Towards the End of a Story

Dear Jessie,

You know me, you know that I am usually pretty good at not thinking about things that I can’t change, things like the idiocy of people and time passing. (My motto in swimming: Your feelings are irrelevant.) But now I guess this doesn’t mean that I don’t think about them when there are consequences. It recently began to hit me more and more that the end of college will mean real change, for the first time in a long, long time, and I might not be as well-equipped to handle it as I thought I would be.

Even though for now, I can’t even conceive what the days will be like after swimming season ends, in exactly a week.

I don’t even have that many friends at school, but the idea of not having them around in a ten-minute radius was the first truly frightening thought.

Long-distance friendship has it easy in this respect. We never have to make the transition from physical to virtual because it has always been virtual. Nothing is hard once you get used to it. But meanwhile.

Am I being too sensitive? Maybe normal people have already experienced this once at the end of high school.

I try not to think about markers: the last test set (even though I hate test sets), the last Wednesday practice, the last Saturday morning practice, the last cool-down, the last shower.

But still I was a little regretful when I missed practice this morning because I was too sick to get out of bed. Afterwards, C— texted me to say they were going to Park Place for bagels. I thought that might be my chance to somehow still participate in the Last Saturday Morning. (Practically, I also needed to get my water bottle because I left it at D—’s a few days ago, and motion sickness pills for Ithaca.)

I want everything to be forever or not at all.



Weird Day at the Pool

Dear Jessie,

Getting into the water was weird today. I was going to tweet this morning, When not swimming for four days makes your hair worse—I woke up feeling my hair was icky. I never thought I would get used to swimming every day to the extent that I actually look forward to practice every day. But that’s me, right? Won’t do it if it doesn’t give me pleasure, even on a perverse level.

But getting into the water today was weird. For no reason at all, throughout the warm-up and half of the main set, I felt like I would burst into tears any second, like my face just wanted to grimace and my body just wanted to cry. It was a new sensation, one that was completely devoid of meaning when it hit. So I said screw it. So what, if I don’t try today?

After the first couple hundred yards, the sensation crystalized: it was the feeling of not being able to feel my body. I couldn’t tell if I was swimming faster or slower than usual. My muscles didn’t hurt. My body just moved. There was something completely detached from the mechanism.

(The misleading, Cartesian question would be, does feeling belong to the body or the mind?)

It is really hard to tell whether you are swimming fast enough when you can’t feel the pain. Pain is a gauge. Pain either increases or disappears. Pain tells you about what you have done, what you are doing, and what needs to be done differently. Pain is the way you learn about your body and the way you learn to manipulate your body. Not being able to feel anything put me at loss: the way I would rather an aggressive lover than an indifferent one.

But then the paradox and the cruel thing about swimming is that the clock ticks the way it ticks regardless of pain. Feeling like your muscles are burning from a giant paper cut doesn’t mean that you are going fast (though more often than not, you probably are); the feeling of gliding through water doesn’t mean that you are swimming the equivalent of flying; the sluggishness after a longer-than-usual warm-up before a meet doesn’t mean that you will end up with a slow time in the race.

During dinner, my brother and I talked on the phone and I vented about my frustration during today’s practice. It turned out he also felt the same weirdness.


P.S. The hats came today! I wish I had enough cash on me that day and got you a hat! I feel like a dwarf can live in it.

Where did the time go

Dear Jessie,

It had been a hell of a week for the both of us. I had been dreading the meet today up until thirty minutes before meeting time when I finally remembered to shave. I dreaded it because it was a long-format meet where the even distances are doubled: instead of 50y and 100y events, I would be swimming 100y and 200y. I still don’t understand why I am put on as a backstroke leg for the medley relay. It is my weakest stroke and I am never confident about my turns.

The significance of today’s as the season’s last home meet didn’t occur to me until an hour ago when D— cc’ed me on an email to our don with a link to today’s meet results. The last home meet, in the American athletic tradition, is also senior meet, where seniors are “honored” because for having “withstood the test of time” (coach’s words). The honor felt rather dainty on my head, as I have only swum for two months. The four of us seniors received a little blurb from the coach, whose hardest job I thought must be to come up with something nice to say about kids who, for example, never shows up to practice and swims slow. When it came to me, he said something about it took me three years to get here (“I was spirituallywith you!”) and he hopes that I will keep swimming faster than I said I do. I couldn’t resist to say a line about how I will swim faster if he keeps forgetting about me—the last time I surprised him with my 100 free time was when he forgot to put me in a heat in a test set during practice. Everyone ooh-ed and he made a face that said “I can’t believe you are going to hold this against me forever”. But I think I have extracted enough comic juice from this blunder. If I say something more it will just seem petty and mean.

On my way home, I wondered if he (and my teammates) would be able to place me if I wasn’t the sister of the (second) fastest kid on the team. Every time I come out of a meet or a practice that left me with a good feeling, I wish I joined the team earlier. If I had started training again since my first year, I would have gotten much better times right now. (I see age 18 next to the names of swimmers with my time on the roster and the number breaks my heart.) I would have a closer relationship with my teammates and with my coach. I would have probably end up being a very different person.

But then I also know that it wouldn’t have worked out two or three years ago because I was a very different person and wanted different things. These four years could’ve unfolded only the way they did.

The on-going battle—what has so hard for me to adjust to at the pool at almost every practice—is still getting used to not being the fastest person in a lane, in a relay, on the team, in a race. I say “fastest” when I mean “being considered in the fast cluster”. Accomplishments had come to me so easily that even the idea of training and learning seemed more matter-of-fact than a conscious effort. My brother phrased it nicely when we talked about this at a meet: “Minimum effort, moderate results. That’s us.” It is a kind of asshole thing to say, but it is true. Is it luck or talent that we have made it this far in all the areas that we put minimum effort in and achieve good enough results—as a swimmer, as a student, as a writer, as a person? “At the end of the day, we are just against trying too hard,” I said to him in conclusion. He nodded gleefully. I never realized how much we are alike this way.

On my way home, I remembered what a big deal seniority was in high school, when I was on the field hockey team. The hierarchy of grade levels became much more democratized on this swim team. We are grouped according to our speed, and as a result, I always feel like a child at the pool, perpetually lost and preemptively seeking for forgiveness. There is one line from Leanne Shapton’s memoir about swimming and quitting swimming at the Olympics-trial level (she is from Mississauga!) that has stuck with me:

When you’re a swimmer, coaches stand above you, over you. You look up to them, are vulnerable, naked and wet in front of them. Coaches see you weak, they weaken you, they have your trust, you do what they say.

I had been wanting to read the book since it came out, and I finally bought it as a present to myself for joining the team. I am reading it slowly, allowing myself only paragraphs at a time lest I become too engrossed and begin to identify with a swimming experience that I never had. (I am jealous of the kind of relationship she has with her coach—”guardian, father, mother, boss, mentor, jailer, doctor, shrink, and teacher.”)

I got home, where the lights were off and it was quiet. I arranged the senior honor flowers in two beer bottles, put one in the kitchen and one in my room. I wish someone—anyone—for once—would ask how did the meet go. It is during moments like this that I feel the most alone. The only people who ask about my meets are my bosses at the alumni office.

The season will be over soon. It occurred to me, on my way home, what a coincidence that one of my happiest memory of Hong Kong was the swimming days, and now one of the best memories of college will probably be swimming on the team. Why couldn’t I have started sooner and had more of this? After college, there will never be a chance to swim in such an organized way that we get to be serious and young at the same time.


Long Drives for Wilting Leaves

Dear Jessie,

I like how you haven’t discovered these posts yet. I don’t know where else to put these; and I’m not sure how to bring them up. One thing we are usually very good at, though, is telepathic good-timing. So you’ll see them when you see them.

I was really looking forward to the camping trip to the Catskills with L— during October study days, but it fell through on the night before. It sucks to be the person who wants something more than the other person in a team effort. But L— was going to be the one driving two hours, so I didn’t want to push it.

Still, we were itching to get out of the house, and at last settled on taking a 60-mile drive north to Poughkeepsie to see if we would have any luck with the foliage. As soon as we slid onto the highway, we agreed that it was the right decision to drag our bodies out. The leaves that walled the highway were not completely maroon and golden yet. But the colors did become more and more varied as we went further north, almost like if we kept on driving we would be following a gradient and reach a place where the leaves would be completely titian. It is an incredibly calming luxury to have a whole region’s autumnal pastime being taking long drives to see wilting leaves. “It is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves,” Elinor, the “sense” in Sense and Sensibility (according to the commonly but reductively understood dichotomy) famously criticizes her sister’s raging sentimentality. But even Elinor would appreciate the beauty of this aimless pastime. It requires rather the exact opposite of passion.



We chose to end up in Poughkeepsie because the Walkway Over the Hudson is purported to be “the world’s longest pedestrian bridge”. It spans across the Hudson River and is almost two-mile long. People call it upstate’s answer to the High Line since it used to be a railroad track as well. We thought the bridge kind of cheated the title though, since it starts half a mile in-land—you can build a bridge for as long as you want if you can start and end as far as you want. The bridge just wasn’t so impressive when it sounded like we would be walking across the Hudson River forever. But I guess that’s the river’s fault now.



It’s funny that the last time I was in Poughkeepsie was four years ago when my mom, Jack, and I were visiting colleges. It feels, of course, so much longer ago than that, enough to make me briefly wonder what it would’ve been like if I had gone to Vassar. ?Though, one look at the drab town makes me glad that I didn’t. I recognized a diner called Alex’s by its sign and striped canopy as our car turned a corner. We ate there on the morning of my Vassar visit. The food made such an impression that my mom still sometimes brings up how she wishes I have gone to Vassar so that she could go to the diner again.

I was, in fact, very close to making Vassar a top choice, if it hadn’t somehow left me with a feeling of one of those convent schools in Hong Kong like Maryknoll or Marymount (never sure which is which), in spite of the intelligence it exudes. Plus, a red-bricked, historically women’s school is bound to please the mother and conjures unnecessary contrarian motivations in the daughter.



Really, what a luxury this all is. For a second, I even thought, Yeah, I can live here and do this every year. There are parts about America that are pretty great.

And to think that there used to be a time when even the Metro-North was so foreign, so full of possibilities, and so desperately wanted to be made into a habit.


Swimming Diaries

Dear Jessie,

Can I talk about swimming for a second?

School has started for a little more than a month now, and I think we can say some things have changed. You have meetings and shoots and work and I am tired all the time. But I was restless when the school year started. I was happy all the time, which was embarrassing to explain when there was no particular reason for it. I was restless and signed up to audit a fourth class—it was literally that: I felt like it was too early to go home after only one class on the first day of school and decided to drop by a professor’s office to ask about his class. It is material that I love, 18th century women writers, which sends my adrenaline level off the chart before each class.

But I also knew, all that jouissance is not joy. It is not the love for life, only the precarious bliss of living. This restlessness will eventually crash.

I guess you could say I found the brake in time and it saved me from crashing. (What would crashing look like? Giving up? Regressing to a subpar, self-loathing, uninterested self?) I have started swimming again for a week now. It drains me and I crave it.

Your most vivid memory of me and swimming is probably those mornings at the end of the first semester when I would go swimming in the morning right after working on conference papers all night. I almost forgot about them, but that was probably the same manic energy that got me into the pool again this time. For three years, my friend never stopped asking me to join the school team. I finally said yes this time.

On the first day of practice, we met in the locker room and she said she was really happy that I made it. “Did you have a bet with someone?” I joked. “I had a bet with myself! This is like a personal victory for me.” I feel overdramatic to say “she got me into the pool again”, but she did, and I am grateful.

Do you also remember that I did try to swim regularly again in our first year? I thought I could pick it up again as a discipline, after four years of hiatus. I tried to swim three times a week for six weeks for PE credit, and that was when my friend took notice and first asked me about joining the team. I couldn’t commit to the idea of a team yet, but I signed up for a once-a-week swimming class in the spring, reasoning that being in a class that earns me credit would be incentive enough for discipline.

I stopped showing up after three classes. It was as easy for me to show up as it was not to. I also grew weary of the whole routine of getting wet, having to shower at school, and getting dressed again. Instead, I ran on the treadmill for the rest of the semester.

And you know I hate running.

When I think about how did I get from person I used to be to here, I think about the flight from Hong Kong to California on my twelfth birthday. I am never sure whether I really had a choice or my parents made it seem like I did, but on so many levels, it seems like my life has been existing as a consequence to that decision: Before and after America, before and after childhood, before and after my most meaningful face-to-face relationships, before and after being the most capable person I know.

(That was also around the time we met. So here’s another organizational principle: before and after you.)

Sometimes, I want to scream, I used to have a life! Like it was okay if that plane crashed; like I have been living an afterlife ever since.

Before: I can’t remember a period of time when I wasn’t going to the pool after school and/or on weekends. I came into swimming late and didn’t until I was in the third grade because I had an ear condition that kept me from being immersed in water for long periods of time. It was fixed after two surgeries, and my mom sent me and my brother to the swimming school in the neighborhood run by my classmate’s parents. I didn’t think too much of it. My dad, too, swims and likes water sports.

We swam three times a week, which was far from a lot for seriously inclined swimmers, but enough for us to win medals at school meets, and enough for the pool to make up a substantial part of my memory. The routine lasted until we left for the States.

There were several pools in the neighborhood where we swam in rotation. My favorite pool was the outdoor one next to the big playground (do you know which one I’m talking about?), especially on the nights during the colder months, when there were only a handful of us kids swimming, one or two coaches on the deck, and a handful of other swimmers. By eight o’clock, there would be only the few of us left. Being underwater was even clearer than during the day because of the contrast between the velvety dark land and the lights in the pool. The usual aesthetic and sensational ecstasy of pulling a stroke under water as if breaking through liquid glass was heightened and felt as if in slow-motion. We indulged in the generous blue of the water, of the night sky, of the cold, and of the mosaic tiles in the steaming hot tub with messaging jets where we relaxed after lessons, before being hurried by our maids to shower and head home for dinner.

The locker room at that pool was a treat, too, because it was dimly lit and underused. I used it like a private sanctuary for the post-swim rituals of showering and changing.

But for the most part, training was seldom beautiful, let alone mystical. More often than not, my brother and I would be dragged out of bed at daybreak or from a nap to a pool already crowded by whistles, splashes, claps, gasps for air, and shouts rendered unintelligible by echoes. This confusion of noise made me look perpetually lost in the pool. I would deliberately swim slower so that I didn’t have to lead the lane, because I often had no idea what the set was.

We ran into our coach, my classmate, and his mom when my brother went to swim at the outdoor pool again when we visited Hong Kong two months ago. My classmate’s mom, like how we began to notice people our parents’ age seem to have stopped aging, looked younger than I remembered her when I was 12. The whole effect was that it seemed like the world has been still and waiting for me to grow up and catch up to it this whole time. In fact, I frequently feel this way about the world after college, which is not-so-patiently waiting for me to catch up: get smarter, grow wiser, become kinder.

That night, I realized something: Swimming was probably the only time my brother and I spent together almost all the time. He spent as many nights at the pool as I did, and loved it as much as I did. We were always conspirators at the pool, either making trouble together or towards each other, depending on our moods (mostly mine). But even when we fought, we fought with the understanding of the fight as a show: a show of our boredom, our cruelty, our humor, our creativity, our bond. Nothing made us laugh harder than getting in trouble together.

He didn’t believe that I would join the team.

“I was like whatever when D— said she’s asking you to join,” he said. “I didn’t think you would show up.” Me neither. I didn’t blame him for not believing in me. I had given up on myself. Before practice started, I warned my coach how slow I am like a disclaimer—like an excuse.

“D— has told me all about you,” the coach said on the first time we met. “Are you better than your brother?”

I grimaced almost in shame, and half-joked, “Used to be.”

“You’ll be fine if you are anywhere near your brother,” he added, as if I was daring him to believe I am as slow as I said I am. Your expectation is setting me up to fail. Don’t do this to me.

I had to apologize about speed. If I’m not fast, what the hell am I doing there? This is competitive swimming, not water aerobics.

Two days later, I had the misfortune of getting a test set on my first day of practice. This means we swim ten 50m freestyle as if a race, with two minutes of rest in between each. The goal is to produce lactic acid, “the bursting feeling you get in your lungs after you finish a race”, and to record our times to check our progress from time to time.

At some point my lungs stopped bursting and I simply felt like a wobbly drunk when I stepped onto the diving block.

At some point, I felt like I was cutting through the water like a barracuda, only to come up for air at the wall and hear, “36.6”. That is defeat.

36 seconds for a 50 free was my best time at twelve.

You know what’s the coolest part about swimming, besides being a bra-free and sweat-free sport? Its pitiless precision. For a person who cares about life in a vague way, this artificial enlargement of time becomes an irresistible motivation. You can’t cheat in swimming: there is only time and yourself.

When I was twelve, swimming was simply something I did, and happened to be good at. I remembered desperately calling my primary school crush’s attention to the four gold medals I won at a school meet—I wore them around my neck in the afternoon and made sure they clinked as I walked back and forth. I never thought I would stop swimming. I thought I would always be good at it because I had always been good at it. The logic was, one does not give up what one is good at. At least that was the logic before.

There wasn’t a competitive swimming program for pre-pubescents in the first town we lived in in California. It wasn’t the kind of town where pre-pubescents train four days a week, play violin in orchestras, sing in a choir, read a lot, and are knee-deep in three other kinds of extra-curricular activities. In America, people generally pick one thing to be good at.

Is it America or is it just “growing up”?

If, at my most resentful, I imagine what life would’ve been like if I stayed in Hong Kong, at my second most resentful, I imagine what life would’ve been like if I had kept swimming. If there was any way—any way at all—that there could’ve been more consistency between before and after, instead of what looked like a recklessly clean break.

In the second year, we moved to a new town and there was a club team at the community college. I went along grudgingly. My mom didn’t understand: “You were desperate to swim for an entire year, and now you are throwing a tantrum when I finally found a place for you to swim.” Swimming wasn’t a privilege anymore. It was an obligation to the past and a source of incompetence. I was never among the top in the big tanks, but I was good enough to know that I had lost a year and 36 seconds wouldn’t last me very long. After a year, I quit.

I threw myself into something new and played field hockey for two seasons, before the sweating and the collective cheering became aimless and artificial. I was increasingly incapable of caring about defeating some opponents I knew nothing about. I began to crave for the solitude in an open lane. In an open lane, your body alone marks the before and after: behind you, the water is in splashes, bubbles, ripples; in front of you, it is a calm and crystal-clear frontier waiting to be sliced through. Still water can be either inviting or foreboding depending on the number of laps you are on. It can also be both, at the same time.

I thought I could start fresh again as a nobody—disappearing into the masses was the only way I could cope with getting through high school, a conglomerate of test scores and obsessions about the future. I practiced with the junior varsity team for three weeks, swimming in the slowest lane. But then the question of entering meets came up, and at the same time, my coach wasn’t happy that I had to leave early every Tuesday to tutor an elementary school kid in reading. I quit before he kicked me out.

Every now and then I biked to the YMCA for a swim, mostly to show my parents I was exercising. On some days, I just went to the Target next door and showered becoming coming home.

I don’t know if it was swimming that haunted me or me who haunted the pool all these years—ever hovering, never committing. At the pool, I could always be the one with potential, but too little, too late. Is there a more pathetic source of pride than that?

Today, we swam a test set of six 100m freestyle. The first one was a blunder: my goggles fell off and I stopped to fix it. I used to have coaches who would yell at me for that, to whom I would sheepishly pout back in my best confused expression. I miss that, too.

Remember that first-year chick who asked me for college advice? The other day, I said I would tell her, “Labels don’t matter.” Today, I want to say, “At the end of the day, it’s all on you.”