery men into our Melbourne flat.
When she opens the door, these Caucasian handymen and tradesmen always politely ask, “Do we take our shoes off?”
And to my utter surprise and disbelief, each time my mum cheerily says, “No, no, no! It’s OK! Come in! Leave your shoes on!”
This is because if I came home and stampeded around the house in my sneakers or slippers, my mum would give me an earful.
It is customary in many Asian cultures, and Middle Eastern, Indian and African cultures as well, to remove footwear before entering the house. Very seldom will you hear an Asian person telling you to leave your shoes outside before stepping into their house. I guess my mum is a bizarre exception, at least towards our visiting Caucasian acquaintances, and I will explain later.
One of the reasons why Asians are insistent on taking their shoes off before entering the house is that there is a necessity to keep the house clean, as clean as possible. A lot of things are done on the floor in Asian cultures and it is essential to keep the floor spotless for hygiene purposes. For instance, it is still common practice for many in Japan to eat at low tables and sleep on futons laid out on the floor.
Secondly, some Asians are known have an obsession with cleanliness and “newness” and try to keep objects nice and shiny for as long as possible. See your Asian mum literally going crazy vigorously wiping the stains off the new table? On an average week, our shoes traverse crowded shopping centres, muddy parks and slippery, pungent public toilets and gather armies of bacteria on their soles, so wearing shoes at home is a big no-no for Asians who are fussy over making their places spick-and-span. And stones stuck between the grooves of our footwear can potentially leave scratch marks across tiled flooring. How hideous would this sight be in Asian homes? Very.
Not wearing shoes indoors also serves as a mark of respect. In Asia, semi-detached/town houses and bungalows are often raised slightly. There are usually a couple of steps leading up to the main entrance of houses here, steps that invite people to physically and psychologically “(step) up to a different level” and someone’s private space. The act of leaving shoes at the door in a sense signifies that a person is graciously willing to honour the codes of the house they are entering.
Moreover, it is not uncommon to find altars set-up in Asian households for religious or feng shui purposes. For those Asians who have an altar at home, the house is akin to a temple, a sacred, holy space; they tend to consider soiled shoes or even just shoes in the home as dirty or impure objects that could offend the gods or ancestors watching over their family.
The health benefits of going barefoot are another reason why some Asians firmly believe in leaving shoes at the door. Reflexology has been practiced for over 5000 years by the Chinese and going barefoot allows the feet’s pressure points to be stimulated.
In addition, feet are more prone to swelling when it is hot. Feet enclosed in shoes definitely get warm, so it is no wonder a lot of people in Asia where the climate is tropical all year round find it more comfortable to go barefoot at home.
Today, many Asians are still brought up and taught to leave their shoes at the door. Why? Maybe many Asians are simply superstitious and feel the need to strongly stick to the taking-off shoes routine.
But back to my mum and her assuring Caucasian visitors that it is perfectly okay for them to walk into our flat with their shoes on.
Perhaps my mum, who ironically is a stickler for tradition, wants to get in the good graces of Caucasian Australians. Perhaps she does not want them to think of her as someone who gets easily unnecessarily paranoid over mundane tasks such as taking our shoes off which can depict her and Asians in general as overly finicky, uptight and prim-and-proper.
But if that is the case, it is almost as if my mum is bowing down to Caucasians’ train of thoughts, favouring the typical Western mentality when Caucasians are around.
There really is no shame in taking shoes off before entering our house. Or politely requesting others to do so before entering our homes for that matter. Or even taking shoes off before entering someone else’s house.
Everyone, every culture, has their own unique customs and beliefs. Taking shoes off before going indoors is just one cultural norm that makes us Asians all the more intriguing and interesting.
This can even be a conversation starter. So take your shoes off before you enter my place, please.