By Adelle Xiao
Floating is a piece about how my perceptions of strength changed throughout my life, and how I’ve found my own strength through “floating.”
When I was seven, my dad warned me that it’s a sink or swim world. He said that life was full of crashing waves that would rock me from side to side, and it was up to me to decide whether or not I survived. He told me that the strong always swim—they relentlessly fight against all odds, forever making their way through the turbulent tides of life. The weak sink. They give up easily, and they lose themselves to submersion, gasping for air and praying for anyone to save them because they are slipping to save themselves. Their salty tears cascade with the waves until they too slip away. He cautioned me to never allow myself to be weak.
My dad was my role model: the epitome of strength in my seven-year-old eyes. It was always he who helped me write my homework during late hours, he who made me feel safe riding the subway, he who told me stories. Stories of hardship and boasts that he had never cried, not even once. He told me to be like him—to never cry, to always suck it up, to just keep swimming even when I ran out of breath and all hope seemed to be lost. He told me to never give up, to never let go no matter what. He showed me what it meant to be strong.
To my dad, sinking and letting go meant failure. I became scared of sinking, of drowning, of letting the echoing depths of the world consume me whole. His disappointed gaze began to haunt me; the words he threw at me when I was too weak for his liking echoed through my mind. I pushed myself as hard as I could to be strong. Strong as in aggressive. Strong as in stubborn. Strong, like my dad. I scrutinized and pushed myself to the absolute limit, doing whatever I could to make myself appear smarter, better, bolder. Dad said that being quiet was weak, so I learned to imitate the loud, booming timbre of his voice on phone calls with his brother. I learned to never show affection, because tough love was all he gave me. When people pushed me, I pushed them right back how my dad would—unafraid to fight back. I forced myself to stick with people and situations that weren’t meant to last in the name of never giving up. Because I thought that swimming was the only way to not drown. I thought being like my dad was the only way to be strong.
But I wasn’t strong. I felt like I was gradually sinking under the weight of the world, a weary ache spreading throughout my body as I tried to keep up with my dad’s expectations. When I rode the subway by myself for the first time, I felt alone and weak without my dad by my side. My excitement, my loudness, my fear of affection toward my friends only felt obnoxious. Striving to be the “best” possible version of myself only made me feel weaker. And I often wondered whether I was making choices for myself or for the sake of seeming strong.
I no longer considered myself—or my dad—strong. His ideas of strength faded in my mind until I no longer strived to reach it. I began to associate his stubbornness with his refusal to ever admit that he was wrong. I began to associate his loudness with his quick temper, rather than his strength. I realized that strength meant different things to us, that we did not live the same lives, that we were very different.
I gradually stopped pushing, stopped kicking, stopped swimming in the way my dad wanted me to. I learned to silence his voice and the roaring of erupting waves in my mind. I instead found strength in floating—letting go of all the expectations that consumed my life and drifting towards the self I really was. Floating meant freedom—allowing myself to be myself without caring about seeming weak. Floating meant drifting along despite my imperfections, letting myself be quiet and reserved when I wanted to. It was through letting go, through sitting in the quiet, that I found my own strength and happiness.
Although I know what strength is to me now, I don’t always feel strong. Some days I find myself wishing that I could see my dad as a hero again, that our differences did not make us feel so distant. Sometimes I find myself at sea again, spiraling in the past while watching the big wide world spin around me, thinking that I can’t be still. Thinking that I must sink or swim and choose strength or weakness. But I’m learning that oftentimes, weakness and strength overlap. Sinking doesn’t always mean weakness and swimming doesn’t always mean strength. Strength can be hidden in quietude, in stillness, in kindness. And floating is my own quiet form of strength, of endurance. I am content with the strength I have.
This piece was semi-inspired by a video of a fish carousel from one of the Girls Write Now workshops. I started by writing descriptively about a “sink or swim world” and what it’s like to float. I then separated those descriptions into paragraphs and connected them to experiences and thoughts I had regarding strength, and how those thoughts have changed.
Born and raised in New York City, Adelle Xiao is currently a sophomore in high school in Manhattan. She most often writes personal essays, memoirs and poetry about experiences that are important to her. When she is not writing, Adelle spends most of her time making art, playing the violin and doing various forms of volunteer work.