by Rena Graham
A month after I return from Singapore, my friend Ginene and I are slumped in her car in the rain. We’re lined up to board a ferry that will glide from Seattle to a very different island.
Bainbridge, roughly ten percent the size of Singapore, appears in front of us through a silvery mist. The gentle berm of green, sandwiched between the grey palette of water and sky, is dark and dense in a way that tells me anything with colour will be trapped underground for months.
Since coming back, I’ve felt something missing from my world, and I can’t figure out what it is. It’s left me with a sadness that occupies land somewhere between irritability and melancholy.
I anticipated what I would miss even before leaving. Socially, luck had been with me in Singapore, and I made close friends, regardless of the geography between us. Long weekends in Indonesia and Christmas holidays in Thailand; they are missed. As is my apartment, traditionally styled, so the breeze blows in one side and out the other, dragging orange-sherbet petals of bougainvillaea along the white tiled floors. I miss the smell of the tropics, so rich and verdant—birth and decay. Afternoon rains that drench me to my underwear before I can find cover. Waiting until the heat of the day dissipates to sit outside and eat laksa, chilli crab or nasi lemak. Even the sound of the sing-song “Singlish,” spoken by so many. All those things I was right about missing. But there is something more.
How had Singapore seeped so deeply into my consciousness? I’d only lived there for two years before my job ended, and hiring came to a standstill. Without a work permit, it was impossible to stay. This is the gamble expats make when uprooting themselves for an adventure in Asia. You can find yourself addicted to surprising aspects of life there and suddenly be forced to leave them all behind.
Lacking direction on where to go next, I was grateful when Ginene called, begging me to come back to the Pacific Northwest, a land she’s connected to, in all the ways I am not.
My gaze turns from the window to meet hers. “I had a dream last night.” Ginene tilts her head towards me, and I continue. “I was trapped in an Eddie Bauer clearance outlet, engulfed by discouraging shades of brown, dismal shades of green and more navy blue than anyone should have to suffer. I was a rare plant of some type being ploughed under by piles of dreary fabric. Fear of suffocation woke me up.”
“Yeah,” she said laughing a little, “winter can feel like that here. November is when we realise it will be four months before we see another change of season.”
“I should have come back earlier.”
“Yes, you should have. We had an Indian summer.”
I’d gone scuba diving in Indonesia, timing my return to the States with the arrival of my cargo. Two burly Chinese men had come to my apartment and assembled my worldly goods into a large cube in my living room. Like a giant Lego game, they’d filled hollow spaces to craft a slick-sided shape capable of being shrink-wrapped. And that cube had been crossing the ocean on a container ship as September’s water-loving maples and sumacs shed their red leaves in Seattle.
By mid-October, that radiant display of red against a backdrop of evergreens was over, the leaves turning to mulch as the rains pounded deep into the dark soil.
Then it hits me.
“Oh my God, Ginene! That's it. I miss red!” My emotions mix in a fit of laughter and tears. How could I have missed the fact that this is what I miss? Her head jerks slightly, a tentative smile working its way across her face. She lays her hand on my arm, but I can’t feel her touch through the layers of quilted coat and sweater. Struggling against her own confining rain jacket and gloves, she fishes out a tissue and tells me she’s never seen me cry before.
I wipe my eyes, blow out a huge sigh of relief and turn back towards the car window.
“Tell me about red.” Ginene’s dark curls frame her winter-white complexion.
“Lanterns.” I wipe my eyes and swivel in my seat. “You just wouldn’t believe the lanterns. They’re everywhere! And you never see one without seeing a hundred. They’re like rows of cherries hanging from the sky. And temples! Chinese temples, where every surface is red, as if they’ve been dunked, rather than painted. And flowers—so many flowers. Red orchids, roses, cockscombs, and daisies. Periwinkles, petunias, and violets.”
Ginene laughs. “It sounds beautiful.” A large white boat is slowly making its way towards the dock. “What else?” She says. “What else is red?”
“Tile roofs on the old buildings. Red entry doors—believed to invite prosperity by Feng Shui masters. Signage, banners, the national flag. Hawker stalls and street dining decked out with red plastic tables and chairs. Shanks of dried meat hanging in the Chinatown windows. At first, I thought they were firecrackers.” It feels good to laugh.
“And festivals! From dragon boat races to food and music and art events. During Chinese New Year there are red envelopes stuffed with money and red-robed lion dancers. The story told about the lion dance is that in ancient times, a beast called Nian rose from its mountain lair around the time of Chinese New Year to feast on crops. But if the crops didn’t satisfy, it went for human flesh. Soon the villagers discovered that Nian hated loud noises, fire and the colour red. So firecrackers, lit lanterns and red-robed lion dancers offer their protection from the beast.”
“And there are brides who wear lavish red outfits for traditional Chinese and Indian weddings. From across a park, they look like red hibiscus flowers upended on the grass. That’s my favourite flower of all. And occasionally, you’ll see Chinese funerals with red caskets.”
“Blood red. The colour of life itself. I see why you miss it. But it seems so odd to think of a bride dressed in red?”
“Maybe so, but think about it. Red is the colour of fertility, while white is the very absence of colour. In India, white’s the colour worn by widows to show they’ve withdrawn from their usual role in society. And the red bindi on the forehead of a bride is her sign of commitment. I’ve heard they even used to dip a bride’s feet in red water and have her walk barefoot across the floor of her new home to symbolise her new role.”
Throughout most of the Western world, red is associated with danger, passion, anger and even sacrifice, but in many Asian countries, it’s the colour of happiness. As the Chinese national colour, it also represents beauty, success and good fortune. Their philosophy relates it to fire, one of the five elements. The other elements of metal, wood, water, and earth surround me in the Pacific Northwest but the fire element, the colour red, does not.
Ginene cranks up the car and turns the heat on high. We creep along the route into the maw of the great white ferry. One of the first cars to settle itself, we jump out and race up to the cafeteria. Hungry from shivering and happy for the steam heat of the kitchen, we order platters of salmon burgers and fries. Tall cups of strong, black coffee. After sliding our trays onto the patterned Formica tabletops, we strip off our extra layers and slip into the attached seats.
I raise the salmon burger to my lips. The smell makes my stomach jump in anticipation, and once I’ve swallowed my first bite, I set it down and take a quick slurp of coffee.
“Oh my God, that’s good.”
Ginene wipes her mouth, returns a radiant smile and says, “Better fed than red?”
“Better red than blue.”
Rena Graham is an American writer and editor living in Canada. She is an alumni of the Writer's Studio at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. An excerpt from her memoir in progress was recently longlisted for the prestigious CBC 2017 Nonfiction Prize. She's also had pieces shortlisted in The Writer’s Union of Canada and Malahat Review competitions and has been published in various online literary journals.