No shoes, please!

Sign on a gazebo at a rest stop along the
North-South Highway
While PEGGY LOH applauds the reason behind the practice of removing shoes before entering a home, she laments the lack of follow-through when it is practised in offices
“ARIGATO — We follow honourable Japanese custom. Please remove footwear before entering.”  I remember this cute caption on a bright sticker that my aunt brought back from an overseas trip many years ago.

Today modern offices and shops put up similar signs at their entrances requesting guests to take off their shoes before entering. Even though the practice is good etiquette, I’m not too excited about its practice here.

That’s because it is not followed closely. The Japanese custom requires outdoor footwear to be removed and a change into slippers upon entering a house. Passed down for generations, this custom is practised because outdoor footwear should not trample on floors lined with tatami mats.

Most Japanese homes now have tiled and carpeted floors but the tradition is still practised to help keep the house clean.  As in many Asian homes, the Japanese have a custom of both sitting and sleeping on straw mats. In our tropical weather, Malaysians enjoy a refreshing afternoon nap and there’s something special about snoozing in traditional wooden houses.  So footwear that makes noise is removed to ensure that footsteps are quiet, to show respect and, of course, to keep the floors clean.

Taking shoes off is also important in religious customs. In some countries, Orthodox people remove their shoes when they enter a church to show respect and reverence. Similarly, devotees remove their shoes when they enter a mosque, temple or shrine.

In some tourist sites such as places of worship, galleries and museums, visitors must remove footwear before entering. These venues usually provide shoes storage services or you are given a carrier bag to bring your footwear along to put them on again at a separate exit.

Today, many offices and businesses in Malaysia have adopted this “honourable” custom but few provide shoe shelves or guest slippers. Even if they do provide slippers, I hesitate to use them unless I’m wearing socks. I’m reluctant to step on unclean carpets that are not properly vacuumed as I loathe that gritty and grimy feel on the soles of my feet!

While it feels absolutely awkward to conduct a business discussion without shoes to complete a professional ensemble, another annoying concern is how the hosts are not responsible for your smart pair of shoes. Nobody will be responsible for them, so if you can bear being labelled finicky, bring an extra bag to carry them with you into the meeting! In the unfortunate event of shoe theft, I can just picture how horrible it will be to walk back bare-footed or in your stockinged feet!

This was what happened to my sister some years ago when she visited a patient in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of a general hospital. For hygiene reasons, footwear had to be removed before entering the ICU so my sister obediently left her pair of sandals at the entrance. But when she emerged from the ICU, her sandals were gone!

So if you are going to places that require footwear to be removed, there’s wisdom in wearing your best pair of socks and your worst pair of shoes unless you can remove your footwear and carry them along. Remember — smelly socks and poorly groomed feet do not create the best impressions and scruffy shoes will not tempt the most desperate of thieves!
This article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 17 February 2011

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