The shoes I wore on the plane were black flats with a crisscross of straps near the open toes. They were my "sensible" shoes in Bangkok, as opposed to the heels that I love to wear, and they seemed a good choice for the flight--comfortable but with a note of frivolity.
On my first morniing in Beijing, I slipped them on out of habit when I went for a quick walk around the neighborhood near my hotel and to my delighted surprise, my feet were just fine. No hypothermia threats, no frostbite--there was a little nip in the dry air, but without the humidity that saturates Bangkok's weather, a temperature that would be sheer misery in that city was invigorating in Beijing. I realized that although I needed the peculiar hooded shirt/coat, I wasn't going to have to wear my clunky shoes, and my mood brightened.
And then it began. Every person who walked past me gave me a quick glance that stopped at my feet and stayed there. I looked at other footwear which was mostly boots, athletic shoes, and flats that looked somewhat like the ones that languished in my suitcase. As far as I could tell, in what was just becoming spring in northern China, I was the only person who was venturing outdoors with naked toes.
The people who looked with the greatest scrutiny were ladies who appeared to be about the same age as my mother, and they definitely looked askance. I began to grin at their expressions of bemusement, and when I did, most of them cracked up. One of them rode by on a bicycle, cast a quick glance at my feet, and gave me a thumbs-up, laughing. And I began to fall in love with people in Beijing.
For the three days that I was there, I wore my cheap little Thai flats everywhere I went. One woman told me in broken but serviceable English where I could buy another pair of shoes. The young woman in the Uighur cafe where I ate during every one of my Beijing days managed with pantomime and Mandarin to ask me if my feet weren't cold. Everybody stared and most people smiled. The old ladies giggled. I was enchanted.
The next time I go to Beijing, I'm going to bring several pairs of the highest heeled, toe-revealing, least practical shoes that I can stand to walk in, along with a couple of pairs of frivolous flats. And to any entrepreneurs who are reading this--I think Chinese ladies in working-class neighborhoods are ready for Jimmy Choo knock-offs--particularly those ladies who are sixty and older!