Firecrackers, dragon dance and red envelopes filled with money are all part of Chinese New Year celebrations, which begin on February 10th this year, but the most important ritual is honoring departed relatives who laid the foundations for your present life. I immediately think of my grandmother, my best childhood friend, and the big drops of tears rolling down her face when my parents told her we were leaving Taiwan and moving to America.
Twenty years later, I returned to Taipei to screen my documentary, Yours Truly Miss Chinatown, and found out something I didn't know about my grandmother. My aunt told me that my grandmother started to get her feet bound as a child -- a practice popular in China in the 19th and early 20th century. What usually happens is the adults bend your toes under your feet and wind thick strips of fabric around them so tightly that it breaks the toe bones and holds them in place. Then, they crush the foot further until the arch bone breaks and bind some more. The final result, after years of excruciating pain, is that the toes are bent grotesquely to the heel and you wind up with a jammed up, deformed foot that measures 3 inches long. I suggest you look up photos of bound feet on the Internet. It makes you want to weep, to see the violence done to women's bodies. Basically, you are crippled for the rest of your life and confined mostly to your house. The cruel twist is that bound feet were considered beautiful and classy, and nice girls had to have them if they wanted to marry well. My grandmother, however, refused to have her feet bound. She stripped off the bindings and refused to put them back on.
She was a rebel.
I knew about all this, yet I had never seen a pair of bound feet shoes up close. Then, last year, I set my eyes on them for the first time, in, of all places, a farm in the middle of Colorado. My boyfriend's mother had received a pair of them from her great-aunt, who was a missionary in China. They belonged to a woman she met there. They're made of green silk hand-embroidered with delicate flowers in gilded thread along each side. With their miniature heel, they look more like origami cranes than something that you walk in. It's a wonder they have held up so well, even after a century. They're works of superb craftsmanship, an Etsy fan's dream -- if only what went into them weren't so monstrous.
When I try them on, it's like Cinderella's stepsister trying on her slipper -- the toes are covered but the rest of my feet fall out of it like a beached whale.
Now they belong to me. It was an amazingly generous gift. I put them in a closet and on Chinese New Year, I take them out and look at them.
They remind me not to take my freedom for granted; freedom to roam, freedom to pursue my passions and just as importantly, freedom to make my own mistakes. Imagine a life where you can't walk far enough to even reach that fork in the road where you choose your own path in life. You never get to fully experience the adventures and mishaps that build your character and that teach you as you try, fall, pick yourself back up and let that process guide you to the fullest understanding of this one crazy, beautiful life you find yourself living.
I'm not saying that life is a cakewalk for us modern women. We are "bound" by new challenges (some of us are even in binders): biological clocks that tick while we're trying to navigate office politics and an unequal pay scale; dates that don't look anything like their picture on Match.com; images of perfect bodies in magazines that some of us deform our bodies to resemble; keeping up with the ever-increasing speed of our real life, while overloading on Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/Instagram/Pinterest/personal blogs and god knows what other new social networking platform will come next.
This is where the shoes come in. When I get lost, and when all of life's insistent demands get overwhelming, I take those monstrous little shoes out of the closet, look at them and let them guide me with their simple, clear message:
Just walk. Just. Walk. Savor every precious, unbounded gift of a step. Let each footprint be new.
Feel the warmth of the floor beneath your bare feet when the sun hits them; the spread of your toes in downward dog; the soft crunch of the soil on the hiking trail; the clatter of your size 1/2 Lady Janes against the pavement as they roam and lead you to those forks in the road, where you make those choices that will help you become more fully yourself.
Look, grandmother, check me out! I'm cranking up the tunes in the living room and doing a little dance in your honor. Just because I can.