Shoes seem to have a way of defining us. Meant to protect our feet from the elements and harshness of the earth, they reveal a lot about us if you really think about it. The styles we choose tend to reflect our personalities, while the wear and tear tells our stories… where we’ve been and how we’ve gotten there. A little mud here, a frayed edge there, a watermark…. Look at your shoes. What do they say about you? What story do they tell?

Since high school, my running shoes have been an extension of my body. They have supported me, protected me, and seen me through countless miles in rain, wind, sand, and snow. They have been stuffed into backpacks, covered in filth, and left out in the sun to dry when they’ve been too wet and stinky to come in the house. I have cheated and used them for hiking or biking on rare occasion, but they remain loyal, always ready to add another chapter to my story. Take a peek at them and they will tell you a lot about me, as shoes tend to do.

My current pair of running shoes, about 375 miles old.

Tonight I had the unique opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes. Shortly after moving to Des Moines last summer, I started volunteering with a local organization that supports immigrants and refugees from all over the world. With my background in multicultural education and having worked with immigrants for many years now, I wanted to continue helping new Americans here in Iowa and thus became a mentor to a refugee family from Burma. I visit the family in their home every week for about two hours. Our primary focus is on learning English, but our activities have also included baking cookies and playing games. Tonight, however, was different. Tonight, we took a field trip.

It was a girls’ night, with the mother of the family, her friend, her two young daughters, and me. The five of us stepped into my car and headed for the grocery store. The mother of the family had never done her own grocery shopping since she arrived in the United States about three months ago. Rather, she relied on her husband, who speaks conversational English, to interpret signs and select the family’s groceries. My goal for the evening was to teach my women friends some new vocabulary words, work on a little bit of math, and introduce them to new some foods. As is typically the case with teaching, I think I learned more than I taught.

We started out in the produce section, identifying fruits and vegetables. I am always curious when working with immigrants about the fruits and vegetables with which they are familiar. Clementines were new to my friends, as were radishes, zucchini, and kiwifruits. We discussed the price tags and calculating costs based on weight. My friends stared at me in bewilderment as I opened five cartons of eggs to show them small, medium, large, extra large, and jumbo. Make that six… I forgot about the brown eggs.

We slowly moseyed through the supermarket, discussing the differences between margarine and butter, plants and flowers, and fish and shellfish. At the butcher’s counter, we looked at the fresh beef, pork, and chicken, some pre-seasoned, some not. One of the ladies pointed to the counter and asked, “What is this?” I looked past her finger and replied, “Those are olives.” “Are they cooked?” she asked. “Oh, they are not meat,” I said. “Olives are like a vegetable. They grow on trees.” Both women stared me blankly. I asked the butcher if we could taste the olives. He kindly obliged. I watched as my friends, including the girls, sampled the green olives. Their faces betrayed that they clearly did not share my love of the olive. Still, they had been willing to try it, and that made me smile.

We continued our stroll through the dairy section and the novelty of yoghurt, cottage cheese, and sour cream. All new foods, all nearly impossible to explain, other than a generic “these are all made from milk”. Around the corner to bread, lunch meat, cheese, and peanut butter. We looked at the different types of breads- pumpernickel and white, hamburger buns and bagels. One of the ladies, intrigued by the hot dog buns, picked up a package and put it in our cart. We wrapped up our trip with a visit to the personal hygiene section and the laundry aisle. In their best English, the women did not hesitate to ask me, “What is this?” and “What is that?” They took notes, careful to check their spelling with me. My cheeks had started to ache from grinning. I was so happy. We were learning together.

We checked out and I drove my friends back home. I walked them back to their apartment to make sure they got inside all right and wished them a good evening. Just as I was ready to open the door, the mother of the family handed me one of the bananas she had bought, while her friend gave me the bag of hot dog buns. They smiled and said, “Ms. Deena, thank you so much. We learn so much.” Little else in this world can melt my heart quite like that.

As much as I have traveled around the world and worked with immigrants, tonight’s experience was probably the closest I have had to being in someone else’s shoes. Watching my new friends as they learned new words, processed their surroundings, and peered at jars of pickles and packages of string cheese, I wondered, what must this be like for them? What must they be thinking? Are they overwhelmed by all of the choices? I could only think about how far their shoes have brought them, from Burma to Des Moines, with a lifetime of experiences in between. Their shoes tell a story of courage and strength, and I hope they know how proud I am of them. I hope they could feel my gratitude for the opportunity to walk in their shoes, even if just for two hours.

Thank you for reading!

5 thoughts on “Shoes

  1. What an incredible opportunity to be traveling abroad from home to your local grocery store. To share an intimate experience such as this with Burmese friends just a few miles from home in lieu of thousands of miles overseas, is a true blessing. And to have constructed this opportunity for yourself two hours every week, divine!

    What particularly struck me about your shoes is how clean they appear in this photograph, after all the wear and tear, you really cannot judge a book by its cover and I think that's perhaps what is so remarkable about you.

    May this volunteer experience and all these kilometers bring you joy, growth, comfort and challenges, keeping your life full, dynamic and optimistic.


  2. Wonderful post! I felt like I was in the grocery store tasting olives with you! (btw…I love olives too, but I think for first-timers it might be overwhelming. An acquired taste, perhaps.)

    And, I definiltely agree with Christopher…your shoes. Clean. I'm looking at the shoes I'm wearing thinking, “what in the world was I thinking?!?” Ha. They are comfortable, though.

    Best! Keep running, Deena!


  3. Deena- You are inspiring me to volunteer with refugees. I had a VISTA project with IRC and the members told me about new immigrants they worked with who had never slept in a bed or cooked indoors before coming here. I can't imagine the culture shock.

    Thanks for sharing. jq


  4. Thank you for the kind words, everyone! I love working with my family- it is so rewarding and humbling.

    Chris and Jessica- I think my “clean” shoes (trust me, they don't smell as clean as they look!) show that I am a road runner, at least lately. My shoes don't stand a chance at looking like that when I run cross country races.

    Jane- keep me posted; I would love to swap stories! I started doing it in part as a way to keep in the loop with education. I really miss teaching sometimes.


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