Shoes or No Shoes? Footwear Customs in Other Countries

by Mai-Thy Pham

(shoes at door)In the U.S., people usually have different types of shoes for different purposes. Most of us have many pairs of shoes. Some of us may not even know how many pairs of shoes we have. We wear shoes for style, warmth, and to help us work and play. But in some countries, shoes are a sign of education, a way to show respect, and more.

In general, Japanese believe shoes must be worn outside. "When people come to my house, they have to take off their shoes right at the time they enter the doorstep," said senior Ikuko Toshima. This tradition has been passed down from generation to generation and it is just the way they have to do it. "People have to change their shoes into slippers when they get in my house, otherwise they can't come in," she added.

In Southeast Asia, Thailand, China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam people keep also similar customs about shoes, but with less seriousness than Japan.

According to Mr. Dikhayuko Sen, who is from Cambodia, "The purpose of taking off shoes in Cambodia is normally to show respect to the old people. In the tropical climate, workers used to take a nap in the afternoon. They needed tranquility and silence in their wooden houses. Mostly people, who used to wear wooden shoes, and made noise when they walked on the floor took off their shoes."

Mr. Sen, who spent much time outside Cambodia to study in France and to work as a Cambodian career diplomat, does not expect everyone to take off their shoes in his house in the United States. "Taking into account the way of life in different countries in the world, we should be more flexible," he added. "My family and I are happy to receive people in our house whether they wear or take off their shoes. Good hosts always make their guests feel comfortable."

"In China, we take off our shoes whenever we go to a friend's house or anyone's house," Susie Pan, a sophomore said. "The main point of taking shoes off is to keep the house neat, clean, and to show respect to the owner of the house."

Even though Pan and her family have been in this country for years and have adapted to the American culture, they still keep and practice their tradition about shoes. "When my relatives come to my house, they automatically take their shoes off to show respect to us and also to help us keep the house neat." Pan also talked about what her friends have to expect when they come to her house. "When my friends come to my house, they can take their shoes off or leave them on, but I will really appreciate it if they take off their shoes."

Shoes are also a sign of education in some countries. Mr. Joseph Bellino, the head of the ESOL department who used to be a teacher in Sierra Leone, West Africa, said, "One of the punishments that the principal at my school used to give was making a student take off his shoes in school for a day. Because shoes are worn by the educated people, when students have to walk with their bare feet, they feel very ashamed."

Augusta Vandy, a junior came from Sierra Leone added to this, "Most of the students, especially from the villages, don't want to take off their shoes at school because they want to act like the people from the modern cities."

In Sierra Leone, shoes are very expensive. "In my country, people usually have only one or two pairs of shoes," Augusta explained. "Most of the kids in the villages don't wear shoes at home because they want to keep their shoes new. They used to carry their shoes on their head to go to school, and they only wore them when they got to school," she added. On the other hand, there is a big difference for the kids in the large cities. "The kids in the modern cities have to wear shoes from home to school. If not, they will be sent home," Augusta said.

Taking off shoes is also important in religious customs. For example in Ethiopia, the Orthodox people don't wear their shoes when they enter a church. "When I go to Mass, I have to take off my shoes because it is a holy place, a place of blessing, so I need to show respect to God by taking off my shoes," said senior Liza Eshetu.

In a similar way, Muslim people also take off there shoes when they enter a Mosque. "We don't want our shoes to mess up our God's home. It is just a traditional way for us to do it," said Asma Moriom.

Copyright © 1998, Silver International, Montgomery Blair H.S., Silver Spring, MD USA

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