By Allison Hong Merrill
Every morning after my husband, Drake, and our three teenage sons go to work and school, I start the daily ritual of walking around the house, picking up men’s shoes, then arranging them neatly on the shelving unit in the mudroom. But when everyone comes home in the evening our house instantly becomes a massive landfill of shoes again: sandals on the kitchen island, running shoes on the dining table, boots on the couch, the stairs, my bed . . .
As a little girl growing up in Taiwan, I never thought I’d someday grow up to pick up shoes every day.
Back home in Taiwan, there weren’t shoes in the house to be picked up. My father built a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall shoe rack in the foyer to store the entire family’s footwear. That area stank to high heaven, sure, but it was never messy. The front door threshold was an indelible line. Indoor slippers didn’t exit the house. Outdoor shoes didn’t enter. At a young age I learned that removing one’s shoes before entering a house wasn’t about keeping the house clean––although that was an undeniable benefit––it was about showing respect for a living space. Home is a sacred place, a sanctuary. Before entering, one should first symbolically rid himself of worldly filth and outside pollutants to keep the home pristine and pure. A similar concept is illustrated in the Bible when God called to Moses from a burning bush and told him to take off his shoes, because he stood on holy ground. Although leaving shoes by the entrance of a living space could mean something entirely different for my distant Naxi relatives, who resided deep in the mountainous area of southwestern China.
My maternal line is connected with the Chinese Naxi tribe, known for their polyandrous tradition where one woman is married to multiple husbands at the same time. When I was ten, one day as my aunts were shucking corn, peeling carrots, and chatting in my grandma’s kitchen, I overheard one of them say, “The first man who finished work and went home got to spend the night.”
“But how would the others know they were too late?” another aunt asked.
“The first man’s shoes by her door, of course,” the first aunt said. “The shoes.”
I thought they were talking about a group of guys in a scavenger-hunt contest with a prize for the first finisher. But shouldn’t there be second-place and third-place winners too?
“Why did the other guys let the first one’s shoes keep them away?” I asked.
“Because they’re respectful,” the first aunt said. “Their relationships only work when they respect one another. It starts with seeing shoes by the door and turning around.”
It took me years to realize that my aunts were discussing the working system some Naxi husbands used to be intimate with their wife. In other Naxi polyandrous families, the winning husband tied a handkerchief to the wife’s doorknob to send away the other husbands, or the wife left a ring or a flower in the mailbox of the husband she wanted to spend the night with. My favorite was the shoe signal. I saw it as the winning husband’s respect for the wife’s sleeping quarters, and the other husbands’ respect for the chosen man’s special time with the wife.
Their relationships only work when they respect one another.
When I first arrived in the U.S. in 1995 as a university student, I was shocked to see that people wore their shoes in the house, but took them off to go outside––barefoot on grass and stocking feet on sidewalks. I completely understand now that some people want foot liberation. As babies, my sons disliked it whenever I got them ready to run errands with me. They kicked and screamed and squirmed as I stuffed their feet into their shoes. But whenever I see someone walking barefoot on grass or dirt, a sickening image forms in my mind: wiggling hookworm larvae penetrate the soles of his feet and hatch in his intestines. It makes me cringe and my scalp tingle.
I was so sick of putting away shoes in the house that one day I decided to kick them all into a mound by the front door and wait for Drake and the kids to take care of it. But that mound stayed there for weeks. I tripped over it. Drake and the kids did, too. At some point we all complained about it, but no one wanted to deal with it. Then one day I answered the door and found my son’s Korean friend standing on the porch. As soon as he stepped inside the house and saw the shoes by the door, he wrinkled his nose. “Gosh, you guys are so ghetto!”
At my furrowed brows he promptly corrected himself, “I mean––so Asian!”
At my sideways glare he instantly corrected himself again, “I mean––in my house we have a pile of shoes by the door too. My mom just leaves them there, like you. It’s her house.”
So to him, his mother was the queen of the family, the decision maker, the boss, as I liked to think I was in my family. But then it dawned on me: Clearly there’s another boss in the house if the queen of the family lets the shoes pile up…
“Hey”––the Korean kid blinked his puppy eyes at me––“can I bring, like, some dudes over and have a video game party here?”
“A party in my house?”––I looked him dead in the eye––“hmmm––hold on, let me ask the shoes first.”