March 22, 2009
THE EX-PAT FILES
No more fuss over flip-flops
By Nilanjana Sengupta
A few days ago, I finally joined Singapore's flip-flop generation.
Coming from a culture where flip-flops are given the sacred status of 'slippers that can be worn only at home or indoors', I have always wondered how people here can wear them on the road and on the MRT.
In India, we call them 'Hawaii chappals' and every family member usually has a pair of his or her own. Some homes have an extra pair for guests to change into when they come visiting.
People prefer to wear sturdier shoes when going out because the Hawaii chappals are not built to withstand the rigours of Indian roads.
Besides being delicate, they also look ultra casual and do not do a five-foot-nothing woman like me any favours with their flat-as-a-cardboard soles.
So, although I have taken to hor fun and black pepper chicken pau, and end my sentences with 'lah' more frequently, I did not think I would succumb to the Singaporean tradition of wearing flip-flops outdoors.
It all began when my shoe snapped for the umpteenth time while hurrying to the office.
It usually happens at that critical point when I am walking down a slightly sloping pavement, with about three minutes to go before I reach the office gate.
It is a crucial place because from there I can see the gate - it is tantalisingly close - but to reach it I would have to take 200 steps or more - too much for someone wearing a broken shoe.
There is no shade there, no shops to distract other passers-by, and no trees I can hide behind and compose myself.
Twice, my colleagues came to my rescue with spare shoes and slippers that they happened to have in the office and which happened to fit me.
But that was after I suffered agonising minutes hobbling on the pavement, across the road, up the stairs, into the building, and to the elevator till I reached the floor I work on.
All that time I try to walk with my head held high, staring back steadfastly at people who give me curious and, god forbid, amused looks.
I have often wondered why this happens to me time and again.
Maybe it is to do with my habit of buying shoes and hoarding them for months and years till they start to disintegrate. So when I finally wear them one fine day they snap at the slightest pressure.
Anyway, all my experience with the 'art of how to manage yourself when your shoe breaks in the middle of the road' did not prepare me for the events of a few days back.
This time, the incident occurred a couple of minutes after I left the office.
The rain was coming down fast and I had two options:
One was to turn and hobble back to the office, whose gate was nearby and yet so far. The other was to keep walking and locate a cobbler who could provide me with the dignity I needed to see myself home.
I chose the latter.
I walked along valiantly and finally spied a man sewing a shoe under a staircase of an HDB building.
I pointed to my sandal which by now was resembling two pieces of soggy cardboard held together by a thread. The sole had come off and urgently needed some super-fast glue to paste it to the rest of the shoe.
To my utter disappointment, the cobbler took one look at them, shook his head and pointed behind me.
When I looked back at him quizzically, he said: 'Cannot. Go shop, have shoe.'
And that is how I came to be wearing the pretty red rubber flip-flops with white flowers that went so well with the red and white dress I was wearing that day.
The shopkeeper from whom I bought the flip-flops gave me a sympathetic smile and a plastic bag to put my beyond-repair sandal and its pair.
Outside, I faced the world with a new defiance that said: 'I am one of you, so don't even dare to look at me funny.'
And nobody did, not even though the colours of my new flip-flops screamed 'look at me'.
In them I felt light and floaty. And ultra casual.
I now get why Singaporeans like wearing flip-flops everywhere. They are comfortable, they come in a variety of colours, and it is like wearing nothing on your feet - a liberating and laid-back feeling.
It is a feeling I could definitely get used to.
The writer is assistant editor on The Straits Times' Foreign Desk. She has been in Singapore for one and a half years.