I taught both my son and my mother to swim. My son, like many young Australians, started swimming early on, when he was a baby. Mum learnt far too late in life: over twenty years after we left Vietnam.
‘We were very busy and under such pressure,’ Mum says. ‘And it would’ve raised eyebrows if I asked around about swimming lessons before we left. So as I boarded that horribly overcrowded boat with you cradled in my arms, I couldn’t swim. Not even a metre. Oh well, I’m learning now. Better late than never.’
There’s a group of around 30 VietnameseAustralians at our local swimming complex who, like Mum and Dad, have come to enjoy swimming in their golden years. Some are boat people. Others came to Australia in the 90s under the family reunion program. A few were sponsored more recently by their adult children.
My parents go to the pool every day, sometimes more than once. Nowadays they hardly ever shower in their own bathroom. The health club is both a luxury resort and home away from home. On any morning there are members of the group chatting in a corner, relaxing in the spa or lounging in the sauna. For most this is the most leisurely time of their lives, reward for decades of hardship.
They gossip, encourage and console one another, discussing everything from the price of petrol to Cao Daiismto their grandchildren and corruption in socialist Vietnam. Recently, one of Mum’s friends brought a magnificent 1.5 metre homegrown gourd (bầu) that she proceeded to cut and share. On Australia Day I heard them condemn as disrespectful young people who wore flipflops and short shorts imprinted with the Australian flag, ‘You might as well stamp and shit all over it!’
Perhaps because they are so relaxed and comfortable, the Vietnamese are sometimes seen as threatening to the nonVietnamese. It’s never overt: a smirk here; a glance there; an occasional comment that can be plausibly denied but nonetheless smacks of ignorance, resentment, racism. For these people, the Vietnamese talk too loudly and too often. They don’t know how things are done. They don’t know their place.
In this regard, the Vietnamese swimmers exhibit three distinctive practices. First, a handful of the older ladies come to the pool with their belongings in a suitcase. The Australian side of me sees this as peculiar because luggage should be set aside for distant journeys. But according to another logic, ‘Why spend good money on a suitcase only to leave it in the shed collecting dust?’ The vali is in many ways ideal for swimming. There’s the ease and convenience of wheels, but also compartments for goggles, towels, clothes and toiletries. And upon returning home, one only has to flip the lid open and let it dry in the sun. With a toddler in tow, I have more than once considered the benefits of taking a suitcase to the pool, but am afraid that I’ll stand out. However, my position may well change as the luggage logic is spreading to nonVietnamese swimmers.
Secondly, a couple of times I’ve seen Vietnamese fellows who have just come to Australia wearing their underpants in the pool. For the established Australian, swimming in nothingbutcotton is odd and wrong. Loose wet jocks conceal too many budgies when they’re on and nowhere near enough of them when they fall off. For the migrant who’s fresh off the boat or plane, however, briefs are no different in size, shape or modesty to speedos and are much cheaper. Moreover, there’s no risk of exposure if you’re not diving or tumble turning.
Thirdly, a few Vietnamese practice exercises at the pool that originate from the old country. By this I mean the sort of hip wiggling, back slapping and thigh thumping that can be seen around lakes and parks in Vietnam. One fellow, let’s call him Thanh, is well known for marching around the pool with all the poise of a military man, trunks pulled high. He does a range of impressive poses, including an iconic crane stance as he’s perched upon the starting blocks. To increase his dexterity, he stands in the middle of the kiddie pool and tosses a plastic bottle half full of tea high up into the rafters and then catches it with the other hand.
With respect to exercise and other things, Westerners are inclined towards the straightest path and greater strength, which is why they follow that black line at the bottom of the pool. This is not the Way of the Asian, who favours balance and agility. Different strokes for different folks.
To say that the Vietnamese swimmers are distinctive is not to ignore the diversity and tensions within the group. One fight in particular continues to provoke debate over what it means to be VietnameseAustralian. It was between Thanh and another fellow, let’s call him Tho. The two of them exchanged stern and heated words, fuelled by the attention of onlookers. It reminded me of feuds that I’ve witnessed at markets in Vietnam that concluded with pieces of ripe jackfruit splattered against a wall or fish sauce bottles smashed on the sidewalk.
Both men have much in common: lone wolves, strong swimmers, proud but also humourless. However, Tho prefers to fraternize with white Australians. I often hear him almost yelling at them in the change room, his excessive volume making up for his less than perfect grammar. He has a full beard that would impress a Sikh, which he carefully trims before going to work. Tho is ruleoriented and bossy. He castigates anyone who walks in the lap lanes, especially his compatriots. Everyone gives Tho some latitude though because rumour has it that he lost his first wife and children to the sea as they escaped from Vietnam and hasn’t been at peace with himself or others ever since.
On the day of the big fight Tho approached Thanh, who had almost surely been bothering him for some time, and told him not to do his exercises anymore. He made a forceful case which boils down to three points: Australian pools are for Australian exercises; people laugh at him; and therefore laugh at all of us. Thanh responded with great fury, shouting that Tho, for all his bluster, was a slave whereas he embodied the Spartan spirit of his ancestors. Most importantly, ‘If we’re going to reject anything from Vietnam then it should be the idea that others can tell us how to behave, vote and exercise.’
Perhaps Tho and Thanh have forgotten all about that argument, but I haven’t. Sometimes, I can see Tho’s perspective which encourages newcomers to adapt to local conditions so that they can get by and fit in. But in principle I agree with Thanh. His way generates some friction and misunderstanding with others, but offers the prospect of mutual enrichment. His is the multicultural way. And while the ‘m’ word is out of vogue right now, I have faith that most Australians stand with Thanh most of the time, realising that to integrate into Australian society is not to follow a straight line, but rather to dive into a swirling stream and splash around a bit. And there’s also the fact that my son and other kids adore watching Thanh’s flying bottles.
́*Kim Huynh is a lecturer in international relations at the Australian National University. He is the author of Where the Sea Takes Us: A VietnameseAustralian Story (Harper Collins 2007), which tells of his parents’ lives during and after the Indochinese Wars. Alongside his academic work, Kim has contributed essays to Australian newspapers on politics and pop culture and has written a series of essays on AsianWestern relations for the BBC Vietnamese. He was the 2013 winner of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology's Ethnographic Fiction Award and a 2012 Asialink Arts Resident. In 2015 he will publish a collection of stories entitled Vietnam as if…: Tales of Youth, Love and Destiny which will be available in English and Vietnamese from ANU Press.