My Mum and my son have learnt to swim at the same Canberra pool. My son started when he was a baby. Mum learnt much later in life, over 20 years after we left Vietnam.
"We were very busy and under such pressure," Mum says.
"And it would've raised suspicions if I asked around about swimming lessons before we escaped. So, when I boarded that overcrowded boat with you in my arms, I couldn't swim. Not even a metre.
"Oh well, I'm learning now. Better late than never."
Mum swims every day, sometimes more than once. Nowadays, she hardly ever showers at home.
There's a group of 30 or so Vietnamese-Canberrans in their golden years at our local swimming complex. Some are boat people. Others arrived in the 1990s to reunite with family.
They chat between laps and relax in the spa and sauna. For most of them, this is the most leisurely time of their lives, some reward after decades of hardship.
They gossip, encourage and console one another, discussing everything from the price of petrol to their grandchildren to the rise of China. Recently, one of Mum's friends brought some magnificent homegrown metre-long gourds that she cut and shared.
On Australia Day I heard them condemn young folk who wore flip-flops and short shorts printed with the Australian flag: "You might as well stamp and s--- all over it!"
Perhaps because Mum and her friends are so relaxed and comfortable, non-Vietnamese are sometimes threatened by them. It's never overt: a smirk here, a glance there, a snide remark that smacks of ignorance, resentment and racism.
For them, the Vietnamese talk too loudly and too often. They don't know how things are done, and don't care to learn. They don't know their place.
The Vietnamese at the swimming pool have introduced at least two practices that stand out.
First, a handful of the older ladies come to the pool wheeling their belongings along in a suitcase. A part of me sees this as peculiar, because luggage should be reserved for long journeys. But according to another type of logic, "Why spend good money on a suitcase for it to collect dust?"
Indeed, suitcases are in many ways ideal for swimming. There's the convenience of wheels and compartments for goggles, towels, clothes and toiletries. Upon returning home, one only has to flip the lid open and let it dry in the sun.
Such is the compelling logic that non-Vietnamese swimmers have started coming to the pool with their luggage in tow.
Secondly, a few Vietnamese do exercises that originate from the old country.
By this I mean the sort of hip-wiggling, back-slapping and thigh-thumping that can be seen around lakes and parks in Vietnam.
One fellow, let's call him Thanh, marches around the pool with the poise of a soldier. He does a range of impressive poses, including an iconic crane stance perched upon a starting block.
To increase his dexterity, Thanh stands in the middle of the kiddie pool and tosses a plastic bottle half-full of tea high into the air, and then catches it with the other hand.
With respect to exercise and other things, Westerners are inclined towards the straightest path in the shortest time. Perhaps that's why they follow the black line at the bottom of the pool. This is not the way of many Asians, who favour balance and agility.
Different strokes for different folks.
Of course, not all Viets swim the same. Mum's group is, like any group, diverse and at times divided. One memorable fight provoked a great debate over what it means to be Vietnamese-Australian. It was between Thanh and another fellow, let's call him Tho.
MORE KIM HUYNH:
Both men have much in common: lone wolves, strong freestylers, proud but also humourless.
Tho prefers to fraternize with white Australians. He has a full beard that would impress a bushranger, which he carefully trims before heading out for the day.
Tho is rule-oriented and bossy. He scolds anyone who walks in the lap lanes, especially Viet compatriots. Everyone gives Tho some latitude though, because rumour has it that, after the war, he lost his wife and children to the sea and hasn't been at peace ever since.
On the day of the big fight, Tho approached Thanh, who surely had been bothering him for some time, and told him not to do his exercises anymore. His case boiled down to three points: Australian pools are for Australian exercises; people laugh at him; and therefore laugh at all of us Viets.
A furious Thanh shouted at Tho. For all his chest-thumping and beard-preening, said Thanh, Tho was a slave; whereas he embodied the proud spirit of the 18 Vietnamese kings.
"If we're going to reject anything from the homeland," he said, "then it should be the idea that others can tell us what to do and how to exercise!"
I can see Tho's perspective, which encourages newcomers to adapt so that they can get by and fit in. It promotes harmony with more established people. But mostly, I agree with Thanh. His way can generate friction and misunderstanding, but offers the prospect of mutual enrichment.
After all, harmony and integration should not mean following a straight line, but rather diving into a swirling stream and splashing around a bit.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.