December 2023 – January 2024
An open swimmer
I never meant to be a sea swimmer. I started by mistake. It was the worst possible timing: winter, lockdown, the year of the jellyfish. I’d been Zoom-drinking with two friends. Suddenly, with no warning, we hit the honesty stage of tipsy. “I cry all the time,” said Jo. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. The only thing I feel like doing is swimming in the sea.” I had a blanket wrapped around me to keep me warm enough to drink whisky in my sitting room. Without missing a beat, Lucy replied, “I’ll go sea swimming with you!”
There was a long pause. “I will too,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound too reluctant. I didn’t mean it. I was sure it wouldn’t happen.
To my surprise, the others set a date. We met at dawn at the Middle Park seafront, the only place where our lockdown zones coincided. The sky was grey, the sea was grey. I was sure they wouldn’t go through with it. After all, we were people who Zoom-drank too much. We weren’t sea swimmers. But the two of them grimly waded in. I edged my toes in. The water was glacial, so icy it made my chest tighten. They were ahead of me, still moving forward. If this was a test of friendship, I mustn’t fail. I was in up to my knees. I fixed my mind on something my mother said every time she went swimming: it’s slow death or sudden peril. Slow death was creeping up my thighs, into my bones, inch by inch. Then, a lurch into sudden peril. The shock of water on my face, freeze-framing my brain into white-out. I couldn’t breathe. Then I was swimming, and it was a revelation. When I got out, my feet were burning, my skin was humming. I couldn’t stop smiling.
That was the start. We began swimming a couple of times a week, hooked on the cold-water highs. A couple of months later, I split up with the boyfriend whose Covid bubble had granted me sea access. When I thought about it, it was like probing the edges of a wound, but the wound was inside me. I texted Lucy and Jo that I needed to swim, even if it were illegal. The next morning was the windiest day in memory. The gale had whipped up mounds of grey foam, like dirty, juddering meringues piled high on the grey sand. The sea was wild, six-foot waves walloping the beach. No one was in the water. We went in gingerly. Then we were jumping the waves, shouting, laughing.
Then we discovered Williamstown. The first time I swam there marked the start of jellyfish season. I was swimming with Jason Bryce, a laconic coach who runs Melbourne Open Water Swimming Club from his van in the beachfront car park. “There are a few jellies,” he said casually. “We share the sea. It’s fine. They won’t hurt you.” At first, they didn’t. They were tiny gelatinous blobs punctuating the water, sparking my skin with their tingles. When a tentacle whipped me across the mouth, Jason shrugged it off. “It’s just a kiss,” he said, as my lips swelled hot and shiny. By the end of the season, the jellyfish were head-sized, pink-tinged, like gigantic floating menstrual periods. I was terrified of them, but I kept swimming because I couldn’t stop. And fear is part of the addiction.
I began swimming with the Salty Slags. We can be seen at dawn in Williamstown, recognisable by our pink caps, emblazoned with loose, gossipy scarlet lips. We can be heard as we sidle into the frigid water, swearing, or shouting, “Nipples!” We swim out to the yellow poles denoting boating-demarcation lines, heading for the tilting pole christened Eileen, then looping around the straight pole, appropriately named Noleen. We sometimes swim to the hidden Third Pole tucked into the coastline, the clear waters of the Crystal Steps, the disappointing landmark of Pointy Rock, or the Jawbone Marine Sanctuary. Swim by swim, we are discovering a different geography of the coastline.
But more than that, swimming together feels powerful. Together we brave the jellyfish, the thought of sharks, the swash-and-tumble of washing-machine days. There are those moments, far out to sea, disorientated by the chop, when I lose my bearings. I can’t see the shore, I’ve been slapped in the face by a wave, I’m beginning to panic. Then I turn my head, and there’s a Slag beside me, holding me steady, stroke by stroke.
Several months ago, I was in New Zealand for a writer’s festival. I’d gone to talk about Indelible City, my book on Hong Kong, but I’d also been asked to do a panel called “Seeing Yellow”, on anti-Chinese racism. I’d agreed, though I told the organisers that I didn’t have anything to say about racism in New Zealand since I’d never been there. On my third day in the country, the day before the panel, I was eating spicy Chongqing noodles in a Chinese restaurant. A man with ginger hair on the next table was chatting to a couple nearby. Suddenly, raising his voice, he said loudly, “A good Asian is a contradiction in terms.” I turned round. He repeated it. I knew I couldn’t stay silent.
I asked him if he realised how offensive that was. “No one’s offended here,” he replied airily. “I am,” I said. “I’m half-Chinese, and that’s an incredibly racist thing to say.” It escalated from there until he was swearing at me. Then the blonde woman he’d been talking to, slurring drunkenly, asked where I was from. “I’ve come here from Australia,” I said, hoping she’d back me up. “Well, fuck off then!” she shouted. “Go back to Australia! Just fuck off !” As her shrieks got louder, her partner dragged her from the restaurant. I paid my bill. Then I went back to the man’s table. I was thinking that if I could find better words, then maybe I could make him understand. But the moment I began talking, he shouted over me: “Oh just fuck off! Fuck off!”
Out on the street, I felt confused, perplexed. I’d been at the writers festival, where we’d been celebrating the power of words, their ability to transport readers, to rewrite our world. Now, suddenly I’d been hit with the pure brute force of language, its ability to harm, its violence. In that moment, I was a four-year-old in the playground again. The other children had surrounded me in a circle, and I couldn’t see a way out. They were chanting, “Chinese, Japanese, Dirty-Knees!” I looked down. My knees were clean. Why couldn’t they see that? I didn’t understand why they thought my knees were dirty. Decades had passed. I was an adult, but nothing had changed.
The next day at the festival, I spoke about what had happened in the restaurant. New Zealand’s race relations commissioner, Meng Foon, was also on the panel, and suddenly I was front page news in New Zealand. Then people started attacking me on social media. I’d made it up to sell books, they said. Or I was asking for it. I shouldn’t have interrupted a private conversation. More distressing still were the people, many of them, who messaged me or stopped me in the street, telling me that this kind of racist attack happened to them all the time. My reality had split into two different worlds. These worlds couldn’t possibly coexist, yet they did.
When I got back to Melbourne, I couldn’t stop crying. I cooked for my children, I taught my classes, but I wept in my car as I drove to work or the supermarket. I made an appointment with a Nigerian-Australian therapist called Dare. I told him I couldn’t understand why it had hit me so hard.
“You’re grieving,” Dare said. “Your world has become small. And you have found yourself powerless.” Then he asked me a question, “So, Louisa, what is the answer?”
“Education?” I ventured tentatively.
Dare giggled. “Oh, Louisa!” He shook his head. “You cannot educate all the people. Just concentrate on what you can change.” The only thing that I could change was myself.
The next day was a swimming day. It was still dark when I met the Salty Slags bundled up in their bulky fleece-lined changing robes on the seafront. The sky was slate grey, the water was totally clear. We waded in, with the ritual chorus of fucks. The water was purifying, cleansing in its iciness. Slow death, sudden peril. My world was small. I only needed to think about the next breath, the next stroke, moving forward.
This story was originally written for a swimming salon at the Williamstown Literary Festival.
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