For some newcomers in Canada, adopting a new life includes adopting a new look and attire. But there are many social and cultural codes of appearance, and they need to be translated. Sometimes shoes play a strong role in this journey of transformation, even a funny role. As I went down that road, the shape of my shoes changed, reflecting my experience.
It is another morning of my first year of living here. It is cold outside of bed. I have to gather all my courage and ignore the cold breeze around my naked feet to get into the walk-in closet and stare at the racks of clothes and the few pairs of shoes that I brought with me to Canada. I need to find something to put on and get out. The problem is that I don’t know what. I have no clue what I look like or what I want to look like. I stare at piles of shirts and pants on the top shelf and a few pairs of dull black shoes on the floor and tell myself, “I did not come to Canada to dress in black!”
Back in Iran, that was all I wore. Long, loose, black coats and pants were my uniform. I had a couple of black scarves and shawls in different fabrics and sizes. Black linen shawls for daily errands were always handy. Black silk scarves with lamé borders were for a night out. Shoes were always modest and quiet, always black and always unattractive. My job as a reporter required me to stay out of the spotlight. As a female journalist, I very soon learned to stay even more in the shadows. That way, I could work with less trouble.
Here, in Canada, I have learned how to walk on ice and snow with a cup of hot coffee in hand. I step inside the subway car, get to a corner and start watching people. I need to observe, to discover and to swallow as much information as I can. I need to borrow a look, a look from someone like me. I study the people in the subway and try to guess what they do. How old are they? Which one is a journalist? Which one knows who won last year’s Nobel Prize for Literature? What do her shoes look like?
To my surprise, people wear similar shoes: the square-toed, the artificial leather, the roomy round-toe loafers, the chunky boots. Their shoes are all rugged and salt-stained. Maybe to make them more affordable, the shoes’ leather has been cut and stitched in many angles. Their hefty soles make them reliable on slippery roads. I go with the crowd. I buy a pair of square-toed loafers in “taupe distressed.” That is how the smiling lady in the store describes them. I am not even sure if I like them. But putting them on, I realize there is even enough room for my thick, warm socks. They are dull and won’t budge if I accidentally put my feet on a watery chunk of dirty snow. Walking in them brings another discovery: they pick up less salt from frozen streets.
And I notice something else that makes them appealing. I can hide my newcomer’s sense of insecurity behind their rough look. They make me like everybody else in the crowd, which is liberating. I can pretend I have been around for a while. Those shoes buy me some time until I figure out what I am going to be in the new life. They are my invisibility shoes.
One day I see Ellen DeGeneres on TV. I don’t like her boring jokes, but I like her look. I decide to borrow it. She wears shoes similar to mine. I shave my head and put on chandelier earrings. A friend politely advises me that I am sending confusing messages. Nothing wrong with the message, except that it is not true. I learn that even the free world has its own set of rules and prejudices. I cannot make my hair grow faster, so I abandon the square-toed shoes.
I walk to every corner of the city, sometimes in the wrong shoes for the occasion. I gradually find the places I have to go and meet the people I have to know. While talking to them, I still have my accent, like the desire that I have kept for square-toe loafers. I find a pair of shoes with the right accent. They don’t have the sharp right angles of the previous ones. But their slightly softer edges on each side denounce conformity. They walk the path with me.
MARYAM NABAVINEJAD migrated to Canada from Iran 11 years ago. She is a blogger and is launching an internet-based radio for Persian speakers of GTA.