An American millennial in China goes retro (Long live Chairman! Long live the People's Liberation Army!)

February 21, 2021

In Blog Letters To Finkelstein

Finkelstein comments:  Recently, many correspondents have wondered why I was a Maoist in my youth.  That’s not so simple to explain and, anyhow, I still have ambivalent thoughts about Chairman Mao.  But that’s for another day.  Here’s an anecdote from one of my correspondents.  As it happened, he made it to China before me.  I never got to see The Promised Land.

Here is a funny story you’d enjoy of when I was in China: 
I was in Guangzhou for a couple days when I arrived in China. I walked all day all over the city and everywhere I went I noticed street sweepers cleaning up the roads with brooms made out of thin branches and leaves. I started to notice that most of the street sweepers wore the same shoes: A discreet, lowcut dark green shoe with a thick rubber track in the bottom. I have always had a taste for very simple shoes and in high school I would wear solid color vans and rip off the logo. So when I saw this shoe the street sweepers wore I couldn’t help but think, “This is the shoe I have always been looking for!” I searched high and low in every side alley and market in Guangzhou but could not find the shoes for sale (probably I just didn’t know where to look). As I travelled into the countryside though, I noticed more and more people wearing the shoe–particularly ederly ladies and men in these smaller villages who still wore the padded blue suit out on their evening walk. Finally, in the small but touristy town of Yangshuo, I was having steamed buns in this alleyway for breakfast when I spotted a lady sitting next to a pile of the individually wrapped shoes I was looking for. I went to her and let her know I wanted to buy the shoes. She was clearly confused, but upon my insistence she eyeballed the size of my foot and tried to find the largest shoes she had. To my luck, the largest size she had–28cm–fit me perfectly. I bought a pair for me and another for my brother for a total of 20 Yuan. I was so proud of the shoes that I started wearing them everywhere during my travels in China. I started to notice that in the smaller towns I would get these confused looks at the sight of me wearing the shoes. Some smiled. But most people seemed to be perplexed. Wang Peng said that he found it very funny and strange that I was wearing the shoe; he says that to young people in China they are the most unstylish shoes you can choose. He told me they were the shoes of poor people now. Upon my return home I wore them every day until they completely wore out. I still had the wrapping from the original shoes I bought so I searched for quite a bit on the internet until I found out that they had been the People’s Liberation Army’s stock shoe since 1950! Apparently at one point they were very stylish and everyone wore them. My good friend’s friend’s dad (grew up in China but moved to the USA; very rich) said he recalls wearing the shoes as a boy. By this point, I had been so proud of the shoes that it had never occurred to me that my appropriation of Chinese proletarian culture might be in bad taste. After some deliberation I came to the conclusion that as long as I wasn’t aestheticizing them or trying to make them into a fashion statement–that instead I was appreciating them for their pure simplicity and functionality, for daily use–it was permissible. In my own mind I feel like it is an homage to all the kind people I met in China and all the workers and peasants throughout the histories I am reading. 
I attached a picture of my shoes below. The ones on the left are the original shoes. The ones on the right I found for $20 bucks on the internet.