Wednesday, May 13, 2009

To Wear or Not to Wear

[Cross-posted on Kimchi Mamas.]

I was the only one in my family who didn't throw her shoes on the pile behind the front door. As soon as they entered, the other members of my family took their shoes off and chucked them where they landed. The left pair of my mom's florescent yellow plastic slipper often sat between my dad's brown strapped slippers that he had owned since Korea and his tennis shoes, whose back flaps had been permanently folded down. My sister's sandals from the past summer were piled up on top of the sandals from the years past. My mother's pumps gathered dust next to her various pairs of $8 black, thick-soled, orthopedic-like shoes that she picked up from a Chinese vendor under the bridge on Flushing's Main Street. My brother's assortment of sneakers -- all of which looked the same but served some mysteriously distinct functions -- provided additional heft to the pile.

Unlike them, I kept my shoes in my own closet. The ones out of season, like my winter boots, were in their original boxes stacked in the back row of my tiny closet. The ones in current use, like my sturdy pair of rubber-soled black leather shoes that I purchased in the Village, sat prominently in front row, along with my favorite summer sandals and running shoes.

My sister always wondered what it meant, that I kept my shoes separately, in my room, when the rest of the family kept theirs in the front foyer. "Maybe you're more Americanized," she said. I wondered what it meant. In a family that had Korean passports, I was the only one who got naturalized in the 90s, and for the longest time, I was the only "American" in the family. We joked that we would have to stand in two separate customs lines when we traveled to Korea. If the family got deported, I would have a right to stay. And when everyone else had Korean names, I adopted the name "Christine" when I was in 6th grade, because I was tired of my teachers calling me "Shin," until I decided in college that it was silly to be called by some random name.

As soon as I moved out of my parents' house, I started wearing my shoes all day long, in and out of the house. It mattered little to me. I never sat on the floor, and even if I did, was it any worse than sitting on the grass outdoors? I saw no need to distinguish between public and private spaces, the same way I saw no need to keep our family secrets secret. My mom's constant refrain, "Don't talk about this outside of the family" never made sense to me, especially when she confided about things that would have been better shared with a friend, not a daughter.

When Jeff moved in with me about two years ago, we didn't need to discuss whether to wear our shoes indoors. That's how he lived, and that's how I lived.

A couple of months ago, a friend stopped by our place for dinner. As we were talking about my pregnancy, she asked if we would keep wearing shoes in the house once we have our kid.

"They lick everything off the floor, you know," she said.

Suddenly, I noticed bits of dirt scattered over our hardwood floor, the dried out crimps of torn leaves, tufts of Sherlock's fur. I pictured our precious little baby crawling bare hands and legs where our shoes and Sherlock's paws had trodden. And licking the floor where Sherlock had licked it the same morning, as he did daily. And I thought of the times when Sherlock had stepped in his own pee during one of our many walks.

That night, I turned to Jeff. "We have to stop wearing shoes in the house! The baby's going to lick everything off of the floor."

He looked at me as if I suggested burning the place down.

"We're fine," he said. "We wore shoes in the house when I was growing up, and look how I turned out."

I brought it up every day for the next three weeks, and Jeff always responded, "Oh, the baby will be just fine..."

One morning, as I was leaving the house, I noticed water running out of a sewer line in front of our house. I ran back in to grab Jeff and asked him to call someone to fix it before I rushed off to my meeting.

When I pulled up in front of the house later that afternoon, I noticed that the water was no longer running. But there were bits of dried-out tissue paper spread all over the sidewalk about five feet down from where I had parked. When I walked into the house, Jeff told me about the horrors he had seen bursting out of the sewer line that morning.

"The plumber pushed back as much as he could, and the rest he just washed down the street."

For the next two weeks, we crossed the street and walked on the other sidewalk. We avoided parking down slope from our house. We were grateful every time it rained. And we took our shoes off when we entered the house. We also agreed to stop wearing shoes in the house for good when the baby shows up.


  1. Don't understand how ppl can wear outside footwear inside. Good choice to stop wearing shoes indoors.

  2. Growing up, we wore outdoor shoes indoors. Now, however, I insist that we take our shoes off when we get home, and wash hands with soap first thing. We have a toddler, and I am sure he would be fine if we did otherwise. Nonetheless, there is something sacred about one's home - and it needs protection from the wind and the rain outside.

  3. You'll probably get over the shoe thing in a year or so. There's always something gross a baby can get into (the toilet; the trash; the stale cheerios in the seat cushion; their own diaper for heavens sake). It does make you cringe when you think about all the filth they are exposed to when they are crawling around, but do you really think your vacuum and mop are getting your floors that clean? And then there's of course the cleaning chemicals. After while you just realize that they'll be fine and more often than not all that crud is harmless.

  4. I grew up wearing shoes in the house, but we had dark brown carpeting, and I can't even imagine how filthy it probably was. When I moved out, the first apartment I got had brand new carpeting and I just got into the habit then of taking off my shoes as I walked in. I kind of like it.

    It reminds me of Mr. Rogers changing his sweater to signify being at home and comfy now. It's my little two-second ritual that is a reminder to relax, be comfortable.

  5. It's insanely random, but my default is to just kick off my shoes upon walking indoors. Part of it is growing up in a Muslim household where one didn't wear shoes inside, but the other part of it was derived from the feeling of being barefoot. It's the most relaxing feeling to me. And coming home, coming to that place where I can kick back and relax, taking off my shoes is part and parcel of relaxing.

    Also, I could see the dirt argument although I'm always reminded by my mother that dirt is fantastic. Mud pies are part and parcel of being a kid (and may be part of building a great immune system).

  6. What a delightful little story - I loved how your husband got "converted." Hey, if the hygiene angle doesn't work for long, also remind him that floors - carpeted or not - last longer when you are not wearing shoes into the house. :-)

  7. Nothing wrong with wearing shoes in the house, as long as you clean your floors. Also, what if you have people over? It is impolite to make your guests take their shoes off, you know?