When you have lived in different places it is almost as if you can never unlive those experiences and you become almost spiritually homeless. It isn’t so much about not belonging as belonging to more than one place. When we went to New Zealand we suffered huge culture shock at the beginning but then became assimilated and the reverse culture shock when we returned to the UK more than 10 years later which was just as punishing. What was suddenly glaringly apparent was that anyone who had never lived in another country with another culture had no real concept that in other places there might be other ways of doing things that are almost opposite and yet apposite and make perfect sense if you are in the other persons place and shoes.
In fact shoes are a prime example.
We arrived in Whanagrei in the early summer of 2006, and the first thing I noticed as we drove through the centre of town and along the main street was that the children were barefoot, they weren’t wearing any shoes. You have to remember that we had never visited NZ, and I had engineered all of our migration from the living room of our detached house in the Isle of Man with the aid of my trusty computer. All my assumptions about Whangerei were based on what I knew of towns of that size based on my exisitng experience of the UK, US and Europe and a little bit of applied logic. Shoes had never entered my head, I had never studied shoes. My first thought and reaction was- Oh no they must be poor. I have brought my family to a poor place where they can’t afford shoes.
My knowledge of shoe habits was entirely linked to my own poor range of experience and my very working class roots where shoes were actually a symbol of security wealth and status. The wearing of shoes indicated that your family could afford them and they were worn with pride and tended only to come off your feet at bedtime. There were also cultural overtones to shoe wearing, there were new shoes or special shoes for special occasions, in childhood the Whit walks always guaranteed a new pair of shoes, generally white (so very different to school shoes) and obviously the start of a new year at school was always a new pair of appropriate footwear. I also got into very big trouble one year when I was sent out with money to buy my own shoes and came back with an aquarium and two terrapins from the market- no shoes.
In the early 1970’s some family friends of ours emigrated to South Africa, we helped them pack and saw them off and when they came to visit in 1983, they regaled stories of barefoot children, and even though they said they strolled barefoot, to my mind it conjured up images of sand and dirt roads and I wondered how their feet were not cut to ribbons on glass and debris. The stories did little to challenge my clealrly poor understanding of culture geography or shoes.
So here we were in a hire car, all our wordly goods in the car-boot, two children aged 6 in the back, and we had moved half way round the world on a whim to wonderful Whangarei and despite the drizzle and the umbrellas, there was no mistaking that these people were roaming the streets with no footwear. So I had resigned myself to the fact that our new home was a place where there was abject poverty. The truth was and still is, that to some extent Northland and Whangarei could be described as of lower soio-ecomomic status compared to other parts of New Zealand, but what it lacked in economic wealth it more than made up for in culture, compassion and collaboration and the shoe issue was absolutely nothing to do with the economics of the place.
It soon became apparent that in this new place it was more respectful and appropriate to be barefoot and in fact in virtually every Northland place and home there was a cultural expectation that you would remove your shoes and leave them at the entrance/doorway. We learned this very quickly as even when viewing houses this expectation was a non negotiable. We quickly learned that the best and most appropriate footwear was footwear that could be removed quickly and easily and not mourned and grieved for if it was forgotten or left behind.
We soon adopted so many of these unwritten and previously unknown cultural customs and practices. It was apparent that all children under the age of 12 seemed to go everywhere barefoot. The girls would go to school with shoes on and somehow come home without them. Endless visits to the school on Friday afternoons to try to retrieve shoes were largely frutless, there just seemed to be a bagful of totally unrelated shoes in every cloakroom. You would take shoed children to Mcdonalds for a treat and arrive home to find they were shoeless. On May 3rd 2006, shortly after we moved into our own home in Kamo, my husband called me from work before I had taken the children to school, to alert me to the fact that we were on a Tsunami alert following a significant earthquake at sea. My snarling response was related to shoes not impending doom. I have two children to get to school and I can only find one size 8 left shoe and one size 9 right shoe and how am I supposed to get them to school. I gave in, and my children went to school barefoot like everyone elses children. We were officially done with shoes.
© Alison Jean Hankinson