Reflections from the Bottom of a Swimming Pool

Actually, this post title is a bit of a misnomer. There weren’t any physical reflections at the bottom of the pool. Instead of having a sheet of glass stretched beneath its surface, the pool is outfitted with a dingy, off-white tiled floor that simply collects debris for lack of an adequate filtration system. Luckily, it’s piled up predominantly on the shallow end, where scores of Chinese students waded all through October during a sorry excuse for P.E. class. Their lifeguard “instructors” stood on the sidelines shouting commands at them—of which even the simplest could rarely be completed successfully. Most of the students here don’t know how to float, let alone swim. Swimming is definitely a marker of status in China. If you know how to swim, you probably come from a relatively privileged background, in that you had access to a swimming facility and the means to have been taught at a young age.

The lifeguards themselves are a gaggle of 30-somethings, who, in my experience, might just as well be older men who like hanging out at the pool. I have never once seen any of them enter the water. They wear swimsuits and occasionally robes when it’s colder and lounge on beach chairs that are lopsidedly perched at various intervals over the pool’s length. But they prefer to stay by the deep end, smoking, playing cards, and eating sunflower seeds, every once in a while taking a glance up to see the happenings on the other side. The reason filtration is so bad in the pool is because it is purposely not filled to capacity so that students have a less likely chance of drowning. The filtering turbines are located at the very tops of the walls of the pool and are in a perpetually dry state. As it is now, the lifeguards certainly have their work cut out for them—the water level just reaches my chest in the deep end and on the shallow side barely makes it past my knees.

Today, the pool closed early for the second day in a row—a combination of not enough students showing up that late, and the fact that the entire swimming complex was plagued with dense mist. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. By the time I noticed it, the handful of Chinese students in the Olympic-size pool had already gone and me and James were the only ones left, silently counting laps and staring at the rust on the white tiled floor. Standing on one end, you literally couldn’t see past the middle of the pool to anything on the other side. That half of the pool just dropped off from view, like a scene out of Pirates of the Caribbean during the ominous moment before an enemy ship comes into frame. Anne reasoned that this was because the warm air from the water collides with the cold air from outside that seeps in through the badly insulated walls to create fog. But rather than simply posting a lifeguard on the other side, or multiple ones at the intervals in between, the lifeguards opted to shut the place down, leaving the pool like Taigu in the early morning—a veritable ghost town, the fog reminiscent of trips to the cemetery in Flushing, Queens on particularly spooky days.

This newest setback was particularly disheartening because I had been diligently going to the pool all week, as this week, unlike in weeks past, I had a revelation. But first, a quick anecdote. I wear huge goggles when I swim—goggles that, if they were sunglasses, would almost certainly be in the aviator family. In reality, though, there is a very practical reason for why I own them. When I was younger, and before I could even swim that well, I became very interested in scuba diving, for which these goggles are ideally suited. My dad bought them for me and my sister in lieu of more traditional swimming goggles, and I have used them ever since. I can almost unilaterally guarantee that no one at SAU, and I daresay no one in all of Shanxi Province, owns these kind of goggles. Unlike aviator sunglasses, they also aren’t earning me any cool points with the ladies—as living in China has made abundantly clear. Recently, a female student of mine approached me at an informal gathering. Since practically all Chinese students spread gossip like mad about the foreigners as it is, she told me a story that she had heard about us. It was something to the effect of: the foreigners go swimming a lot and one of them wears these ridiculously huge goggles (which she demonstrated with her hands as if she were holding a shoebox in front of her eyes). Eventually I told her that that ridiculous-looking foreigner was in fact her teacher. But it’s like the old saying goes: the funnier you look in swim goggles, the better you do in real life. Or did I just make that up?

I have never been a good swimmer, and I don’t consider myself one now, but I think that I’ve finally had a breakthrough moment when it comes to the sport. My mechanics are better now than they have ever been before—I’m learning to keep my head low enough in the water that my legs stay buoyed and I end up relatively straight. This in turn, has made it much easier to get my breathing down and also has increased my endurance at least three-fold (I’m taking breaks every 3-4 laps now instead of after every one). My aviator goggles do present a bit of a challenge, though, in that their extra pocket of air tends to propel my head above water—like having a tiny swim float wrapped around my head like a bandana. But I’m learning to cope with it well, dipping my head under water after each breath and kicking my feet up so that they just graze the surface. Even my racing turns are getting smoother. I’m confident that if I keep up this pace, I will eventually be able to swim a mile at a time—a feat I never thought I was capable of accomplishing in my life.

Staring at the bottom of the pool, you have a lot of time for meditative thought, as unlike other exercises, there's no one to communicate with and almost nothing worthwhile to look at. And so, not surprisingly, I have been thinking a lot about blogging. Yitka, one of my best friends, wrote a great piece recently on why she keeps a blog, even though (like my own) it makes no money, can be awfully time-consuming, and has no real quantitative benefit in terms of a future career. She gave a lot of good reasons, most that I too would agree with, but I could especially relate to the last one: “It keeps me out and about, making the most of Seattle and my life, if for nothing else than thinking of it all in terms of being able to write about it later…Perhaps that's a good thing to aim for in life, then: a life worth writing about.” And it’s true. Keeping a blog in Japan and even at Oberlin forced me to do things that I perhaps would never have thought to do before—or at least would never have found the significance in to write about. Blogging makes it easy to share those things I do and find interesting with the rest of the world. Even relatively mundane activities like cooking or exercise became subjects of long, sprawling posts. I found myself hungry for new experiences, at times for no other reason than the chance to write in detail about them later.

In all of this reflection came a small epiphany. Oftentimes, I find myself bogged down—wanting to write perfectly about a particular event, crafting it countless times in my head, and taking days and weeks just to finish typing it out. This obsession with polished writing for some nebulous “posterity” has resulted in a few long and detailed posts, but ones that come without the spontaneity and newness of an on-the-spot thought. I have been in the habit of grouping experiences into broader categories, which I can then tackle completely as a full-length story at a later time. Sometimes, though, experiences are best expressed simply, without the fanfare of transitions or flowery language. It’s not to say that I will stop using them (quite the contrary), but I will try to be more flexible about what I allow myself to write about. For example, I have been very averse to shorter posts that consist of no more than a bulleted-list of observations, but I realize that in many ways they are just as valid. As my friend Xavier pointed out recently, some people will read long-form essays, but others who perhaps don’t know a person as well will just want to keep tabs on them by reading shorter snippets here and there. He cited the remarkable online diary of George Orwell as a prime example, and though I don’t plan to go into such minute details about my own everyday, a few shorter, more frequent posts would probably do this blog well. After all, frequent posts retain visitors better and shorter posts are more likely to be read to completion (anyone out there still with me?).

In short, blogging keeps me connected to the people I care about and also keeps me in the habit of writing, both of which have been made more difficult since graduating from Oberlin. I hope that in the same way that this blog recently underwent an aesthetic makeover, its content too will better be able to reflect those sentiments, especially as I head into a long stretch of vacation come January.

[EDIT: 12.21.09] I just completed my first mile-long swim this afternoon! It wasn't always pretty, and it certainly wasn't fast, but I did it! My body's been thanking me all night for it, too—even after two dinners and a late-night nap, I'm still hungry and tired. Plus, I'm waiting until the morning for the real soreness to kick in. Here's to the next milestone—two miles under my belt before my time in Shanxi is up!