Tzu-Hao Hsu: Where there was water I was first one in and always, always last one out

December 2022

I was born in the year of the Water Pig.
A few days after my arrival, my family brought my stars of conception and birth to a soothsayer who calculated my ming-ge, similar to a chart reading in astrology. He advised my excited parents and grandparents that my affinity to water was too strong, that my elements were out of balance (these being metal, wood, water, fire and earth), and that they would do me a service by considering a name more connected to wood. To ground her with roots, he said, or she may drift always with the currents. She will never be truly happy on solid land but she will find peace and stability on an island (good thing my birth place was – you guessed it – an island).
My parents were not particularly superstitious, but they were careful, which was how I ended up with the name I have today, despite my mother’s heartbreak: she had hoped for Tzu-Han, a name that gently rocked you as you spoke it, a sweet sigh against your cheek, with the tranquility of a lake and the depth of an ocean; instead I am Tzu-Hao, wisdom and the glow of moonlight, pronounced with a defined, firm tone, carrying just a little too much confidence in a culture that associated deference and obedience with good upbringing in women.
I am pleased to confirm I have a talent for upsetting people who still believe that to be true.
Despite the supposed equilibrium achieved by my name, I retained my at-times-could’ve-been-fatal attraction to the element. Rivers, lakes, ponds, and especially the sea, where there was water there I was, too, first one in and always, always last one out. There was something about the world underwater: the freedom of weightlessness, drifting with the current and waves; the softened, muted sounds, pleasant against my ears; or the pastel gradient that took the bright harshness of life on land away from my myopic sight.
It may surprise you that I am not a strong swimmer despite my love of water and many summers of lessons. I can float all day comfortably without risk of drowning but I am no life guard and certainly not winning any races. Perhaps that was why my grandmother taught me her magic trick: before entering a new body of water, you must place your hand in it, feel its touch, tell it your name and ask for permission to play, that way the spirits who live within will do you no harm and know you to be a friend.
Looking back, it was a simple grounding exercise for an excited child. The ritual subtly shifted my focus from a rush to jump in to taking my time to acclimatize, recognizing there were risks associated with unknown waters. I couldn’t tell you if she truly believed introducing myself to water spirits kept me safe all these years, or if she was just a very, very clever and experienced grandmother – most likely she was both.
Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to ‘meet’ many rivers, lakes, ponds, and the sea (notably rafting on the Exploits and snorkelling off Bell Island locally; Loch Ness in November is cold but worthwhile with a post dip single-malt scotch), and each one was a meditative experience of its own. The very act of entering a body of water carries a calming, contemplative joy that lifts my fatigue and hesitation. Makes no wonder I am twice an islander, from Taiwan to Newfoundland: water was always there, in my veins and all around me.
This past summer I brought my twin daughters, now three and a half years old, to Topsail Beach for the first time. We ambled down to the rocks at the water’s edge, and they ran back from the waves in fear – too loud, they exclaimed, the sound of the surfs breaking deafening to their delicate ears.
I put my hand in the water then, feeling its coolness welcoming me back to its presence, and whispered to my children the magic trick: hold out your hand, tell it your name, ask for permission to play and you’ll make friends with the spirits.
They were absolutely ecstatic when a raft of ducks came by shortly after, and to this day firmly believe they summoned the birds by sharing their names: Yu-Chen, my North Star, companion to the moonlight in my name; and Yu-Han, my would-have-been namesake, chosen for my mother in honour of another path and life that could have been.
The day ended with happy, exhausted little girls (Mommy too, if I’m being honest) asking when they could go back to the beach again, and I promised there will be many, many more adventures to come. Afterall, we are islanders, and there are lots of nooks and crannies to explore on the Rock.
As Tom Cahill so eloquently put, Thank God we’re surrounded by water.

Tzu-Hao Hsu is a proud Taiwanese Townie who lives in St John’s with her husband, twin daughters, and two beagles. She regularly chronicles her parenting adventures on social media for stress relief and a laugh.

(Image courtesy Wikimedia.)

This is the fifth in an ocean-focused series, made possible by The Big Splash Fund. The sixth and final installment will be posted next Friday.