Found in Translation

When I was a child, my mother and I had this routine pretty much every day after I got home from school. Tired of wearing shoes all day at school, many times I would start taking them off even before I walked in through the front door. As soon as I walked in, my mother asked me to change clothes and put away my uniform. Needless to say, almost every time I forgot to take off my socks.

“Why are you wearing your socks?”–she would ask. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to wash white socks? Do you wanna wash them? No? Well, go take them off.”

Satisfied with my obedience after changing my clothes and finally taking off my socks, I would come back to the dining room just to find my lunch waiting for me on the table with a side dish of motherly nagging.

“Why are you barefoot? Go put on some slippers.”

A bit annoyed at this point, I would come back to the dining room dragging my slippers.

“Don’t drag your feet. That’s annoying.”

Then, just to annoy her a bit more, I would walk lifting my knees.

“Are you a horse? Don’t walk like that.”–she would say.

This happened all the time, and I always wondered a few things about this whole interaction. First, what did the floor ever did to my mother? Why was she so afraid of it that walking barefoot was such a big problem? Well, those are silly questions, really. If I asked her, she would usually reply, “Well, what if I dropped a glass earlier and didn’t get all the pieces when I swept? Do you want that piece of glass to cut your foot?” Regardless of the flawless logic of her answer, I doubt that she dropped a glass every day. Who knows how that mysterious piece of glass would magically appear where I walked and cut my foot.

However, those questions never bothered me as much as another set of questions. What is the big deal with dragging my slippers? Hell, my old man has done that for as long as I can remember. Why is it ok for him to drag his slippers, but it’s annoying when I do it? After all, I was just imitating him, was I not?

It took me almost 29 years and moving to Taiwan for a year to get the answer to this question. Going to Chinese class the other day I learned that in Chinese the word for slippers is 拖鞋 (tuōxié). Literally, 鞋 means “shoes,” while 拖 means “to drag,” so maybe we can say that in Chinese, slippers are pretty much “shoes that you drag around when you walk.” Does this mean that dragging your slippers is embedded in the Chinese language? Maybe it doesn’t make sense for Chinese mothers to tell their kids not to drag the “shoes that you drag around when you walk,” and that’s why Chinese drag their slippers?

So that’s it. I will take that as my answer. My mother, being Panamanian, can’t stand people dragging their feet. On the other hand, to my father, being Chinese, dragging his slippers is OK, as it’s embedded in his mother tongue and cultural background. Farfetched? Maybe, but I think this time the explanation was found in translation rather than lost in it.