The Aunties at the YMCA by Melissa Hung

The Aunties at the YMCA

The Aunties at the YMCA DGAF. They gather there late mornings, talking to their friends, sitting naked on white towels draped over plastic stools in the locker room. They lie down fully on the tiered wooden risers in the dry sauna. From the window of the sauna, they look like loaves of bread glistening as they bake.

The aunties, they talk loudly — as aunties do. Sometimes they shout at each other from different rows — and by shout, I mean they talk. I listen with a slight smile to the sounds of my mother language, one that I speak with effort, with a child’s vocabulary. Memories of my po po surface. Once, upstairs in my childhood home, I heard po po as she talked with mom on the phone. Mom was in the garage. My po po’s forceful voice traveled across the state of Texas, through the phone, blasting through the many walls that separated the upstairs room from the garage. That is an auntie power.

The aunties talk about a lot of things: sweatpants scored on sale at Macy’s, how you should buy multiples of a garment if you really like it, the difficulties of curly hair, how much cheaper glasses are in Hong Kong. About fifty percent of the time, the aunties talk about vegetables, whatever’s freshest at the market.

The aunties at the YMCA — like aunties everywhere that you might encounter — are not shy. These are the same aunties who might grab my arm at Trader Joe’s and ask how much a plant costs. These are the aunties who jostle for position and rush the bus as soon as the doors open. These are the aunties who’ll cut you in line — at the Asian grocery, at Uniqlo — if you’re not paying attention. The aunties have had to fend for themselves, fight for their space, in every country that they’ve lived in.

The aunties at the YMCA mostly swim breaststroke. They don’t care that the lanes are labeled slow, medium, fast. They get in whatever lane they want and swim at whatever speed they want (mostly slow). The aunties don’t allow you to pass when you catch up to them at the end of a lane. Swim etiquette doesn’t concern them. If there are two or more aunties in my lane, I strategize how to maneuver around them as in a video game.

Once, an auntie got in a lane meant for Masters swimmers. The Masters follow particular workouts. They swim fast. I tried to explain to the auntie in my simple Cantonese that the lane had been closed for Masters. Auntie didn’t care, swimming frog-like away from me. Auntie: 1. Masters: 0.

The aunties at the YMCA, especially the ones who water-walk — they don’t like it when you splash. Not once, but twice, an auntie has demanded that I cease splashing as I swam freestyle in the adjacent lane.

“Stop splashing!” the first auntie said to me as I surfaced at the end of the lane.

I stopped and turned to look at her. She wore a floral bathing suit and around her hips was a kind of water skirt.

“No,” I said. “You are in a pool!”

You see, I am an auntie in the making. I am learning the ways of the women who have come before me. I am growing into my power. 

Melissa Hung is a writer, swimmer, and good eater. She grew up in Texas, the eldest child of immigrants. She is the founding editor of Hyphen and has received fellowships from VONA and Kearny Street Workshop. Her writing has appeared in Longreads, NPR, Vogue, and Catapult, where she writes a column about chronic pain called “Pain in the Brain.” She lives in San Francisco. You can find her at melissahung.xyz or on Twitter @melissahungtx.

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Art Ajari Leandro Erlich CC2.0

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