• "As I started lifting, I remembered the Vietnamese women who displayed strength in my family." (Unsplash, Alora Griffiths)
As I started lifting, I remembered the Vietnamese women who displayed strength in my family, carrying heavy baskets of produce to sell at market, carefully balanced on a gan.
Lieu-Chi Nguyen

21 Jun 2019 - 8:41 AM  UPDATED 21 Jun 2019 - 9:58 AM

I should be good at squatting because I am Asian. My people are known to be as stable as a mountain in that position, with our heels down instead of teetering on tip-toes, so as to not fall down squat toilets.  But inside the squat rack of the Epping Crunch Fitness, with a 20kg bar on my back, my legs wobbled.

‘No,’ my partner Charlie explained. ‘You’re not doing it right. You just sit down as if you’re going to the toilet. It’s the most natural movement in the world.

I turned my attention from Charlies’ scent of Old Spice cinnamon and hot rocks to my own body. ‘What like this?’ I squatted down. In the mirror I looked like a daddy long leg spider hanging onto its web. I tried to push up from the squat but found I was stuck. The bar rolled behind me with a loud clang before Charlie could catch it and my arse hit the rubber lined floor. Charlie made me practice sitting up and down on a step-class block for the rest of our gym session. I was the skinny-fat gym neophyte rather than his new girlfriend.

At the end of the hour, Charlie stood in front of me and tapped figures into his iPhone calculator while I stared, exhausted at the blond hairs on his bulging thighs. ‘I think you could do that,’ he muttered before giving me the challenge. In six to nine months, it would be possible for me to squat more than my body weight: 60 kg.

The consistent message I got about exercise was that it only had value in relation to my attractiveness. 

I had started my health kick around a year before. I was living with two other junior doctors, Neesha and Mel at the time. Mel was a fitness junkie who followed her daily fitness classes with cookie-flavoured protein shakes. It was my Mauritian-Indian flatmate Neesha who caved first by downloading a calorie counting app. Intrigued at the thought of looking “healthier” i.e. “toned” like the cover models on Women’s Health Magazine, I started tracking my food too. The three of us spent hot Sydney afternoons following a Michelle Bridges’ Booty Blitz DVD that Mel had found in an op shop, doing star jumps on the shiny timber floors of our shared suburban house, occasionally covered by thin Kmart yoga mats.

But despite my full knowledge of the World Health Organisation’s recommendation for us to do at least two and a half hours of exercise a week, within a fortnight, I went back to just walking my dog and eating Oportos three times a week. I was slim and my last cholesterol level was ‘beautiful’ according to my GP, so why try?

Growing up with older Vietnamese parents, my relationship to fitness had always been uneasy. When I was in Year 3, I made it onto the school softball team. I took home the permission slip, my hands sweating with excitement.

‘What is this softball’? asked Ba, his potbelly sticking out from under the white T-shirt that he tied up like a tank top during summer. Ba made all the decisions in our household. I was just about to explain the rules and how I made it to third base with just one bat, when he cut me off. ‘It sounds dangerous. Just stay at school. Your shoulders are already big from the monkey bars.’

Ma, listening from the kitchen where she was slicing bitter melon, added that she was worried I would get too dark playing in the sun and look like a poor fieldworker.

The scientific literature backed me showing women have a better body image if motivation is focused on function rather than appearance.

The consistent message I got about exercise from family and mainstream fitness was that it only had value (or detriment) in relation to my attractiveness. 

All I knew about weightlifting was that hyped-up dude-bros on steroids and the former twink-turned-muscle-head participated in that kind of gym culture. But Charlie, a self-confessed bro lifter from Bumble, introduced me to actual bro-lifting on our first date. He told me that you could dead lift your own body weight within a few weeks of training. He talked of seemingly impossible feats of strength like he himself being able to bench twice my size. I was impressed because feats of strength felt like the closest thing human beings could get to super powers. Then Charlie pulled out his phone to show me petite women like Liz Craven and Wendy Chan who I watched deadlift over three times their own weight. I asked Charlie to teach me how to lift.

When I first started going to the gym on my own, I avoided the squat rack and bench press. These were often occupied by bros with huge pecs in string singlets who smelled like Lynx Africa. If the squat rack wasn’t taken up by Brawn Bros they were being used by couples bonding over hip thrusts like some sadomasochistic porn clip (grunting included). Within a few weeks I had gone from using a fixed 10 kg barbell to squatting a 30 kg one.

From then, the squat rack became a necessity for my goal of a 60 kg squat and my joy was adding another 5 kg to the bar every week. With lifting, my body was not something that had to look good, but a machine I had to train and nurture. My obsession with strength may have started with wanting to exceed my Anglo-Celtic boyfriend’s expectations, but what maintained my 3 - 4 weekly gym trips was a feeling of personal pride in getting stronger and fitter as the numbers on the plates grew.

The squat rack taught me to respect my body in a way that my traditional parents and mainstream fitness media never could. 

Being stronger was also helpful in my regular life. I no longer had any problems opening a salsa jar. For the first time in my life, I understood what an endorphin high was. The scientific literature backed me showing women have a better body image if motivation is focused on function rather than appearance.

As I continued lifting, I began to remember the Vietnamese women who displayed strength in my family: my grandmother, aunties and even mother before she emigrated, often walked kilometres to the local markets, carrying heavy baskets of fruit and vegetables to sell, all balanced on a gan (carrying pole). I remembered historical figures like the Trung sisters, who mustered armies and rode elephants and Phung Thi Chinh, who went into combat carrying a newborn that she delivered on the front line. As a child I was kept wide awake during bedtime stories that were filled with women who rode tigers and labored in the fields to support their families.

It’s been a year since I began bro lifting. I’m still gunning for that 60 kg lift. That hunk of metal inside the squat rack has taught me to respect my body in a way that my traditional parents and mainstream fitness media never could.

The article is part of a collaborative series by SBS Life and Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement which is devoted to empowering groups and individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds through training and employment in creative and critical writing initiatives. Sweatshop is directed by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

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