Leave your shoes behind



Fr. Tom Cassidy will be with the theology community in Eluru, India, through the end of February. Today he writes about some of the customs of his temporary home:

One of the joys of visiting a foreign country, especially one out of your comfort zone, is learning about local customs that are often so different from your own personal experience. I’d like to explain several that are a daily part of Indian life.

One custom that is part of daily life, at least in rural India, is shoe removal. As you walk down the hallway to the chapel you see both walls lined with sandals left by the students and priests.

This is not the only place where one removes his/her shoes. You’ll know a student is in his room because his shoes will be outside the door. It’s perfectly fine to wear shoes in the hallway, but not in your room. I can’t begin to fathom where this custom began or its significance, but I have found one very practical use for it. Our floors are tiled and cool and one way to feel cooler in a hot climate is to have cool feet. It works right now, but when the 100 degree temps arrive I’m not sure how cold the floor will be.

Students prayer India

Students at prayer

Since we are taking our shoes off and putting them on so often during the day what kind of shoes are worn is also important. Most in the house where flip-flops or thongs. It makes for easy on and off. I have a pair of Tevas that I have had for years (served me well on all my Asian trips since 1991). I don’t like anything between my toes so this uses straps. Obviously I do a lot more bending over then those who can simply slip on and slip off at will.

A second cultural custom, or perhaps better put –– practice –– takes a bit of getting used to coming from the west. Where I come from when giving a no answer it can often be accompanied, especially for emphasis, by turning your head left and right. Here what we take for a no means yes – the way the head bobs. Not only does it mean “yes” but I don’t think even with lots of practice could reproduce the movement of an Indian’s head when he says “yes” There is an elegance to it that I find hard to describe.

I have also discovered the head movement sometimes accompanies a conversation as if the yes movement is confirming that the point has been understood and well taken. I must also confess Indian English is not always easy for me to understand. The students here are soft spoken and each has his own accent. Some of these accents are easy for the ear to catch but others are more difficult.

An example: In chapel when we are going to sing there are three books a song may be taken from. The one most frequently used is divided into sections starting with a letter and followed by a number. I find it extremely difficult to pick up many of the letters. My ear can’t often distinguish between a D,E,T or P, when the student announces the song.

In all fairness I should point out MY OWN accent and speed can be a problem for our students to pick up and understand. I do try my best to slow down, especially when preaching in chapel, but at times I find myself falling back into my usual speech patterns. It will be interesting to see if by the end of my visit our mutual understanding will improve. I’ll have to ask Br. Hari about that since he’s the one who pointed out to me how difficult it can be to understand a non-Indian’s English.

It all depends on what your ear is used to!

One response to “Leave your shoes behind

  1. John Louis Malkowski

    I’ve enjoyed reading trip postings. This one is really great…all over Asia we removed our shoes when visiting others’ homes, temples and our own apartments. Mom n I continued the practice in Geneva and often when visiting friends back in the States. It shows respect, keeps the floors clean and can be cooler. A pair of old tennus shoes with the back folded down ir clogs work very well…unless you like/need the bending over exercise!!! As for English accents and variations: in Singapore they call it “Singlish”–lots of localized intonations come from other locally spoken languages. Often a “Lah!” Concludes a sentence and no one seems to know where it comes from. Just speak slowly and be conscious of enunciating clearly without appearing to be talking down to your hearers, as the classic caricature of the English colonial! I found the Keralese, whether Malayalam or Malakare most difficult to understand. Also up in Bhubaneshwar and along the coast the migrant fishermen from the sourheast had quite an overlay accent. but then some Australians are difficult to understand too! Keep your postings coming. What a tremendous experience you are having.

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