As I noted when I wrote about Peter Jackon, New Zealand is probably one of the more barefoot-friendly countries (despite problems with Air New Zealand).
So, what happens when you mix in a stereotypical “Ugly American”?
Our story begins when Erin Mackie, and American working as a lecturer at Canterbury University in Christchurch wrote a letter to the New Zealand Listener, a news weekly.
Here is what she wrote, published in the June 17, 2006 issue:
The none-too-subtle analogy suggested in Bradford’s Hollywood (June 3) between Texas’s death penalty and its policy barring barefooted customers in grocery stores reveals a startling and, I have to say, chauvinistically Kiwi misunderstanding of public hygiene and the public policies instituted by many countries to protect public health.
First, unlike in the case of the death penalty, there is in the US a nationwide consensus against the filthy practice of going barefoot. Bare feet are barred in all public places in the whole of the US, not only in Texas. You cannot attend school, you cannot go to the shops, the library, work – anywhere – if you walk in with feet contaminated with the detritus of the public street: tubercular phlegm, faecal matter and its attendant parasite population, mud and dirt pure and simple.
That New Zealanders so often do go barefoot on the public street and in public places, I am afraid to say, is one of the few customary practices here that seem not only backward and uncivilised, but dangerously unhygienic and repulsive to North Americans.
What a wonderful steaming pile of . . . ignorance.
Of course, as readers of this blog know, there really is no public hygiene reason to ban bare feet. In fact, those who go barefooted aren’t particularly susceptible to shod diseases like athlete’s foot, or various shoe-related foot deformities. Then she compounds her error by referencing “public policies” on bare feet, not realizing that they are myths that she is now perpetuating.
“Filthy practice”? There may be a nationwide consensus (though, I suspect, it is less than she thinks), but bare feet are most definitely not barred in most public places. And her litany of things that might be on feet (and spread thereby), could also be on shoes. As long as I’m not eating with my feet, or picking my nose with my feet, what does it matter?
And then she has the effrontery to call the New Zealanders backward and uncivilized. No, they are probably demonstrating a higher degree of civilization (and most definitely demonstrating a higher degree of politeness). And if bare feet are repulsive to some North Americans, then those North American idiots should be castigated.
Reaction to her letter was swift.
One of the replies in the next issue was from a guy named David Hirst from Auckland:
I doubt I am alone in hearing a nationwide hoot of derision in response to Erin Mackie’s letter (June 17), particularly in reference to the unhygienic nature of bare feet. May I ask what it is about feet (American or otherwise) that make them more likely than shoes to transport “the detritus of the public street”? Might I suggest that the true nature of any barefoot ban is less about hygiene and more about the inevitable grievous injury that would result if a shoeless individual were to traipse carefree around another’s property. Fear of litigation, masquerading as a concern for hygiene, is something that would appear to many Kiwis as a truly “backward and uncivilised” attitude. Best keep that one in North America.
It was nice that he hit the fact of what was on shoes, along with a small derisive snort at American fear of litigation.
There were other replies, like this one from Julianne Leggot of Wellington.
Perhaps Erin Mackie was just jerking our chain (as Americans say) about the evils of bare feet. Still, such nonsense can’t be allowed to stand (sorry).
I don’t know about Americans, but most New Zealanders wash their bodies (including feet) far more often than they wash their shoes. So even dirty feet are cleaner than shoes. I can only conclude that the wearing of shoes is a “dangerously unhygienic and repulsive” practice.
And this one, from Phillipa Neads, of Auckland, also makes the point about shoes being equally in contact with faeces, and near food.
I do agree a customary practice that is “dangerously unhygienic and repulsive” is becoming more frequent in New Zealand. I regularly see children standing in supermarket trolleys, in shoes that have certainly been in contact with dirt and faeces, their feet right where shoppers put their vegetables and groceries.
And the following week there were even more, many again with a rather bemused response.
Here’s one from Alun Bollinger of Reefton, who stresses one of our arguments about connecting with nature.
Public hygiene indeed.
Since most westerners walk in and out of shops, libraries, doctors’ surgeries and homes without taking their shoes off at the door, I cannot for the life of me understand Erin Mackie’s concern (Letters, June 17) over people choosing to go barefoot.
Going barefoot keeps one in touch with the earth we walk on.
Too many people living in the so-called civilised western world are out of touch with the world they live on. We are obsessed with hygiene to the point where we’re endangering our civilised selves and the planet with the overuse of chemical cleaners. Noting the reported rise in allergies among children of the western world, I suspect our insulation from “natural” dirt tends to weaken our immune systems.
Frankly, I’d rather walk in dirt, and even eat good healthy dirt as good healthy children often do, than breathe in chemical cleaners or eat off a table wiped down with bleach.
And here is Mike Zandvoort of Christchurch.
I must confess that I’ve been known to nip into the dairy on a summer’s day for a popsicle myself, barefoot and unconcerned for the greater public health, blissfully ignorant of the public menace lurking between my unfettered phalanges. I recall seeing a couple of foreign gentlemen observing a barefoot teen in the supermarket, causing one to mutter perplexedly, “I do not understand this – surely New Zealanders can afford shoes?”
The only people exposed to danger must be the barefoot themselves, dragging all this filth back to their own houses. It is a risk I, as a backward Kiwi, will continue to take, and may I be so bold as to suggest that our upset friend should throw caution aside and experiment with this wild and crazy behaviour, one summer’s day. Only in the name of research, you understand.
What a great set of responses to Erin Mackie’s letter which was replete with, not only cultural insensitivity, ignorance of health.
In Part 2, I will go on to finish this story.