My Red Underwear

New Year's present to me

I only spent a couple of hours with Y during my Chinese New Year’s trip to Shanghai. As we said good-bye, she put a plastic bag in my hands casually .

“Here, this is your year.”

I opened the bag.

“Whoaaa?!” I burst out laughing, “You think I would wear these?”

“Well, but you remember this is the Year of the Dragon. You are a dragon. Last  year I did it faithfully.” She is a rabbit, a year older than I am.

“But you know I don’t believe in superstition.”

“I know but you cannot completely ignore it, either. This is a Chinese thing!”

The Chinese thing is that those who are in our “own” lunar year would wear something red close to our body to shun danger or misfortune which, as tradition says, would more likely happen and with severity in our own year. Men in the North would tie a red girdle in place of a belt, woman wear red underwear and socks. The fancy young generation nowadays would tie a red wrist band made of braided silk yarns. We have to wear these until our year is over.

“I bought them for you. You remember you cannot buy them yourself. That won’t work.”

I don’t remember who should buy them. But I do remember that the whole point of the red girdle or wrist band is to show care. People use them to tie/bind you with life symbolically. In plainer language: They want you to defy all odds to stay alive.

I know she cares. Y is my best and only childhood friend.

We met when we were 10. I still remember the day she called out to me from behind. I was walking on the dirt covered road which was in fact the roof of an underground shelter. Many people dug for months and months to build it. We knew that was the place to go if an atom bomb were to hit.

Like always, I walked alone that morning, kicking pebbles to entertain myself. I heard my name but didn’t turn around to look. No kid called me on the street. My grandpa owned a dye shop and our house. That made our family the class to stay away from during the Culture Revolution.

Y came up and said, “I know you. You live in the gray house of my class master (who was 11).” Yes, but I didn’t say it was my home her class master and her family moved into, because her dad was in the ruling class.

I found out she was living at the wet market not far from our alley.

I told her I liked her braid that reached her waist. I didn’t tell her she was the first and only child who initiated a conversation with me in middle school.

Since then, we met up every day on the dirt road and walked to school together.

We bit hard candy to halves and shared; we cut up fruit-scented erasers so we both could show off the most envied possessions then; we ate fish-head soup and sucked every single bone dry; we cried over romance books; we bad-mouthed our parents; when she dated boys, I was the cover; when I received love letters she read them; I went to college, she didn’t; we married; we had kids; we lived continents-apart for more than 20 years now but stood together on the phone lines when crises struck…

On this day, she drove from my hometown to Shanghai and handed me the red underwear and socks.

I took them; I wear them, for her.


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