Entering a house with bare feet is second nature to us Lao. We wouldn’t dare walk through someone’s abode with our street shoes on. But there are many Americans who disagree. In fact, it can be a controversial topic! Removing your shoes might ruin a carefully curated outfit, make you cold, or worse, expose your mismatched socks and smelly feet. And who can forget that Sex and the City episode where Carrie took off her Manolos and someone else went home with them?!
Have you ever wondered why we take off our shoes? Or do you need some fuel for the “shoes off” side of the debate? Follow along.
Removing shoes is a common practice in many parts of the world. You’ll find footwear by the front entry in Japan, Vietnam, and South Korea. And this isn’t just common in the East. Some people in Germany, Switzerland, Finland, and Turkey cringe at just the thought of hanging out inside with your shoes on. Here in Canada, most of us leave our shoes at the door, regardless of ethnicity. Our northern weather brings rain, mud, snow, and slush. We certainly wouldn’t want to track all that through the home. So boots, shoes, sandals and all other footwear stay in the foyer. Could you imagine anything worse than stepping in dog poop and walking onto a freshly cleaned carpet? Even the cleanest looking shoes are full of bacteria.
Of course, it goes beyond hygiene and cleanliness, too. Big proponents of reflexology, the Chinese, believe that health begins at the feet. Each foot is full of reflex points that connect to every part of the body. Stimulating these areas has benefits such as improved circulation, pain relief, and the reduction of cardiovascular disease. This is often done through massage or acupressure. But the simple act of walking can do the trick, too. You’ll reap the most benefits by going barefoot. So setting your shoes aside is good for your health in more ways than one.
As for us Lao, this practice is rooted in spirituality. Our Buddhist beliefs consider our heads the most sacred parts of our bodies. This is where our spirits live. Out of respect, we never touch or rub someone’s head, especially that of an elder’s. At the opposite ends of the body, our feet touch the ground and are impure(in both the physical and spiritual sense). In an effort to keep sacred spaces clean, we leave our shoes (and their dirt) at the door. This applies to both the wat and our homes.
You may have noticed that we take this custom of respect up a notch, and are careful to keep our feet to ourselves. It’s impolite to gesture at someone with a foot, or point our bare feet in their direction. For that reason, you’ll often see Lao people sitting cross-legged, or with their feet tucked out of view. And when walking around, we never step over another person, important object, or food.
Growing up with these rules, I never gave them much thought. Then a few years back, I had lunch with a friend. Our kids ran around the front yard, while we sat on the porch, enjoying a spread from the nearby deli. Mid-meal, her 4-year-old bounded up the steps, walked right over her sandwich and into the house. I cringed, slightly appalled when she continued eating as if her daughter hadn’t just committed a major no-no. It took me a moment to remember I wasn’t at a Lao home. I was also surprised to realize that living on my own for over a decade won’t erase years of my parents’ teachings. Some things just stay with you.
So there you have it. Did your elders ever give you the lessons behind these customs, or were you just expected to follow them? Do your friends (khon Lao or otherwise) leave their shoes on in the house? Sound off in the comments and let us know!