Sometimes cultural misunderstanding can be as simple as a pair of shoes.
A while ago, I met two women who had spent a week doing a homestay with a family in Japan the previous year. The women explained to me that during the visit, as they entered the house, or the garden, or the toilet room, there were always slippers placed on the floor. Their hosts instructed them to slip out of one pair and into another as they ventured around the house and yard.
The alarming frequency of slipper donning and removal soon had the guests completely bewildered. They were constantly wearing the wrong slippers into the toilet, or forgetting to shed the toilet slippers when back in the house. The hosts were beside themselves, trying to explain in broken English the proper time and place for each kind of footgear. And whenever the guests made an uncorrectable error – that pair of slippers ended up in the trash.
My friends laughingly told the story about their complete inability to adopt a custom which, to their Japanese hosts, seemed simple enough for a child.
Having lived in Japan for a long enough period of time, I shared the wronged sensibilities of the Japanese hosts. It is a very basic rule. The world outside of the home is dirty. Shoes that you wear on the street should never, never come into the house. That rule is absolute. Not even construction workers or moving crews violate it. When two men moved a piano into my home, they picked up the piano in the street with their shoes on, and, balancing it on their backs with straps, paused in the doorway long enough to remove their shoes before stepping into my foyer. Once the piano was in place, they slipped back into their waiting shoes and were gone. In the house, it was acceptable to wear house slippers. But those were not to be confused with toilet slippers. You had to slip out of the house slippers, put on the cheap plastic slippers meant only for the toilet room, use the facilities, then step out of those slippers and back into the house slippers. And if there was an inner garden...well, there was probably another row of slippers to put on to wear in the yard.
When I was first trying to rent an apartment in Kyoto, I had several instances where I was initially told there was a vacancy, and then suddenly informed that the apartment was taken. The rapid change occurred when the landlords discovered that I was an American. Or really, not a Japanese. At first, I took great offense, thinking it was clear and absolute discrimination. But later, after talking to a Japanese friend, I found out the truth: landlords were afraid that a foreigner would ruin the floor in the apartment, since they had no concept of slippers and such.
Once I discovered the fear, I was able to alleviate it. I met with the potential landlord, explained (in Japanese) that I understood Japanese customs, and professed complete understanding of the shoe issue. The floor was sacred ground, as far as I was concerned. As if by magic, I found that the previously occupied apartment was now vacant, and I was given a warm welcome, with no further problems.
Thinking back on all of this, it makes me wonder how often a simple difference in custom creates seemingly insurmountable barriers between different groups of people. If shoes can lead to housing discrimination, imagine what a difference in religious beliefs might stir up?
It has served as a gentle lesson for me. When faced with behavior that I do not understand when traveling or when coming up against other cultures in my own country, I try first to observe instead of passing judgment. Often, sitting quietly and watching, or opening dialogue, has left me with a new understanding of the situation. You could call it the wisdom of slippers.