Learning to Swim: An Australian Birthright

Learning to Swim: An Australian Birthright


The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. This week’s issue is written by Isabella Kwai, a reporter with the Australia bureau.


Recently, in my 20s, I decided to finally learn to swim.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t keep afloat. Like many Australians, I’d learned the fundamentals of how not to die in open water during school classes. But for a child of Chinese immigrants who’d settled in a Sydney suburb miles from the ocean, swimming was more a matter of survival than of sport.

Last year, we lived through the hottest, driest year we could remember, setting the scene for a fierce fire season in which thousands turned to bodies of water as a literal refuge from smoke and fire — a somber sight for coast-dwellers who had more pleasant associations with beaches, pools and inlets.

Living inland, we had less access to water. The trip to the beach was always a drawn-out affair. Once a year, we’d pack drinks and food (there were always slices of watermelon, for some reason) into the car. Then, after enduring seatbelts hot to the touch and the drama of finding a parking spot, there the horizon was, sparkling away.

My parents rarely went in the ocean. Instead, they sat in the shade and inhaled the other Australian birthright — deep, full breaths of fresh sea air. Chest-deep in the waves was as far as I dared to go, watching the far-off swimmers in their caps and goggles slip through the water like seals.

The public perception of water as key to the Australian identity was never so apparent as when I lived in the United States. Over small talk in bars and at house parties, it felt both irksome and strange to admit: no, I didn’t know how to surf. (And also, what on earth is a bloomin’ onion?)

But it made me look at the ocean and wonder if I’d missed something essential. In landlocked cities where I stayed, I longed at odd moments for the smell of saltwater.

Upon my return to Australia a few years ago, I found a home and the means to live closer to the water, and began splashing and gasping my way to reconciliation with another sliver of mainstream Australian identity. Friends with greater lung capacities showed me some of their secrets, and I started practicing.

I’m still learning the correct way to turn my head in freestyle, and I may have kicked someone in the shoulder last week. But there are moments when my body and the water seem to merge and the wave drives all thoughts from my mind, and I understand. It’s a spiritual refuge that a lucky few of us in the world enjoy.

But like many others who have seen smoke blur the horizon and ash rain from the sky, I wonder: how much longer will it stay that way?

Are there places where you find a refuge in nature? Write to me at nytaustralia@nytimes.com.

Now on to our stories for the week.



Last week, Livia Albeck-Ripka wrote about her experiences reporting in fire-ravaged Mallacoota.

“We all know that when we look after the Earth with the same respect that we would look after someone dear and near to us, with the same compassion we would help a friend in need, it is not about ‘being sustainable’; it is about respect. It is not about being ‘environmental’; it is seeing ourselves as a part of the environment. That is the change we need to be in the world: To see the Earth as a part of us and not something we just treat as subservient to us, for the world keeps giving and we keep taking.

“I love this quote by Alanis Obomsawin: ‘When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.’ -Regina Power

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