Asian Aunties and Aquatics: What do China and India have in common? [Part II]

By Tao Tao Holmes: 

Part I: The Aunties

Part II: The Aquatics

There are sports, and then there are athletics. Or, at least, it tends to seem this way to me. Athletics encompass running, swimming, golf, croquet – activities that require some level of skill or finesse, but lack the component of spontaneity and quick response that you find in soccer, basketball, tennis, and that lot. A sprint is a sprint, a swing is a swing; no gnarling opponent is going to barrel across your lane or snatch your club mid-air (though it would certainly make for greater entertainment).

Such is the way I always thought about swimming and a reason I preferred sports like lacrosse and ice hockey to the repetitive sludge of laps up and down the same unchanging stretch of chlorinated pool water, penned in by sentry-like strings of bright buoys. And then I came to Asia.

In the surprisingly clean swimming pools of Beijing and Delhi, swimming takes on whole new dimensions. Separate swim lanes are nonexistent, while a portioned-off half of the pool is designated specifically for non-swimmers, who appear to do nothing more than stand up to their waists in fragrant chemicals and occasionally flick a few droplets of water at their neighbors, or even go so far as to submerge their shoulders.

At first, I was quite appalled by the case of the non-swimmer: why pay for access to a swimming pool and then not even swim? It seemed like a horrid waste of funds and an injustice to the calories eagerly awaiting combustion. It wasn’t long before it dawned on me that the residents of Asia’s fifth and eighth largest cities had nowhere else to take a casual dip –– no ponds or lakes, rivers or beaches –– and thus were relegated to a white-tiled basin floating with the occasional band-aid. I sympathized with their anxiously unburned calories, but I also sympathized with these poor city souls deprived of open water in the scorching heat and dust of summer.

A local swimming pool near Mcleodganj, India. (Flickr Creative Commons/abrinsky)

This socializing side of the Asian pool is all and well, but on the other side of the single divider (dividing the grand total of two lanes, swimmer and non-swimmer) –– this is where swimming goes from being mere athletics and takes on the attributes of sport. Plunged into these big swatches of swimming pool, it is not simply a matter of sink or swim, but a matter of dodge or die, careen or concuss, turn or tank. My laps at pools back in the States hovered like the memory of a pleasant, if monotonous walk in the park, when there were buoys and lanes and methodical clockwise rotations, each lap indistinguishable from the last.

Here, swimming becomes an interactive sport. I have mastered the aquatic steamroll, a sort of horizontal pirouette, to avoid head-on collisions with 12-year-old boys barreling towards me like blind beluga whales. With a split second to spare, I see the upside-down hand of a 75-year-old grandmother plunge less than a foot in front of my face, I adjust my stroke with a (now perfected) arm swivel, and spurt to the surface to see her gazing calmly at the ceiling as she backstrokes in purple floral print through the churning chaos.

Were those flippers? A burst of highlighter yellow clips my kneecap as a bushy potbellied man jets off sideways from the edge of the pool and slinks along the bottom like some deformed manta ray, only to pop back up at whim without surveying the scene above. He grazes a breaststroker’s tummy with his balding head before surfacing among the bubbles of her wake. I suddenly spot two feisty girls racing towards me neck and neck; I swerve out of the way and lunge for the edge of the pool, only to remember that at no point does it ever swell above four and a half feet. This means that groups of two and three casually stop and stand in the middle of traffic to chat, leaving slinky Speedos directly at a swimmer’s eye level. More lower bodies line each end of the pool, rendering flip turns impossible unless you’d like to rupture someone’s gut, and exposing the fact that even in the “swimmer’s lane,” there is significantly more standing than there is actual swimming.

The pool I’ve come to frequent in South Delhi is open air, though covered by a massive roof akin to the overturned sail of a ship’s mainmast. At night, stadium lights flare up, transforming the water into a disorienting, glittering underwater dreamscape filled with blurry shapes floating this way and that, distances distorted, each journey to the other end of the pool taking on an almost psychedelic edge.

Suffice it to say, these Asian aquatics are no mere athletics, but true, interactive sport, and while I appreciate the order and etiquette of American pools, I miss the pressing sense of paranoia and danger that only those in China and India can offer. And indeed it appears that my intrepidity in these foreign waters has paid off. Just the other day an inquisitive lady approached me in the changing room as I threw a 50-cent t-shirt and running shorts over my one-piece.

“Excuse me?”

“Uh, yes?”

“You swim like a fish. I don’t know exactly what kind of fish – maybe a tuna fish, or a dolphin fish? But you swim beautifully. So nice to watch.”

I’m pretty sure I placed last in a college intramural swim race, and I slog out a 45-minute mile. But hey, maybe I got her with my mean mid-stroke swerve. I’ll take it.

Tao Tao Holmes ’14 is in Branford College. Contact her at