Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Locked-Up Library


Usually, a trip to the library brings me joy. This has not been the case for the past two-and-a-half years that I've been in Korea. In fact, the two libraries with which I've had the closest encounters bring me the opposite of joy; I want to lie down on the floor and have a tantrum.

The library here at my university is an impressive, though slightly awkward-looking, many-storied structure. After a couple of visits early on, now it gets scarcely more than a passing glower from me. I wrote about this in an earlier blog entry: There is an English-language book section, and it is categorized using the Dewey Decimal system, but the books stop at 799. Same on the Korean-language side. That means no literature, no history, no biography and no fiction, and that means no visits from Bybee.

Recently I've picked up an extra teaching gig at a local middle school, teaching English two afternoons a week to students in an after-school program for low-income children. My co-worker, Newfie, had the same gig last year. When he told me that we teach the classes in the library, I couldn't help but feel a little giddy.

The library at the middle school is a spacious, sunlight-filled room with long rows of tables and chairs. The librarian's desk is at the far end of the room. Behind her desk is a smallish, glassed-in room full of books. I wanted to get at the books. Of course, most of them are in Korean, but I just wanted to browse in the stacks and inhale the co-mingled smell of books and dust that I love so much.

The librarian, who is there until 4:30, always keeps a safe distance from me. I'm a foreigner. She has no English. I might try to talk to her. The horror! (As my father would have said, I really should shit-can the sarcasm because actually, it is worrisome for her.) Many Koreans feel that if they can't communicate in *perfect* English, it's their fault, so they keep a wary eye out when foreigners are about and make themselves as unobtrusive as possible.

Since the librarian's eyebrows fly up in alarm when I get within 15 meters of her desk, I decided that I wouldn't bother her by indicating that I'd like to quickly browse the stacks before the lesson. I decided that I'd wait until she was gone and I'd wander around in the book room after finishing with my class at five-thirty.

A few days ago, my students and I were doing some conversational laps with the present progressive, when I heard the librarian shut down her computer. She was done for the day! Great! I paid no more attention to her as she bustled around with her last-minute tasks.

One hour later, I was done, and had finished hugging all the middle-school girls goodbye, and was humming "...ain't nothin' gonna break my stride..." as I headed for the book room door.

Gasp. The door between me and those books was locked! A huge combination lock secured the door! I pulled on it several times ineffectually. "Whoever heard of locking up the books?" I demanded. Silence.
-
I had a sudden and unwelcome vision of myself picking up something heavy and hurling it through the glass, so I quickly packed up my teacher bag and walked out. More smiling middle-school girls waited for me at the entrance. I tried to smile and speak normally, but my face felt stiff.
-
Cultural awareness. Cultural sensitivity. Some days, it's a lot more effort to summon them.

16 comments:

kookiejar said...

No fiction in the university library? What do the literature majors do? I've never heard such a thing.

And as for locking up the books....um...I'm really at quite a loss. I think I would lose my mind.

a.book.in.the.life said...

I agree it sounds very frustrating!

Lesley said...

Ooh, that was funny - bad for you, but funny to read.

And you have a Newfie as a coworker? What part of NFLD is s/he from? (An expat Newfie here)

acquisitionist said...

For some reason when I read this I thought of the library in Kafka On the Shore . How annoying. Poor Bybee! It's awful to feel uncomfortable in a library too - maybe if you went in there with a fellow bibliophile who could speak to the librarian you could wander with more ease? No literature???? I didn't know there were books before the 800s? Well, there are a few exceptions ;-)

Tara said...

How very disappointed you must have been, I can just imagine. I hope you get access to those books soon.

MyUtopia said...

That sucks! My library has been closed for 8 months

Dewey said...

That's interesting what you said about the cultural idea some Koreans have that it's their fault if they can't speak perfect English. I have some Korean parents (of my students) and they have been very quiet.

Maggie said...

Have you thought about sign-language, other than the finger? There has got to be a way to get to those books! :)

Oh, we are just coming around to ordering fiction for our college students. We have an extensive short story collection and tons of classics, but only a handful of the latest lit.

Bookfool said...

Wow, how frustrating. And, yet, you told the story so well that I had to smile. I do think I would lose it (what little "it" is left) if I didn't have a comfy place to browse through books when I'm stressed.

lucca said...

Quirk of fate :)

Can you try getting some books shipped over, if it's really that desperate?

And, hello - I came across your blog quite by accident.

Bybee said...

Kookiejar,
Sad to say, this is an engineering university, and there are no lit majors.

a.book.in.the.life,
Yep, frustrating. Feel sorry for me! (whine, whine)

lesley,
I'll see Newfie sometime today and ask him.

LA,
Now I have to read Kafka On The Shore.

Tara,
I'll never give up hope!

Myutopia,
Why did your library close? My sympathies!

Dewey,
I find it odd that they think it's their fault. I hardly know any Korean, but I don't feel apologetic about it. If those parents talk at all, if you light up and act encouraging, they'll get progressively braver.

Maggie,
I really do want to browse the books, but the librarian seems terrified of me. I hate to stress her even more. Ummmm, ordering fiction. Yummy.

Bookfool,
No decent libraries, no bathtub -- this'll teach me to do research next time I move to a foreign country!

Lucca,
Oh, I have books -- I'm actually backlogged right now, but I crave the actual experience of browsing in libraries.

tinylittlelibrarian said...

Wow, that is frustrating! No library books and no bathtub, to boot - two of my favourite things! You definitely have my sympathies.

Isabella said...

Thanks for the perspective. I like to complain about my own local (Montreal) public libraries having crappy English sections, but it's not that bad, and I'm sure it could be made a lot better if I had the guts to approach the librarians with my less-than-perfect French.

Remember that Twilight Zone episode, when everyone's frozen, and the guy's looking forward to reading in peace and quiet and he breaks his reading glasses? Sometimes it feels like that. Surrounded by books you can't read.

Dewey said...

I'll remember that and give it a try!

Bookfool said...

No bathtub!!! Horrors!

Lotus Reads said...

Oh Bybee, I get very grumpy without a well-stocked library. When I lived in Dubai for a few years I suffered the same fate as you, not only did they not have adequately-stocked libraries, but the more frustrating part was the number of books that were banned...as a result, even the bookstores were not always fun to visit. Is there any way we can send you a bunch of books from here?