Before we arrived in Shanghai, Ed asked me if I’d feel out of place in China because of my height. If I were blond and tall I concluded after arrival, it would have bugged me. Instead what caused me distress were my travel shoes—four pairs of sandals. I’d left the cute German red-leather sneakers behind in California.
Each day as we left our hotel on The Bund and made our way through the hoards of people (mostly Chinese, few foreigners like us) on Nanjing Road to destinations such as People’s Park, Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, or the Shanghai Museum, my fashion radar was on heightened alert. I suffer from the need to “fit in.” Tall I can’t change. But Fashion, I can.
The desire to fit in manifested itself while I lived in Germany as a child. U.S. Military bases still abounded in the early 70s, and to Germans the Army had overstayed its welcome. Until our neighbors and shopkeepers of Rohr, where we lived on the outskirts of Stuttgart, realized my father was a professor of engineering at the University of Stuttgart, that my brother and I attended a German school, and we were making every attempt to learn German and had German relatives, my family stood out.
We were treated with polite chilliness. It took approximately a year for locals to warm up to us.
As Ed and I wandered through the masses, I began counting women wearing sandals. Over four days I logged seven “exposed” sets of toes. Everyone was wearing ballet slippers, loafers, or colorful tennis shoes. Tennis shoes were even worn with dressy attire. My ten little piglets painted with OPI’s Up Front and Personal (a soft metallic champagne color) were sticking out.
My “sandal count” caused me to make up outlandish stories. Forgive me, but my mind strayed to the idea that bound feet were still vivid memories in China and feet were meant to be covered with socks. Absurd, I chastised myself. The practice was outlawed in the 20th century. Maybe exposed toes are taboo? Or an edict exists—no sandals in Shanghai? Really? With temperatures currently in the mid-seventies, I knew temperatures rose higher than that in Shanghai. Sandals are a summer fashion staple. Desperate for a reason, I approached Lily, my favorite concierge at the Fairmont.
“I’ve noticed women in Shanghai aren’t wearing open-toed shoes. Is there a reason for this?” She squinted at me before replying.
“Oh, no, no, Mrs. McCracken. Chinese women wear open-toed shoes. It is the winter season now.” She appeared nervous? Perhaps it was the language barrier? “They afraid of getting sick. They afraid of catching cold.” It’s not that cold out, I thought.
“But I’m worried. Are my open-toed shoes proper?”
“Oh yes, Mrs. McCracken. It’s okay. It’s okay.” She shook her head vigorously up and down. Smiled reassuringly. My suspicious mind caused me to doubt her.
As Ed and I strode out onto the street, I was wracked with skepticism. It was warm. Winter season? Was she helping me to save face? That’s more Japanese Ed countered. My discomfort severe, we ventured into a shoe store. Shoes were sectioned off by brands. Not thinking, I grabbed a pair and moved on to the next section; and then another. Suddenly a female clerk darted in front of me and flailed her hands toward the direction I’d come. “I think you’re supposed to remain in a brand’s section,” Ed said. I obediently followed her.
“39,” she said pointing at the loafer I was holding. I don’t know, perhaps 40? I responded. “39,” she replied and grabbed the shoe from my hand, scurried to the register, and scanned the tag. 40 I called after her. A moment later she disappeared into the back room, then brought out a size 39. I bent forward, and held it next to my foot. Too small. 40? I asked. “No 40.”
Ed and I continued on and I became overwhelmed by the maze of choices, and headed towards the door. Then I spied another loafer. The clerk hurried over. 40 I said. “No 40” she replied without moving. Curious, I thought. We left and as we walked I refrained from glancing down at my painted toes.
Later that afternoon, Ed and I darted in to a running shop. I snatched an orange sneaker from the shelf and held it up to the hovering sales girl. Size 40? “No make in 40,” she replied. Suddenly an idea dawned on me and I made a sweeping gesture over the shoes. Size 40? “No make size 40.” She smiled and turned away. Argh. First my height, then my toes, and now my foot size—a mere size 9 in the States, which are small feet for my height back home.
A final note: When Ed and I finally found the trendy part of town (the Xintiandi area) on our last day in Shanghai where Shanghai’s Fashion 2013 was being held, there were women wearing sandals everywhere.
Maybe open-toed shoes are a class or social status thing. Who knows.