When Sole Meets Concrete

By: Hana Rivers
Barnard College, New York City NY, USA

The mesh slippers we call Asian house shoes seem to me rid of historical specificity, at least the kind I am searching for. They are sold cheaply by the masses. You can find them in Chinatown, in colorful stacks neatly wrapped in gleaming plastic, but also parts of Harlem, and, inexplicably, on Amazon. It is nearly impossible to garner any research on them besides the fact that they are a commodity, a fetish object. They come hand in hand with articles about 90s-style footwear and flash shots of white celebrities in cheongsams, hair held up by chopsticks. At a few dollars per pair, with a wholesale value as low as nine cents per shoe, they lack value, are all but valueless.

These slippers come in a variety of shades—flaming orange, garish purple, hot pink, red. The shoe itself consists of a flat foam sole cheaply rimmed with zigzagging thread; a half moon of crosshatched plastic strips covers the foot from bony middle to toe tip. All along this makeshift mesh are sewn clusters of small beads. Scattered here and there are larger iridescent clusters made up of individual sequins stacked and fanned into floral shapes. The whole thing shines, reflecting light and exuding a cheap opulence which collides with its object-hood, its identity as made up of a number of disposable materials. 

Central to these shoes is their ability to transgress vestibule, to step out of the house and onto the streets, to move seamlessly from linoleum kitchen floor stinking of rice to scorch-hot New York concrete. As they transgress, they erode—meant only for the indoors, a barrier between body-edge and the sacred sanctum of private carpet, pavement wears them down. Transgression goes hand in hand with self-erosion, with the gradual loss of the object itself. An impossible metaphor; a threshold-crossing.

They seem to me a millennial, plastic, disposable iteration of the house slippers many Asian grandmothers wear across East and Southeast Asia. The latter are usually more substantial, often made from woven leather. My grandmother used to wear them, while shuffling across the scuffed hardwood of my mother’s childhood home back in Lansdale, Pennsylvania. In contrast to leather, plastic erodes, like ocean erodes rocks eons old; yet, unlike rocks, these shoes lack a history.

In light of their lack of historical specificity, I wear them outside, these markedly-inside shoes, abrading them on concrete and dampening them in the dirty puddles that line the curbs of New York streets. I do not feel I am scathing something sacred, even when the plastic upper disintegrates from the sole and the mesh lining sheds its iridescent flowers, loosely sewn, in a trail behind me. Shoes are meant to be a barrier between foot and world. What does it mean when we dispose of such a barrier?

These shoes are one of the few things I feel I can take with me, albeit in a different form and light, from my grandparents. Looking back at old photos of them, they have made themselves into style objects for a certain generation. The oldest photo I have of my grandmother is of her in the Manila airport in 1952, pictured with her mother, my great -grandmother, the last of the Bunyis. My grandmother’s mother wears a gauzy thing for a shirt, the butterfly sleeves like clouds dwarfing her thin brown arms, and a worried expression, the space between her eyebrows puckered with lines. My grandmother doesn’t seem to notice; she wears a stylish pair of sunglasses and a wry, coy smile that reminds me of my mother. In one, they stand, royal, at the edge of a pier in New Jersey, my grandmother looking like Jackie O in a long trench coat and sunglasses, my grandfather also wearing a trench coat, paired with loafers and a refined pair of reading glasses. In another, my grandmother is pictured on a boat, wearing a ruffly blue smock, as the sea boils behind her, whitecaps seeming to appear and disappear intermittently. The sea hems the sepia.

I overhear my mother and grandmother discussing the status of a piece of property back in the Philippines, one that my grandmother’s parents left to her and her siblings, an acre of land in Manila. My mother paces around the kitchen island as buttery light streams in from the back doors, her voice echoing through the hallway as she says, “I mean, I can’t, Mom. It wouldn’t make sense for me to have it. I’m so Americanized.”

And often, when overhearing her say this, I wonder: where does that leave me? Her daughter, doubly Americanized. The word “Americanized” compounded not only by my grandparent’s immigration here, their fierce attempts to speak only English, but also by the fact that their Philippines had always and already been a colonized entity. During the Japanese occupation, for example, the soldiers used my grandmother’s house as their headquarters. The family had to dress the oldest sister as an old lady, to dissuade the soldiers from raping her.

When I was small enough to sit in the folds of my grandmother’s skirt, she would bounce me up and down in a game we called “ping ping,” and her shrill laughter would permeate the humid rooms. As I grew older, I grew curious, and, sitting beside her on the scratchy plaid of that couch in the living room, I asked her to teach me some of her mother tongue, Tagalog, the language she never spoke. 

“Grandma, how do you say “hi” in Tagalog?” 

 “Oh. We just say ‘hi.’” 

When I looked up, her face was contorted into a pucker of shame. I dropped my gaze, fixating on her tiny feet in those brown leather house slippers. Over and over, I justify shoving myself into them, these Chinese discount store shoes, telling myself that I grew up on Clement street, took Mandarin lessons as a child, and even inherited my family home from a Chinese family. It would make sense to want to align myself with something that seems representative of a dominant Asian culture. What else am I meant to do, when I have nothing left of mine? When I have been made to inculcate myself into dominance my entire life, besides in the safe confines of my family home, the four of us trying to make our own community out of one we never had? What do I have left? Scraps maybe, but my grandfather died when I was fourteen, never having taught me how to make bibingka or oxtail stew or what we called ‘Grandpa stew,’ an umami-filled meld of potatoes, tender pork, and dark green leaves, whatever sort he had in his kitchen. 

The slipper: a cipher, then, for me, my grandparents’ granddaughter. Balenciaga made a pair once, in Fall 2016. Swathed in lace and Swarovski crystals, they retailed for one thousand, five hundred and forty-five dollars.

I wonder how the plastic these slippers are made from is produced, if the people inevitably exploited in their making are the same ones I think I’m carrying with me when I wear them. My grandfather’s cousin and mother’s childhood caregiver, Tita, still works in a factory to support her two grown children, having already paid their way through college. My mother was never allowed to have guests over growing up, because Tita was undocumented and the family was paranoid. She must be in her seventies, now, and still working. Until I see her, I always forget how thick her accent is, guttural to the point of near incomprehensibility. She is round, with a joyful smile and moles like stars dotting her dark face, and short enough that I could rest my elbow on the bun she wears at the top of her head. Nonstop toiling.

In my first two years at grade school in San Francisco I wrote haikus about koi fish and cherry blossoms, drew pictures of black-bunned, huge-headed girls wearing kimonos. I paid special attention to the eyelashes, slanting the eyes and drawing three distinct lines at their outermost edges, the lips a smacked triangle of red. Constantly, I would spar with Mariella Levy about whose drawings were better, and once I got in trouble for snatching back a drawing I had gifted her. I remember thinking that it was mine, the drawing, and that it was my best one yet, and that she shouldn’t have what I had worked so hard to perfect. She cried, Mariella Levy, the one other girl in my grade with a white dad and an Asian mom. In sixth grade, Daisy Batten, who was adopted, attended the Asian American Affinity club at our school, because she was the only girl in our grade with Mexican heritage, and so found solace in the small, rickety Language Learning room our meetings took place in. Me and the other girls who took Mandarin would always roll our eyes and laugh, but make space for her nonetheless.

There is a string that holds Mariella Levy, Daisy Batten and me in a taut line, the kind you hang your whites on to dry. The line sways slightly in a wind that ripples through long green grass. It speaks the languages of possession and dispossession, alignment and dis-alignment, but, most fluently, of something called in-disposability.

Again I ask myself: what does it mean to dispose of the barrier between foot and world? The distance between disappearance and disposal here is one mediated by residue: when you dispose of something, it does not immediately go away. For example, it takes one thousand years for plastic to biodegrade, one thousand years until the thing that was once the barrier immerses itself completely into the natural order of things.

Once, on Canal, while on my way to a yoga class, I came out of the subway and was immediately greeted by a frantic woman, her face lined and stricken. Green puffy jacket, white visor shadowing the eyes. It was one of those early summer days where the air was grey, the humidity placid, making everything feel fixed, immobile. The woman asked me something—in Cantonese, I think, the syllables too disparate and clanging for Mandarin—and searched my face for recognition. There was none; I couldn’t understand her. This mis-understandability, this failure of the residual, implanted something within me: a heavy stone, the kind that’s bad for skipping. Dark grey and slick with river moss, and stuck, suddenly, at the bottom of my throat. I mumbled an apology before dissipating into the herd.

I’m struck, often, by whatever it is within me that hopes for scraps like these. Like when I get a pedicure at the cheap place on 110th and Central park and the ladies there speak Mandarin instead of Vietnamese, and I am able to say, with a shaky voice, 请给我一点热水— please give me a little hot water. They’re happy to hear it, all of them jostling one other and giggling, as if it is something joyful that I can speak a small phrase of this language that is not mine, that was never even my grandparents’. I manage a meek smile, withdrawing, and make clumsy conversation with the woman scrubbing my feet. She has long dark hair pulled into a ponytail at the nape of her neck. Suddenly, I realize I do not know the word for lavender, so I say it in English— “Lavender, please”— and she takes the bottle from my hand.

Sometimes, my mother tries to recreate the adobo my grandmother would make when Jasmine and I were young. She does not use full-fat coconut milk. She simmers the meat in the instant pot and adds whatever greens have been left in the fridge for too long. The result tastes vaguely familiar, but the overwhelming effect is that of the Paleo recipe she used to make it. Filipino food isn’t healthy, she used to tell me when my grandmother would visit San Francisco and our family would go to Max’s in Daly City. My grandmother’s favorite thing to get there was the crispy pata, a thrice-fried mound of pork, a heart attack on a plate. “It’s a special occasion,” my grandmother would always say, stretching out the long a as if to plead. “Only a few times a year.” As children, Jasmine and I would always agree: “Yeah, mama, let’s get it,” we would chant. My father, ever the encourager of deviating from health, would nod excitedly. And we would, and my grandma would show me how to eat all of the meat off the bone so there wasn’t any remaining. I’ve always been good at that, at never leaving anything behind: at Thanh Long in San Francisco, that Vietnamese place with the garlic noodles and the crab where the waiters pull plastic bibs around your neck, I would crack the legs ferociously and let the drippings run down my face and soil the plastic. I would never leave a morsel untouched, and my parents would laugh at me, joking, “Its in your genes.”

It’s interesting to me, this intrepid desire to leave nothing behind, double edged in that the act in itself represents a fear of residue. What are the various manifestations of residue, in food versus in cultural longevity? For my ancestors in the Philippines, food must have, at many points, been a scarcity, the gnawed bones rooted in a compulsion originating in poverty; if not in my grandparents’ generation, then in generations before. In a country in which war has been imposed, transferred, carried across history like an impenetrable wind, it makes sense, the scarcity, makes sense, the lack of a residue, for all of that Spanish and Japanese and American influence must have erased most things of origin. Not my relishing of mango with sticky rice at cheap Thai restaurants; not the way my grandmother used to consistently get the gender of our old cat, Tang, confused, that remnant of a language barrier conjuring in the strangest of ways. The conjuring like a ghost in that it only ever appears when uncalled for. The language resurging in snippets of phone calls between my grandmother and her old classmates from back home. Who stays in touch with their friends from middle school at age eighty-six? Someone who fears leaving too much behind, I suppose. 

It’s easy to write in and around something without ever actually locating the subject. The subject evades. The subject has been made translucent by years of dispossession. An un-possessing of a place that was only ever possessed by its colonizers; language-imposers, rapists, pillagers. Recognizably this is an answerless task, to write about something that itself is not a subject. There is a filling in, though, the clotting of a wound, as with spiderwebs on fresh cuts. A swathing with stories, scabs, the parcels of memory wrapped in brown paper. But perhaps the answer is not the goal. Perhaps there is no goal except for the remembering itself. Re-member: to re-animate, to sew the limb back onto the body with a large needle. Skin and skin pulled together over absent, long-standing wound: voidful.

Tita’s kids, Nikki and Edwin, tell me this too. That there is never an origin point, a pure definition of this culture which evades. At the school Nikki advises at there is a Filipino heritage group whose only members have been pulled away from the geography of the place, who do not know about the insurrection or the tyranny, who are mixed. Placeless. In this way it is easy to think of the addition of whiteness as a dilution, as milk in blue liquor; whiteness creates further distance from whatever was once an origin, if there ever was one. And this mixing reinstates what was always the colonial problem: the pulling of people away from their origin stories. 

The slipper itself symbolizes a commercial exchange in which capitalism replaces culture, in which the dissipation of origin precipitates its transmutation into objects that mimic what once was, that provide those displaced from their cultures with a comic material object whose only role is, literally, to be degraded. Two summers ago, I would wear these Chinese discount store slippers all over the New York concrete. It was a stubborn, unreasonable act of defiance: against what, I do not know. All I know is that, by the end of August, the bottoms of the slippers had blackened with wear, having undergone an incessant process of gaining and losing: a gaining of whatever unsavory things resided in the folds of the sidewalk, a gradual losing of the shoe itself, the ridged plastic of the sole rubbing off in pieces against the ground. The grime, I took home with me: a different kind of remnant, I suppose.