In the summer of 1999, I joined the Peace Corps and headed off for China. Sichuan, China, 8,000 miles from home. According to Peace Corps files, I spent two years in southwest China teaching English at a small teacher’s college an hour north of Chengdu. My scrapbooks, journals and memory give those two years more texture, of course. There were village visits, banquets complete with ostrich cartilage and congealed duck’s blood, horse trekking expeditions, a week-long temple stay in the mountains on the road to Tibet and countless moments of confused desperation when my defunct language skills failed me…and everyone else.
Amidst all of it were the people. Chinese babies, children, aunties, grandpas, teachers, soybean farmers, doctors and everyone in between. I spent a good portion of my time with a five-year-old Chinese girl, Xiao Ting, who spent afternoons coloring pictures in my apartment, honing her artistic vision of a mouse flying a helicopter. I called on students so shy they shook when I asked them a direct question. My classroom had, typically, one pair of eye glasses per class, and the students simply shared them. I visited a student’s home village where I spent a weekend without running water. Each morning, the family would fetch water for me, heat it on the stove and set it beside a washcloth and toothbrush for me to use. It was so lovely, so heartfelt and tender, that the first morning I arrived in the kitchen and washed my face, I nearly cried.
Toward the end of my service, in a village deep in the Chinese countryside, I saw a woman sitting on the side of a road, a large basket strapped to her back, sewing. Her face was craggy with age and her hair white. Her gnarled fingers pulled a needle of thread slowly through a stitch and, with a sharp jerk, pulled it taut. She was making baby shoes.
I asked to see a pair. She laughed, reached into her basket and pulled out a pair of brightly colored shoes. I wanted them.
She sold me two pair of baby shoes and wished me a happy, healthy baby one day in the near future. Ten years later, I found the shoes tucked away in a box. Looking at them again, I remembered the woman who sold them to me, the village I walked through when I saw her, and the bus ride I took to get to the town. I wondered if those shoes were still for sale, and if the old village woman sat beside the road, her fingers flexed as she pulled the thread through the stitch one more time.
I went back to China this past summer, 15 years later, in search of the shoes. I took my daughter’s pair with me, pulling them out from my bag and showing them to friends, students and strangers.
“Where can I get them?” I asked.
There was always a long pause. Mostly, people shook their heads and said, “They don’t make those anymore. Those are village shoes made by old women, and those women are gone. The shoes went with them.”
But every now and then, someone would remember the shoes from a childhood and, in modern Chinese fashion, jump on a cell phone and call home. I had a lead. Then another. I took cars, buses, and motorcycles and, finally, walked into villages. I found old women with baskets, stitching shoes.
I met with, sipped tea with, laughed with and gossiped with Chinese village women this past summer, beside rivers, in markets and in their family homes. I asked them to let me bring their shoes back to the United States, and with more laughter and some stern negotiation, they agreed. The shoes for sale here are unique. Each pair is different from the next. No two are the same. They are made by hand, every detail, and they reflect the preferences of each village woman.