To Float on Open Waters

Mina Wang Zhou reflects on navigating the aquatics of tension.

Part of Out of Focusseries exploring ways to traverse the fog of unknowingness and indeterminacy.


In early girlhood I watch the Summer Olympics with my grandfather in his Beijing home, a transient sanctuary where the sun is lukewarm and cicadas synchronise their afternoon croons while everyone is asleep except me. My body tucked into the rigid fold of the rich red-brown chair, perennially overripe fruit sits in a bowl’s palm before me: an offering. It languishes, waits; anticipating.

It is Athens 2004, and Chinese diving champion Guo Jingjing is on the springboard—feline, measured, sleek; the tiniest splash from the greatest compaction of energy. Though I watched the entire Olympic range with my grandfather, my mother only hovers in mind when Guo is onscreen. My memory is just clear enough to trace her dive in coarse strokes, its mappings blurred from repeated turning between my hands. What I remember most is her poise, her body’s ability to control itself with regimented precision. She is focused, serious, disciplined; evidence that the qualities I heard lauded in others were achievable by those who were not me, perhaps precisely because they were unlike me. I envied how capably she embodied these traits, how easily they received praise from my mother’s tongue.


*   *   *


As an adult I revisit the recording online, so pixelated from the near-decade lapse in technological advancements that it matches the dilapidated interiors of my mind. I am trying to excavate my childhood’s truths, measure how reliable my memories of rigour are. The commentator announces that Guo has been away from her family for eleven years, training for this exact moment. Though her success relies on executing her dive with the smallest splash possible, the rebellious part of me yearns for a larger impact, a glitzier smack—a physical and aural reverberation where the space it takes is proportional to the immense efforts which have led to this instant. If she were to cannonball into her environment instead, it would defy the narrow delineations allowed for her performance. It would mean that there could be a visible climax and resolution to how hard she had trained, based not upon her continued adherence to the template, but rather in the reward of her unrestrained relaxation. It seems so unfair—thankless, really—that her success, which has come at an immense cost of her youth, is instead graded upon how quietly she assimilates into her environment. I keep watching, waiting for that feeling of perfection I’ll recognise. But the moment I opened the video searching for this dive, it ceased to exist.

I am looking, of course, for the ideal that I have conjured at length, the objective I had trained to associate with familiarity and comfort despite its cold connotations of discipline. It doesn’t come, so I falter. I can no longer find what I am looking for. When I come back into my body and attention, another commentator is narrating Guo’s fourth round. “To make this twisting reverse dive look good off the board, you really have to be patient. Let the dive go aaaalllll the way up to the apex. The dive board has to go down, then all the way back up before your feet leave for this takeoff.” The commentator languishes in this stretching of their sonics, as though each additional millisecond accounts for the length of time the diver consciously, concertedly spends suspended midair. Guo Jingjing excels because of her ability to conceal labour’s edges, orchestrating an illusion of effortless poise. The fragments amalgamating into this polished roundness hold still for just long enough to create a perfect projection.

Within the optics of an Olympic dive, there is a chronological sequence to its grace and glamour. The diver first vaults upward against gravity’s drudge, then executes a complicated spin in a meticulous ratio of harmony and friction between skin and air, contorting in directions which contradict the greater drop to finally glide seamlessly into water. Guo Jingjing is brilliant, stunning, lean—she soars so high, yet slips smoothly, coolly, into the pool. However, when the act of a dive becomes a metaphor for emotional labour, its success is predicated only upon its ability to keep anything which may provoke undetectable. All the work that goes into dazzling the audience in a dive—the jump, the spin—must remain invisible, so that only the silent entry into the water remains, allowing the moment to belong to someone else. 

While outwardly an embodiment of composure, poise is internally founded upon a persistent prevention and dread of failure. There is no moment for rest, much less indulgence. To be poised is to be mid-leap, in constant flex, disaster-proofing plan in hand. It is about knowing that if you lose rhythm and cut yourself, you do so without burdening others with witnessing the embarrassment of your pain. The show must go on. 

What often seems to have been my entire girlhood existed along the blade of this tightrope. Mirages of stability, earned through obedience, were buffered by the knowledge that there was no reliable guarantee of calm—steps which came with previous assurances of safety could flip into missteps, and detonate my footing below. This volatility meant that I inhabited spliced temporalities, a future-past spectre forever elsewhere, agonising over my performance. I desperately wished to believe that if I could puppeteer the timing correctly—if I could remain poised and stream myself perfectly into another person’s sequence by predicting what was expected of me and just execute it well enough—then I would be able to avoid the disaster of disappointment, maximising my odds of gaining maternal approval. In doing so, the end became the only point of significance, a place of constant beginning and paralysis. I lived two concurrent identities—that of the child who wished to play in the present, and that of a machine failing to live up to the impossible expectations of its duty’s standards. There was simply no sustainable way to choke so many conflicting praxes into one body without overburdening it to exhaustion. 

To have been negotiating the ways I have had to forage and forge a life together in perpetual anticipation of two frictioning tectonic plates, then, has been a continuous act of poise. It is about living with hyper-awareness towards the ways one protrudes a little too much in every direction, bulky and incomplete in such a way that one constantly is managing the act of code-switching to find belonging. I perform. I keep up the act. I remain poised.


*   *   * 


After years chasing a poise which has never fit my body, I begin to unlearn linearity to instead reorient myself towards alternate axes of living. For the overwhelming majority of my life, I had believed that any abandonment of poise would result in my drowning; because of this, I chose to abandon my own needs instead. I conflated stillness and visibility of flaws with guaranteed failure. Because of that, I continued pushing myself to tread the water so that I could stay afloat, exerting an unmanageable amount of stress below the surface to maintain a veneer of composure. Ironically, the way for me to transfigure this tension was by accepting the flux of water. In stretching the body out on the water’s surface and relaxing one’s muscles, one can simply float. Utterly foreign to the mind and body’s panicked instincts, it is terrifying—but its reward is genuine calm.

Resolution comes, then, not in abandoning poise, but rather in moving through it. It is the very act of giving peripheral space to disruptive thoughts that allows one to retain space for oneself; to remain focused, accepting, sure. Such waves will move this body; I must allow them to move through my mind with the faith that I will stay afloat, that I will remain my own. While the desire to orchestrate the most emotionally compatible experience possible for others still remains within me—a responsibility towards editing out difficult truths so that I can protect the humanness of those I care for, even in this moment—I instead remind myself that the existence of my world does not negate that with which it comes into contact.


*   *   * 


I watch Guo Jingjing complete her dive and surface onto solid ground. Where I used to anxiously survey the judges’ evaluation of her performance, I instead notice how she rinses and towels off throughout her gradings, never once stopping to allow the act of score-reading disrupt her rhythm.


Mina Wang Zhou is a poet and essayist based in Tkaronto, the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabe and the Huron-Wendat.


Banner photo: Mina Wang Zhou. 



Mina WANG ZHOU, 周宓娜

Fri, 13 Oct 2023

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