I remember once when I was 13 years old, I went with a youth group to an indoor ice skating rink in southern California. It was the first time I had ever been ice skating in my life. I clearly did not have my own gear, so I had to rent a pair of skates. I went up to the counter to get a pair when the man working there asked my shoe size.
I didn’t have the faintest idea.
I remembered hearing once that my father was a size 9, and at this point in my growing I was getting close to matching his height, so I figured that was as good a place as any to start. The man went and fetched me a pair of size 9 skates. I then went and sat down to put them on.
After struggling to barely squeeze my toes into the opening I came to the unmistakable conclusion that the skates were too small. I was a little embarrassed to have to go back to the counter and ask for a bigger pair, but what else was I to do?
I got a size 10. Still could only barely get my toes to squish in.
I went back and got a size 11. This time I was able to get my foot mostly in, but still couldn’t quite get my heel to get in.
I went back and got a size 12. I was finally able to get my foot all the way in, but I hadn’t even started to lace it and I could feel the circulation in my foot being cut off.
I went back one more time to get a size 13. At this point I could tell the poor man who had been going back and forth to the skate racks was getting fed up with me. I can still to this day see the look on his face as I asked him for a size 13 (when I had originally asked for a size 9). He was too nice to say the words (or maybe he just didn’t want to get fired), but his face said it all. He was clearly thinking, “What kind of idiot doesn’t know his own shoe size?”
I vaguely remember the experience of ice skating for the first time (if you could call my fumbling around trying to not fall squarely on butt skating), but the incident at the skate rental counter is burned firmly in my memory as a moment of complete and utter shame.
Of course the man behind the counter didn’t know anything about my background. Had he known more about me perhaps he would have been a bit more understanding.
You see, not 4 days prior to that event I had been on the other side of the world, in Kampala, Uganda, where my family lived and my parents did their work as Christian missionaries. It had been 4 years since I had set foot on American soil. Before that we had lived for 6 years in Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo), and before that we spent almost a year in Belgium for my parents to go to language school. Even though I was an American citizen (born in America, to two American parents) in my 13 years on this earth I had spent a total of about 3 years in the United States, most of which I was less than two years old and have no memory of. Needless to say, my experience with standard American shoe sizes was a bit lacking.
In Kampala when I needed new shoes my mother would take me to a place called Owino Market, which was an open-air market that sold everything from beans and rice, to hand-made furniture, to curtain fabrics. There were some actual “shoe stores” in the city, but none of them carried shoes big enough for my “big-foot” stompers. The Owino Market was one of the few places where we could find shoes large enough.
It was always an “experience” going to Owino. If you have ever been to a place that seemed to be total and utter chaos, and yet everyone around you seems to completely understand what’s going on, then you have an idea of how I always felt there. Zig-zagging through crowds of people, jumping over mud puddles, ducking underneath hazardly crafted rain shelters, having every third person thrusting some different form of merchandise in my face, all the while trying not to focus on whatever the odd smell coming from those sacks of what I presumed is some sort of food laying on the ground.
That was my shoe shopping experience.
If the shoes did have sizes printed on them, they were in the European system for which my size was typically in the upper 30’s or lower 40’s. But many times there were no sizes printed on them. You wouldn’t expect there to be on high class brands like Reboh’s or Nyke’s. More often than not, finding the right size meant my mother pointing to my foot and then a man rifling through a pile of shoes for 20 seconds before whipping a pair out for me to try on. If it wasn’t too terribly uncomfortable we declared success.
I didn’t explain all this to the man behind the ice skating counter.
I didn’t explain to him that I felt more at home in Congo, Uganda, or Kenya than I did in my supposed “home” country of the United States. I didn’t tell him that I was accustomed to a place where cars drove on the left side of the road, there was no such thing as an automatic transmission, and that a blaring horn was a perfectly adequate substitute for a turn signal. I didn’t explain to him that I had only just a day ago arrived in the US after a 40 hour journey on three airplanes, through four airports, across three continents and 10 time zones and that I was still just slightly jet-lagged. I didn’t explain to him that I really didn’t know any of the other teenagers in the youth group that I was with, having only met them the day before, and I was already insecure about feeling out of place.
I didn’t explain any of this to him. I just hung my head in embarrassment, took my size 13 skates (that I still wasn’t convinced fit me right, but was decent enough to manage for an hour of shuffling around on the ice). I then went to skate with the other teenagers, who I would have to make friends with, but after about a week I knew I would probably never see again (and I never have).
I guess the moral of this story, is try to not be too quick to judge. Whenever you come across someone that seems completely baffled by something as basic as their shoe size, maybe you should give them the benefit of the doubt. They may not be complete and utter idiots. They may very well be, but on the other hand they may have some good reasons for their apparent cluelessness. And the reasons might have a pretty interesting story.
Oh, and in case you were curious, my shoe size is actually more of an 11-12 wide. It seems I have freakishly proportioned feet with the length of an 11, but the width of a 13 because of my unusually stubby toes, so I was going to have a hard time finding a good fitting skate no matter what.
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