The Great Shower Shoe Exchange

Some things have improved at the pool, and some things have gotten worse. The water is no longer the temperature of liquid nitrogen, for one. That’s nice. The sandal situation is a problem, though. In months past, we set our sandals near the edge of the pool. Now, for whatever reason, the system has changed so that we have to set our sandals against a far wall. Why? This is China, that’s why, by which I mean that there may be a reason. . .or there may not. Maybe one of the lifeguards just decided he didn’t like the way the sandals looked on the side of the pool. Maybe someone wearing blue flip-flops stole his dog. Maybe it has become common knowledge that chlorine and blue plastic sandals combine to form a toxic chemical. (Laugh if you want, but there are still scads of people in Korea and China who believe wholeheartedly that sleeping in front of an oscillating fan will kill you.)

The thing is, I didn’t find out about this until after I’d finished my swim and gotten out of the pool to discover my sandals weren’t where I’d put them. This might just be a mild annoyance in many places, but walking around a Chinese locker room and pool without footwear is like volunteering to be a test subject in a biological warfare experiment. It’s the kind of place where bigger, stronger bacteria shove athlete’s foot down and steal its lunch money. Anyway, I was concerned not only because I might have to walk around without sandals, but also because I was out a pair of sandals. I went over to the lifeguard to ask about the situation. I had to wave my hand in front of his face to get his attention because he had earphones in. (Note: I’m still not entirely convinced the lifeguards at the pool are qualified to save lives. If you were given a post that required you to monitor people’s safety in a public place, would you mute the world around you by wearing earphones? What would happen if you saw someone drowning, leaped off your chair to save them, and realized as you were hurtling towards the water that you had an active electronic device strapped to your head? Nothing good, I suspect.) When I got his attention he commiserated with my plight, then informed me that we had to put our sandals by the wall. I wondered why he hadn’t told me this when I spent ten minutes standing right next to his chair stretching and getting ready to swim, but in China nobody ever tells you anything ahead of time. They’ll wait until you’ve already done something idiotic and then say, “You weren’t supposed to do that.” I’ve stopped trying to figure out why. Anyway, I told the lifeguard there was a pair of sandals over by the wall that looked like mine, so it was likely someone simply picked up the wrong pair by accident. He nodded and recommended I go check the locker room to see if mine were there, or if perhaps someone was wearing them.

As I walked towards the locker room, the lifeguard with whom I had just been talking shouted across the pool to another lifeguard whose post was next to my destination: “He’s lost his sandals! There might be somebody in the locker room wearing them!” The twenty or thirty people in the shallow end found this quite amusing, and of course all stopped to listen to the waiguoren talk to the lifeguard in Chinese. The second lifeguard said to me in a concerned tone of voice, “Oh, you lost your sandals, eh? They’re not sitting next to one of the walls?” “No, they’re not.” “Well, check the people in the locker room.” This completed the necessary social convention of involving as many people as possible in a problem.

I did a quick scan of the locker room, and sure enough, one old man taking a shower was wearing a pair of sandals which were, if not mine, then made by the same company. But here’s where cultures clash. In China you would just walk up to the naked old man in the shower, tap him on the shoulder, and say, in a friendly way, “Excuse me, but I think you’re wearing my sandals.” In America if you approached a naked man, old or young, in a public shower and said anything, even without touching him, the exchange wouldn’t go well. In some areas of the country (small towns in Alabama or Texas spring to mind) that kind of thing would cost you your life. Needless to say, I shuffled my feet nervously and wondered what to do. On the one hand, there was absolutely no question of sticking around for a post-swim shower if I had no sandals. At the very least, athlete’s foot would probably attack me out of simple peevishness from having its lunch money stolen by the bigger, stronger bacteria. On the other, I really didn’t want to tap a naked old man on the shoulder and demand my sandals back.

I went back out to the pool and told the first lifeguard, “Well, I saw someone wearing a pair that might be mine, but I’m not sure.” The lifeguard said enthusiastically, “That’s okay, then, just tell him to give them to you.” I shuffled nervously again. “Er, well, I’m not sure they’re mine, you see. . .” He got down off his chair and said, “Don’t worry about that.” He walked over to a different part of the pool and extracted a blue pair of sandals from somewhere. (Secret Chinese sandal stash? Oh please, ye gods and forces of comedy, let it be so.) He gave them to me and said, “Just wear these in the meantime.” He began walking with me to the locker room with the intention of asking the naked old man about the sandals for me. I stopped him and told him I could ask the man myself, which was true insofar as I had the actual ability to do so, but not true with regards to the western cultural part of me, which was looking on in silent horror. But both lifeguards just smiled and said, “Just go tell him to switch! It’s no problem, really!”

It wasn’t, of course. Like I said, in China this isn’t even an oddity. Naked public shower conversation is commonplace. I tapped the old man on the shoulder (cringing as I did so, for oh so many reasons) and said, as politely as I possibly could, “Excuse me, but are you sure those are your sandals? They look just like mine.” I then hedged, because like the good westerner I am, I didn’t want the old man to think I was being demanding or accusatory. I should point out that this desire is heightened considerably when the other party in the exchange is dripping wet and naked. “Oh, I’m not completely sure they’re my sandals, so if you think they’re yours, that’s fine.” The old man was all smiles and apologies and was already taking off the sandals without ever asking how I knew they were mine, or where his were if the ones he was wearing were mine. I told him I’d just go to the pool and get the other pair and he could check to see. Well, when I got back those were gone, but the lifeguard told me to just give the man the ones I was wearing. “But won’t somebody want them? They’ve got to belong to somebody,” I said. He just shook his head. “No, they’re a spare pair. Somebody left them here ages ago.” I shrugged, thanked him for his help, and went back to the locker room. I took off the sandals I was wearing, tapped the old man on the shoulder again, and he immediately took off (my) sandals with a huge smile and a barrage of apologies. It’s hard to respond to the Chinese apology hurricane, especially when the matter in question really isn’t that important. I assured him he had in no way inconvenienced me, and apologized profusely myself for interrupting his shower (I’ve gotten pretty good at machine-gunning the “bu hao yi si” or “dui bu qi” apology back at people, which always makes them happy.) And so we both went about our business as before.

But here’s the thing: apart from being blue, the sandals I gave the old man looked very little like the ones he had taken. Who willingly trades for a pair of sandals that are patently not his? Someone who obviously cares far less about footwear than about social convention, or alternately, someone who’s polite to a fault. It’s not wise to extract a sweeping social observation based on a simple misunderstanding over shower shoes, but at the very least the entire affair would have been far more complicated if it had occurred in, say, Omaha or Boise or Duluth.

In the meantime, I’m trying not to question the hygiene implications of having spent a significant period of time walking around the pool area without sandals, then wearing a random pair whose origins are unknown, and finally wandering around in yet another pair that had just been on a random old man’s feet in the shower.

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