Innocent Sneakers. Bleached white with pristine edges and crinkleless shoelaces. Stitched by the weathered hands of a worker who would never know sleep but only fatigue. The rubber soles thick, never having left to walk the streets of a concrete jungle coined “Planet Earth.” The final touch before their great journey to America, the simple words, “MADE IN CHINA.”
Adolescent Sneakers. Lightly weathered by Kentucky’s winter snow and spring rains. Speckled by hamburger grease and Coca-Cola from football games. Sand from the beaches of Florida to the shores of Maine wedged in the waffle soles. English words carved across the rubber. The canvas soaked with songs by Otis Redding and The Beatles.
Adventurous Sneakers. Squished next to Chinese adapters, IDs, and travel journals. Sitting hundreds of feet above the sky, soaking up the clouds and atmosphere of the Pacific.
Arrived Sneakers. Laced up and ready to go, sneakers that will never look the same, sneakers that have returned to the place they became.
A China where despite the difference, love is formed through a single greeting, and brotherhood through a single meal.
Beijing Sneakers. The ground these sneakers step upon is o’ so foreign, but o’ so familiar. The air in Beijing so thick, but so real and invigorating. These sneakers fall on uneven stairs, on cobblestone older than China itself. They look beyond a wall and see more beauty and culture than any sneaker had before. They become unlaced as cultures collide and they open themselves to a China that is never described as it should be in history books. A China full of different shoes, of all different sizes, in all kinds of conditions. A China where despite the difference, love is formed through a single greeting, and brotherhood through a single meal. Sneakers tainted by watercolor paint from kite-making with young souls in learning places named after brave warriors.
Sneakers stained by dipping sauce to go with a Tofu so potent it is pleasant to the tongue. Spray paint drifts onto the sidewalk from the street corner art, dying a waffle sole blue. Completely and utterly loved sneakers by a university that aged them well.
Hangzhou Sneakers. Wet sneakers, dampened by the river that fueled a city so rich in culture and romance it wrote songs and playbills. Lucky shoes that saw dragons and turtles that gave them hope and promise. Bravery soaked into the sneaker’s lip and even into the neighboring socks from stories of powerful leaders and Olympic Games. A peace sign found itself on the heel of one sneaker, with the stories of universal peace birthed in this very place.
Shanghai Sneakers. Stylish sneakers, enriched by the colliding cultures and endless trade. Sneakers with matching shirts, pants, jewelry, and hats due to the array of shops, small and large, full of goods. Some Arabic, Russian, and Japanese found their way onto these sneakers as all the world’s people collide in one dining place.
Refined Sneakers. These sneakers made it back to America. They continue to circle the globe, but altered. They do not strut as they once did, they do not make themselves up to be what they are not, and they do not keep to themselves. This pair of sneakers is tainted, but not by an ick, but instead by a priceless gift. They are not ruined by where they’ve been, but enriched by what they’ve done.
Thank you for showing me a world full of pain and sorrow, but a world full of love and peace.
I am not writing today to give an eloquent speech or to win a prestigious award, I write because I am eternally grateful for China. I am eternally grateful for the Confucius Institute. I am eternally grateful for planes. I am eternally grateful for schools. I am eternally grateful for life. Thank you for showing me what to live for. We aren’t competing nations and we aren’t competing people, we are one nation and one people. We are brother and sister. Thank you for helping me step off the tall pedestal I was standing on: I am not greater than you, I do not teach you, and I do not feed you. We are equal, we teach each other, and we feed each other. Thank you for showing me a world full of pain and sorrow, but a world full of love and peace. Thank you for tainting my ignorance and turning it into knowledge.
It wasn’t about what the shoes looked like, it was about going home, because home is all around us.