At our last Staff Day, I received a certificate marking my 25 years with the same library. My first reaction was, “OMG, I’ve worked here longer than I did in Russia!” My second thought was, “How old does that make me?!” (A silly reaction: it’s not as if I hadn’t noticed how much I have aged!). And my third thought was, “Things have definitely changed since I came to this country…”
I won’t lie and tell you that I became a librarian because of my humanitarian nature. You’d be hard pressed to find many Russians who give a hoot about humanity. That’s how we were brought up. We come from a country where everything was about “us” versus “them,” where “us” was our never-wrong-Russia and “them” was the rest of the world, hated and envied at the same time.
I didn’t become a librarian because of my love for books either. This is not to say that I don’t like reading. I do, but that wasn’t my motivation. Librarianship just happened to me.
When I arrived in the USA, I was 39 years old and spoke no English, so my first job here was as a nurse’s aide at a nursing home. I worked the night shift. This was good, because very few residents felt talkative at night. But it was also bad, because I couldn’t sleep during the day. After four months of chronic sleep deprivation, I felt like a zombie. When a friend told me that our local public library was looking for a shelver, I applied immediately. (Had he told me that someone was looking for a non-English-speaking-woman to send to Mars, I’d have applied for that, too, so miserable was I.) That’s how my library career began.
In the beginning, I was terrified of everything: library patrons who tried to talk to me and my colleagues who mostly pitied me. I was especially afraid of getting fired — because the little money I earned was my only source of income. Yet, gradually, I learned English, went back to school, got a Master’s degree in Library Science, and, eventually, became a full-fledged librarian – all while working at the same library.
I never regretted my choices. While librarians are not seen as glamorous creatures but rather as homely women of an uncertain age who wear square glasses, working at the library gave me a chance to learn about my new country. It also gave me a chance to work with like-minded people in an environment where camaraderie is valued above competition and where knowledge is more important than showing off.
Every day, I met lots of people – men and women, old and young. Most of them were patient with me, even when I made mistakes – and I made many mistakes when I first started. I confused whales with Wales, deer with dear, awful with awefull, sweet with suite, corps (as in Corps of engineers) with corpse, etc. And then there were idiomatic expressions and sports metaphors that made no sense to me.
Of course, it wasn’t just at work that I met people. There were people who, seeing me walk in 95-degree weather, stopped their cars and asked if I needed a ride (at the beginning, I had no car). There were sales clerks at grocery stores who – after realizing that I was a foreigner – said, smiling, “Welcome to this country!” And there were neighbors who, when a tornado hit our town, came to our door to take me and my daughter to the basement. (We never had tornadoes in Moscow, so during my first tornado, I actually went shopping!)
I remember writing a letter to my parents describing Midwesterners as friendly and nice, although somewhat reserved. (The latter I experienced first-hand when I married a Midwesterner whose natural inclination is to suffer in silence, while mine is to complain openly :)).
It’s all behind me now. Having lived here for 25 years, I know not to look for animals falling from the sky when I hear, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” I don’t consider putting stamps on someone’s clothes when they say, “Keep me posted,” and I don’t worry about people’s limbs when they buy things that cost “an arm and a leg.” My ignorance and my Russian suspicion were cured long ago by experience and by the incorrigible Midwestern niceness.
Yet lately things have changed. These days, America seems to be catching up with Russia in racism and animosity toward the rest of the world. It’s as though Pandora ’s Box has suddenly opened, and ugly thoughts and behavior, usually hidden, have came out in the open. Vulgarity, misogyny and xenophobia have become a new norm, propagated not just by neo-Nazis but even by the man who hopes to become our next president.
It hurts me to watch this new America, since my many years spent among nice people stripped me of the protective shield I had developed in Russia, where open anti-Semitism was the norm, and where total strangers insulted me – and others like me — by calling us “kikes” and telling us to “get out” of the country of our birth.
Of course, most of this does not happen to me personally. After all, I work at a library, and I live in a college town. So I was unprepared for the day when an older, respectable-looking man approached our reference desk with a question, and, on hearing my accent, said, “Where did you come from?”
I looked up from my computer – I was already working on his request – and said, “I’m from Russia.”
“I see,” He said, accentuating each word. “When I lived in Chicago, I dealt with your kind a lot!”
My heart began racing. “What kind is that?” I wanted to say. But I did not. I knew exactly what he meant. In his eyes, I, as an immigrant, did not deserve to be treated as an individual but as a part of some dirty mass. A pest to be rid of.
“Are you worried about me taking someone’s job?” I said, blood rushing to my face. “Don’t be. There wasn’t much competition for my position 25 years ago.”
There were lots of other things I wanted to tell him. But, my professional ethics kicked in, and I took a deep breath and continued helping him.
When the man left, I felt deflated. Nothing was new about the way he addressed me. Degrading human beings was a tactic used by Joseph Goebbels to dehumanize German Jews. At first they were called rats and vermin, and then, when everyone got used to that, they were sent to concentration camps and gassed.
When I came home, my husband, whose American roots go back more than 200 years and to whom I’ve been married for 18 years, said, “I apologize to you for that man, honey.”
That episode happened two weeks ago, but still, I cannot forget it. In the larger scheme of things, it may not seem important. But it is. Because every horror starts small. And if we let it go, if we tell ourselves that, after all, it’s not directed at us – we are not immigrants or Mexicans; we are not disabled or Muslims– a little story told by Martin Niemöller may easily repeat itself:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved
P.S. If anybody’s interested, here’s a link to my interview with our local PBS station, where I talk about my book, “The Education of Traitor:”