Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan

Friday, April 22, 2005

When a Samurai Shines My Shoes.

My freshman year of college I enrolled in an intro to philosophy class. Like most 101 classes, this was merely a survey course—nothing more than a stone skipped across the surface of 2500 years of Western thought. I have long since forgotten the Pythagoreans and Atomists, Epicureans and Neoplatonists. My memory has said goodbye to Goethe, sayonara to Shopenhauer, dos-vee-danya to Descartes and ciao to Cicero.

Though my slacking brain deleted most of the data from that Philo 101 file cabinet—I still remember one article I read about moral relativism. The article, "Trying Out One's New Sword” was written by an ethicist named Mary Midgley. Midgley argued against absolute cultural relativism and proffered the example of an old Japanese tradition whereby a Samurai would test his newly forged sword by bisecting the first wayfarer who crossed his path after leaving the sword smith’s. Midgley’s essay basically convinced me that I had a moral obligation to speak out about practices that I find offensive to the senses and morally reprehensible. This is not to say that one should willy-nilly decry a cultural practice, ritual or tradition without first trying to understand and contextualize what’s taking place. However, I believe it’s OK to say that female genital mutilation is wrong, stoning a woman to death for cavorting with a lover is wrong and in Midgley’s essay, slicing a man in two in order to determine the sharpness of a blade, is wrong.

Admittedly, the above examples are extremes. And like most extremes, beyond them, lies a grayer, soupier area where the moral brooding bubbles and boils. So, what are the moral toils and troubles in Kyrgyzstan? Beyond the corruption, bride kidnapping and alcoholism—what do I find morally reprehensible?

Shiny shoes. Yeah, that’s right—I said it. Shiny shoes. Go ahead, laugh—but, obviously you’ve never been discriminated against based on the polish and sheen of your kickers (and don’t call them that if you come here). You don’t know what it’s like to have total strangers snicker at your scuffs, guffaw at your galoshes or laugh at your loafers. They talk about your tongues, reel about your heels and sob over your soles.

Entire lives are bookended by shoes. Boys as young as five, sit on upturned crates buffing their youth away on a stretch of road I call Shoe Shine Street. Shantytown shoe sheds with crenulated roofs rust in the shadowy corners of courtyards. These little shops harbor old, white bearded men whose hand painted signs declare them “Shoe Masters”. Wizards of leather, these men work their magic by resurrecting soles long thought dead.

When I walk down Shoe Shine Street, I can’t help but notice how the Shiners stop what they’re doing to drool over my dusty boots. Their eyes follow my footwear like binoculared little generals watching a battle unfold from a far. So entrenched in my boots’ potential for polished glory, the younger ones are never fast enough to take me prisoner. The bolder, brasher and braver teenagers order me to sit, “Meester, sit! Please meester, sit! Sit!” I march on and kick the dust, defiant and unashamed that I don such dull, smudged leather.

In Kyrgyzstan, you can arrive two hours late to a meeting about Development Planning and nobody will bat an eye, but you’ll be the talk of the town if you show up on time sporting a pair of un-shined round-toes. One woman, when asked what she looked for in the ideal husband, responded, “Clean shoes… I want a husband with clean shoes.”

Now I know that one might find a deeper philosophical, sociopolitical or anthropological meaning attached to her response. Defenders of the Samurai’s “new sword” practice justified the homicide of an innocent by contextualizing the tradition and explaining that it was actually a high honor to be cut in two by the warrior class. Defenders of female circumcision posit similar arguments about this painful practice.

Having said all that, I am here to tell you that worrying about shiny shoes is wrong. Worry about the trash piles that children play in, worry about showing up on time for a meeting, worry about how corrupt the educational system and government has become, worry about the rivers that carry away human waste, worry about the skilled workers who emigrate from the country…

After worrying about all of these things, if you still have time, please, feel free to polish your shoes…but don’t judge your friends or neighbors on the sheen of their wingtips. As for me, I’m going to keep wearing my dusty boots until a Samurai offers to shine my shoes.

Solefully yours,

Larry Tweed


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