July 27, 2010

Feet and Shoes in Korea and Singapore

One of the blogs I read through Google Reader is Juliette Wade's TalkToYoUniverse. Juliette is a science fiction author who blogs about the writing process. One of the topics she frequently writes about is how more realistic fictional worlds can be created by taking real-life examples and using them as the basis for fictional settings. In particular, Juliette examines cultural perspectives on different subjects, and tries to get other writers to think about how people in their fictional world/culture would approach the subject. As a former expat who lived in Japan, many of Juliette's blog posts discuss Japanese culture.

In a recent post, Juliette wrote about feet and shoes across cultures, asking, "What do you know about feet?" In the post, she discussed a number of topics about shoes and attitudes toward feet; for example, different types of shoes (e.g., Japanese fishing boots and snow boots, shoes for the bound feet of Chinese women, etc.), form vs. function in the design of shoes, walking vs. driving, and attitudes toward the wearing of shoes inside one's home or not.

Having been exposed to several different Asian cultures, I decided to comment on some of the observations I've made about the wearing of shoes in South Korea and Singapore. In my comment, I tried to complement her topics by adding additional reasons why attitudes toward shoes are the way they are here in Asia. Below is most of my comment that appears on her blog:

There are actually quite a few other factors that help determine the style and wearing of shoes in addition to those you mentioned. When I lived in Korea, their attitudes toward the wearing of shoes in the home probably mirrored that of Japan, although I can't say about whether most Koreans wore slippers within their homes. Certainly my apartment had the equivalent of the genkan (1) where shoes were taken off and left. Actually, that area next to the front door was "sunken" or, rather, the rest of the apartment floor was raised because of the onbol (2) that lie underneath the floor, providing some warmth to the room.

A lot of attitudes toward taking shoes off in the home come from practical considerations. Singaporeans universally take off shoes before entering a home (regardless of ethnicity or religion) because the climate is very wet here and one walks through lots of puddles and/or mud. Korean and Singaporean men also frequently spit and, while one tries to avoid stepping in that, one never knows if one did accidentally, so, best to take the shoes off rather than tracking that into the house as well.

Both Singapore and Korea are still developing economically, and construction sites tend to be muddy and/or dirty.

Various religious facilities (e.g., Mosques and Buddhist temples) require one to take off one's shoes before entering those buildings. (In Islam, that consideration is practical as there is no furniture in the prayer hall which allows people to walk anywhere, and one puts one's face on the carpeting during prayer.) Also, because one needs to take off one's shoes within mosques, many Muslims choose to wear shoes that don't have laces. In Singapore, sandals and flip-flops are the preferred shoe to wear to the mosque because they are the easiest to put back on when one is leaving the building.

In Singaporean and Korean homes, bathrooms tend to be wet as there are no bathtubs, thus showering is done in the middle of the bathroom floor (there's a drain in the floor for the water). Only rarely have I worn flip-flops in the bathroom; usually it's just bare feet, which also means that many Singaporeans walk around with bare feet in the rest of the house; wearing socks means needing to take them off before going into the bathroom.

Singaporeans tend to have two places to store shoes, one indoors and one outdoors. Many apartments here have an outdoor shoe rack, which may be used by family members or guests. However, many people just leave their shoes lying outside their front door when they come home and leave them there overnight. (I used to do that with a pair of flip-flops, but they were stolen, probably by an estate maintenance worker who had big feet like me. Since then I always keep my shoes indoors, unless I know I'm going to be leaving the house within an hour or two.)

One other factor is health. Several members of my family, including me, all wear sandals as our normal foot wear because we are type 2 diabetics. Type 2 diabetics are susceptible to bacterial and fungal skin infections, and closed-toe shoes are perfect environments for those types of beasties (moist, warm). With sandals the feet are drier and cooler, which helps to minimize infections (which are very painful itches). With the exception of some athletic shoes that are only worn for an hour or so at a time, I haven't worn anything but sandals since 2005. (That includes at work, so I tend to buy more stylish sandals. ;) )

One other side issue is home flooring. Singaporeans and Koreans almost exclusively use ceramic tiles for their floors. With so much dirt and mud here, people would be forever vacuuming their carpets. With tile, cleaning is much faster: just a sweep through and mopping. Those few rugs that are used here tend to be small rugs, either for the kitchen and/or bathroom or larger carpets (like a Persian rug) that's used for decorative purposes.

(1) A genkan is an area inside the front door of a Japanese home where shoes are taken off and stored before entering the rest of the house or apartment.
(2) An onbol is a set of water pipes located underneath the floor of a Korean home or apartment; the onbol heats up the floor during the winter months, helping to make the home a little bit warmer.

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