Olivia De Zilva

Olivia De Zilva is a writer based in Meanjin. She was awarded the Deakin University Non-Fiction Prize by Express Media in 2019, shortlisted for the University of Queensland Press Mentorship Award and The Deborah Cass Prize in 2022. In 2023, she was shortlisted for the Richell Prize for Emerging Writers and 20/40 prize by Finlay Lloyd. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Westerly, Liminal, SBS, Cordite Poetry Review and Australian Poetry Journal among others. She is currently working on a full-length creative non-fiction manuscript.
Swimming Lessons

During the school holidays, we make the journey up and down the hill to the Adelaide Aquatic Centre every day. O’Halloran Hill is a long bus ride to the city and I try to pass the time by counting each McDonalds we pass on the way. There’s Flagstaff Hill with all the cars parked out in front, South Road with the massive Drive-Thru line and West Terrace where all the workers smoke cigarettes out the front and share bubble gum by the bins. 

Soon, we won’t be able to the Aquatic Centre because my grandmother’s, I call her Apoh, hips are getting bent like an old pipe cleaner because of the arthritis. The doctor told us that swimming was supposed to help her, but walking up the steep footpath from our house to the bus stop each day is causing her ankles to swell up like ready-to-burst water balloons. When we make the trek home in the afternoon, we avoid the kids playing endless games of footy on the sizzling bitumen so that there’s no risk of her tripping over.

 During the winter school holidays, when the Aquatic Centre is closed, we stay at home and watch the Hong Kong Jade World channel all day while eating instant noodles on TV trays emblazoned with puppies and flowers. Though she loves it when the heater warms her slippers on a particularly cold day, I know Apoh is aching for the summer song of squeaking plastic floaties, water fights and chlorine rip tides from dive-bombing teens in loose-fitting Billabong board shorts.

Apoh was sad that she never got to swim when she was my age. It was too busy in China. There was no time to go swimming because someone had to chop the vegetables, round the chickens, play with the little brothers and sisters, feed the pigs and keep the evil spirits away by lighting incense by the front door. Where she lived, there was also no public pool, so kids had to try their luck in polluted rivers and watering holes teeming with an ecosystem of litter; discarded beer bottles and runoff from the city’s sewer pipes.  

When Apoh made it to Australia with a baby on her hip, she was enticed by the sparkling blue waters at Brighton Beach that seemed to stretch for endless miles to the ends of the earth. She’d take my auntie, then my mum and uncle down there when my Agung finally got their old Holden working. They’d splash and play in the shallows but never ventured far enough to where their tippy toes could barely touch the golden sand. Agung and Apoh sat on straw mats and smoked cigarettes on the shore while snacking on dried prawn crackers and a tube of home-brand Pringles they found in the discount section at the Happy Valley Coles. Back then, Apoh could still wear a bikini without looking like a lumpy bag of rice. They couldn’t afford deck chairs like the other Gweilo’s who congregated around the beach eating sausages in bread, sipping Coca Cola and listening to the Beach Boys on repeat. When Apoh first saw a white guy’s butt crack showing at the beach, she was tempted to throw a dollar coin in there to see what she would win. The straw mats also made them feel closer to home. In China, everything was made from straw; the beds where six people slept in one room, the pointy hats to protect you from the rain when you cycled to the market to buy fresh fruit and vegetables for a Friday night banquet and the doors that were supposed to keep you safe at night from intruders who wanted to steal the fake gold Buddha statue from the living room. 

Apoh never left her mat back in the Brighton Beach days. She was too scared to get wet, to make a mess of her ornate swimsuit she hand-sewed when everyone finally fell asleep. She also wanted to keep her perm afloat. She had wanted to look like the sophisticated ladies who trawled Kowloon wearing luxury cotton while cradling designer handbags, but because Agung tended to scrimp and save, she ended up looking more like Leo Sayer after spending hours in the chair at Ying’s Hair Emporium in China Town.

Sometimes she was tempted to go in, but she was too scared to make a fool out of herself in front of all the tanned Aussie babes in bikinis. She didn’t want to be the typical Chinese lady drowning in the warm salty current because she was too ignorant to swim between the flags. People still made fun of Asians going to the beach back in those days, my Mum told me once. We were all supposed to be working in the market and playing mah-jong in the basement of Chinese restaurants on Gouger Street. 

There had to be a cultural distance between us and Aussies because we were still guests to their country whom they deigned to let borrow the beach once a week. Mum said that we had our section, near the rocks and under the jetty, and the Aussies had theirs, right where the sun shone on the sand, near the giant volleyball nets and boutique ice cream shops.

Agung and Apoh stopped taking the kids to the beach when school started. She wanted them to focus on beating the Aussies at maths, English and science so that they finally earned their place in society. The plan backfired though. Mum became a low-earning travel agent at a Chinese version of Flight Centre where she booked budget trips to Bali and Thailand with all-inclusive Continental Breakfasts at three-star hotels. My Auntie dropped out of school at sixteen and ran away with a guy named Dragon who rode a motorcycle and had a tattoo of her name somewhere that I’m not allowed to ask about. My Uncle moved straight back to China as soon he realised that a steady job as a furniture salesman with an obedient wife beat living out of the caravan, trying to make it big as the next Asian Michael Hutchence. They were tired of a life where they were shoved into lockers and called Ching Chong Chinaman, so they just gave up trying to fit in.

It’s different now, though. There are heaps of Asians in Australia. We’re doctors, smart people who can own businesses and live in three-storey houses with Range Rovers parked in the driveway. My grandparents never left their three-bedroom shoebox at the top of the hill, though. I go there every day after school because Mum works late in the city. She picks me up after dinner. We used to take the bus down to the city just to go shopping at the market. Apoh would see his friends at Charlie’s Café in the Central Market, but my Apoh was lonely. She never could say much to these people because she felt she lost her Chinese-ness. She didn’t speak English very well either, so she couldn’t make friends with the Aussies who sold flowers and pretty trinkets to hang in your house. At first, she said we should go swimming at the Aquatic Centre because it would be good for me. I didn’t argue, any excuse to get out of the house was a good one. It could get a little bit claustrophobic in there with the incense and Chinese gangster movies, so climbing onto the bus and looking out the window at all the greenery as we rumbled down the hill kind of became like a mini-holiday. 

Apoh makes us swim in the shallow end. She clutches onto my shoulders, begging Buddha not to let her drown, as we swim around all the little kids doing backstroke in their fluoro swimming costumes. We probably looked a bit stupid, the pair of us, bobbing through the water like squishy jellyfish without any direction. But she got better when the pool was empty and just us. No one is looking at her then, so she pierced through the chlorine, band-aids and urine streams like an Olympic swimmer, her fingers dancing through the water like tiny ribbons. It was nice to see her this peaceful. Usually, she is hidden behind the kitchen counter, sweating, chopping up meat and arguing with my Mum about whether to use ginger in the chicken or not. There was always something going on in her mind, but when she goes swimming, she seemed to just let it all go.

It’s nearly midday. The sun is blazing through our windows making the worn carpet a perfect spot for me to veg out while listening to I Want It That Way on repeat through my Walkman. I am like a lizard absorbing all the heat through the pores of my skin.

‘Yucky girl!’ my Apoh laughs. 

In Chinese culture, the floor is usually associated with hungry beggars and matted dogs eating trash in the street. Though she vacuumed the carpet once a day, Apoh consistently maintained that it was dirty. The house is never clean, according to her standards. There is consistently a stray speck of dust on the dewy spritzed money plants, a fresh footprint staining the linoleum in the kitchen. If guests ever came over, a shoe out of place on the rack would cause her to go into cardiac arrest.

Today, she’s wearing an XXL Kmart over some old swimmers she found at the opp shop. Gone are the days when she cares about her hair or figure. My grandparents sleep in separate rooms because Agung has a snoring problem and Apoh’s let her leg hair grow out. Mum says that women stop caring about their figures after they get married and have kids.

‘I was skinny before I had you,’ she tells me while thumbing through a gossip magazine, sucking on a lemon lime and bitters. 

I look down at my flat, twelve-year-old melted into the warm carpet. I could never imagine it holding anything but food and water. I worry that if a baby got put in there, I’d explode or it’d grow to the size of me and there’d be two of us sharing the same body. Then once it exploded, it would probably make me look like Mum or Apoh and I’d be fat for the rest of my life. I pinch the soft, tight skin, making red marks under my Seafolly tankini top. 

‘What are you doing?! Let’s go!’ Grandma scoops me up from the floor and shoves a giant t-shirt over my chest.  

‘It’s ugly!’ I protest, looking at myself in the mirror and seeing a hot air balloon reflected.

‘Dirty man look at you on the bus,’ she hisses. 

She was paranoid about pervy men because she watches those soppy Chinese soap operas where a sneaky, corrupt man tried to taint the pristine, woman in white who is meant to be with the sleek and shiny Prince Charming. Mum and Apoh love their soaps. Though Mum can’t stand the whining and wailing of the Chinese ones. She watched Home and Away religiously, taking in the thrills and sexiness of salacious beachside affairs with buff police officers. When I’d beg them to watch something fun like those game shows where people got punched in the face by giant balls and water guns, they’d call me primeval like my Agung, who enjoyed watching similar things, but with Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Sometimes there was nothing wrong with the simple things, but they never seemed to understand. They wanted sex, drama, abs – everything their lives lacked.

We wait for the bus near the tennis court and playground. I fiddle with the ugly material of the t-shirt, poking my finger through a hole in the armpit. I hope that people won’t think I’m pregnant. Grandma moans as she is almost hit by a stray football from the sidewalk. She rests her hands on her hips and sucks in the dry air.

Ah Ma, don’t slouch. Doctor says stand up straight,’ I tell her in in broken English because she doesn’t understand me when I put full sentences together. 

She slaps my hand away and points to the bus rolling down the street. She doesn’t want to acknowledge she’s in pain because it’ll mean that she’s getting older.

Ah Ma, lie down! Ah Ma, sit here! You won’t be able to walk if you keep going on the way you do,’ Mum shouts at her as if she is a child.

She’ll huff and keep sweeping the floors. Mum becomes her shadow, barking at her about health insurance and pensions. Apoh will ignore her and bend down all the way to the floor to light her incense, bowing her head and folding her hands into a frantic prayer. Keep me here for my children, she’ll whisper. Make me strong. 

The bus is half-empty except for tired uni students and retirees who read the obituaries to see who they’ve outlived. We sit at the back after the driver has given us our ticket. I get a student’s return fare – $4 all up. Grandma gets an elderly concession trip – $3.50. She resents the label and shoves the ticket in her purse, grinding her yellow teeth and focusing her button brown eyes out the window. Her jade bangle hangs limply from her tiny wrists as she plays with her hands in her lap. Every movement she makes looks painful. I grab her hand and she’s shaking. We don’t say anything as the bus pulls over to pick up a construction worker chewing bubble gum. Apoh sighs, loudly, so the whole bus can hear. I couldn’t even imagine the feeling of my body giving up on me. It would be the ultimate betrayal after all those years of hard work. I pull at my skin again, making sure it is just as tight as it was earlier at the house.

We are near the small freeway into the city. Because it’s early in the afternoon, there’s not much traffic. We’re cut off by a motorbike and the bus driver swears his head off with the kind of words you’d find scrawled in Sharpie in the boys’ locker room. Apoh is shaking. She and Agung got in an accident here once. He wasn’t looking where he was driving when he was deep into the chorus of some Chinese love ballad and proceeded to drive into a barrier and the car fell straight into a ditch. That’s probably why their hips are so bad. The construction worker flips the bird at the motorcyclist. The retiree humphs at all the bad language and continues on to see who has died of Dementia this week. The uni student has fallen asleep reading his anatomy homework. 

黐㞗線 (fucking crazy),’ Apoh mutters. 

She’s not supposed to swear in front of me in Cantonese or English. But my sensitivity for fucks and shits was broken after I stayed up late and watched Big Brother Uncut one night. I kind of like it when she drops an f-bomb in front of me because I feel grown up. I just agree with her in the best adult face I can muster. I look slightly concerned, slightly constipated. 

‘You sick?’ she asks.

 I go red. 

‘No!’ I grab her hand again, feeling like a baby.

The bus lurches past the suburbs, down the hill into traffic lights and billboards for gyms and fast food. We pass the Flagstaff Hill McDonalds where Grandpa brings me burgers whenever he’s in the city. The university is near the hospital where the students scramble to get off the bus. The old restaurant my family used to own has now become a Dominoes. We drive through the smoke of the factories, and shopping centres with four-storey car parks. I get a little quiver of excitement when the bus reaches the outskirts – where the factories and shopping centres are hidden under the large shadows of the tall buildings and rows of apartments and offices stacked up like a thousand mah-jong blocks. Grandma looks out the window too. She came from a country where the tallest building barely reached a hop-scotch jump. When she came to Australia, the buildings were still small, like growing roots in a pot plant. Now they tower over her like she is a tiny ant in the dirt. I take it for granted, the buildings, all the craziness of the 21st century. I’m always comfortable and gratified. If I’m hungry, I can go to a vending machine and get a Coke. If I’m tired, I can sleep whenever I want, nobody cares. Grandma never had that luxury growing up. If she was hungry, she’d have to wait till her ten brothers and sisters got their share first. If she was tired, she had to wait till it was time to stop working and sleep under her little brother in her family’s shared bed. 

The bus is near the Aquatic Centre and we amble to the front. I scrunch the flimsy material of my t-shirt in my hands. A man notices this, (and my bare chicken legs underneath), and winks at me. I’m scared, but flattered, like when Tony first spots Maria in West Side Story. But instead of a quiff and leather jacket, this man has a ponytail and is wearing round John Lennon-style glasses–a druggie Harry Potter. Apoh notices our exchange and pulls me off the bus as soon as it stops in front of the grassy grounds of our destination. 

‘Dirty man!’ she pinches my t-shirt and tuts. 

The bus zooms down the road and he’s still looking at us. The old Chinese woman and the pathetic little girl in an obese man’s crew neck. 

The changing rooms are the worst part of going swimming. Wrinkly old ladies like Apoh change in and out of their togs. They don’t care that I’m there and walk around full nuddy–saggy boobs and all. Grandma, still haunted by the social segregation of her beach days finds the available changing cubicle to slip her dress over her head. She wears sandals in the changing rooms, unlike the other ladies. She tells me that we’ll get a disease if we let our feet touch the dirty floor. I bunch up my t-shirt and throw it into the corner with our bag and towels. 

‘You ready?’ she asks.

Apoh is decked out in her Kmart swimmers and goggles. Sometimes I’m embarrassed to be standing next to her big belly and veiny legs. She looks so old. Her jade bangle clinks against her bones as she wades into the shallow end of the kid’s pool.

 Apoh practises her breathing like a goldfish. She gulps in then out underwater, big bubbles forming until she brings her head to the surface. I float around her in case she gets scared. Her black hair is all messy and sticks to her goggles. She grabs my hand and begins to stroke her fingers through the water.

‘I swim, look!’

She lets go of me and kicks off the pool wall. The water is so shallow that her belly nearly touches the floor. But it doesn’t matter now, because despite her arthritic hip, and her fear of being watched, she is swimming. She kicks her legs, making a huge splash onto the kids doing backstroke in their floaties. I follow her through the water as she does another lap, head cracking through the cold water for air. 

Ah Ma, stop before you get too tired,’ I yell, sounding exactly like my mother.  sounding like the exact echo of my mother. 

Apoh pushes me away, hyper like a kid who drank too much red cordial. The little kids laugh at the big woman lugging herself up and down their pool. I glare at them as Apoh swims another lap. I don’t see the old lady they’re laughing at. Rather, the young woman, skinny like me, with the perm and ornate swimsuit on Brighton Beach all those years ago. I see arthritis, senior concession cards and soap operas melt away in the aqua-blue chlorine. I wish she could always be this happy. 

‘Ah! Good swim!’ Apoh grabs my shoulders and smiles. 

I flick some water in her face and she splashes me back feebly. I create a current with my hands and get her square in the eyes. We start splashing like crazy people till a lifeguard blows his whistle at us. All the little kids laugh and we wave at them. I show Grandma my attempt at a handstand. She tickles the backs of my feet as they jiggle above the water. I point my toes like a ballerina and kick them at her chest. She pulls me toward her and cradles me like a baby. In the water, I’m weightless and she takes full advantage of this.

We wait for the bus. It’s colder now, but we’ve bought some hot chips from the canteen for the long journey home. By the time we reach the outskirts of the city, I feel myself dozing on Apoh’s shoulder. I grab her hands, they’re no longer shaking, they’re warm and soft from the water. I use my big t-shirt as a blanket. The bus ambles up the hill, back into the suburbs. We reach our stop and walk towards the house. She starts to struggle with her hip again, so she leans on me until we make it to the front steps. Someone’s already cooking dinner.