Though I didn’t have a word for it then, the library was my “safe space.” A place free from cultural and social barriers, a place where expression and limitless imagination was encouraged between the spaces of the sentences you read in your favorite book. My most treasured memories as a first generation immigrant to America were during those elementary school days I spent in the murky green chairs among the strong smell of well-handled books.
Books saved me because I felt from a young age as if I had no safe space to speak my mind or just simply be myself – and books gave me that chance to escape.
Having grown up in the Philippines prior to my family’s big move to California when I was 10, I experienced a culture shock like no other. While I had a good handle of the English language, it was often obscured because of my heavy accent. Because of this, I felt distinctly othered by the kids who would snicker at the way I spoke or read certain words out loud. There were days when I dreaded getting called upon by my teacher because I didn’t want to speak too loud in fear of saying something incorrectly. My rounded accent started to strange to my own ears as it became apparent that no one pronounces their “t’s” and “r’s” quite as hard as I did. And as the insecurity built up, the sharp laughs that rose silently in my own head would mock me every time I even opened my mouth to speak.
I was essentially lost between cultures – trying to “fit in” desperately as I tried to marry my native roots as a Filipino and integrate it in to American culture. But stepping foot into the library bridged that vast gap that fractured my sense of identity.
In the library none of the things I worried about mattered. You could be whoever you wanted to be. You weren’t required to explain who you were – you were blessedly anonymous. In a library, it was perfectly acceptable to plop in to a chair, bury your head in a book, and never utter a single word. It only required you to have the patience to absorb the words on a page. And I loved the idea that a book doesn’t pass judgment: It’s indifferent to its reader’s place of origin. It doesn’t require you to keep up appearances or expect you to impress. It’s like having a one way conversation with a very interesting, wordy person who’s simply content with the fact that you’ve graced them with your silent presence.
It was there where I grew up the most – between bookshelves, transporting myself to worlds unknown in every page I read and every word I learned to say. I was no longer the “foreigner” student who moved from a country half a world away. I was whoever I wanted to be.
But as my library card soundlessly expired months into my 7th grade year in middle school, I abandoned the books and replaced it with the shiny new iPhone I got that Christmas. And like every other kid during the internet revolution, it seemed inevitable to get swept up with the endless possibilities that our smartphones offered. The 2010 era was when Instagram, Twitter, and Vine (the “holy trifecta”) became home to the birth of millennial slang and viral videos. Suddenly, I learned how to speak the cultural language. Through multi-platform social networking sites, I learned to speak the digital vernacular through hashtags and trending topics and colorful filters. Suddenly, everyone at the school lunch table was talking the same language.
As I grew into my adolescent years, I didn’t think I needed the library to escape into a safe space anymore. I didn’t need to “escape” from my peers because I knew how to, in a sense, to talk like them and speak their language.
But what I didn’t know then was the process of growing never stopped there.
A wealth of information, virtual connections, and visual excitement may exist in the back pocket of our jeans – but there’s still a certain novelty that exists in the physical space of a library. Of course, I grew up a lot from when I first held a book. I’m 19 years old now – my bookshelf is filled to the brim with books that are still waiting to read, and I’m now fruitfully struggling through my first year of college.
But a couple of weeks into my first semester at Diablo Valley College, I once again felt that same choked up feeling of insecurity. It was the same kind of self-doubt I felt as a young girl when I was learning how to fit in. I was suddenly so scared for the unsure future ahead of me and questions ran through my head like a mantra: “What university the best fit for me?” “What do I want my future to look like?” And the worst of them all: “is it even worth it?”
It was just a couple of weekends ago when I decided to completely rearrange my room so I could clear my mind. And as I was picking my way through a haphazard stack of papers I’d shoved into my study desk – lo and behold – a plastic blue card came bouncing out of one of my folders. It might have been a sign from the universe. But even if it wasn’t, I still gladly accepted it. In that moment, I decided to accomplish the arbitrary task of finally renewing my archaic library card.
As I walked into the double doors of the library I used to frequent near “Old Town” Pittsburg, I was immediately hit with a low-hum of nostalgia. It’s like that jolt of giddiness you feel when you turn on the radio and it’s playing a song you haven’t heard in ages.
I stood in the spaces between the shelves and grazed my hands along the spines of each book – books I once couldn’t reach but am now able to pull off the shelves. It’s not the same exact shelves I remembered as a kid, yet I could imagine in that moment that sense of unchanging fortitude I felt when they towered over me in the past.
As I breathed in the very dusty air (another quirk that you can’t seem to find anywhere else), I had a mini revelation:
You can’t quite replicate that same feeling of adventure that you get walking through the aisles in ardent search of a book, squinting and tilting your head to read the title on its bindings. There’s a quirky kind of novelty to the creaky chairs and low ceilings, like a fond caress that welcomes you to sit down and revel in the antiquity of it all. And nothing quite compares to cracking open a book and fondling the pages in your hand, or that accomplishment you feel when you get halfway through a really good novel.
Of course, being there forced me to relive all those shoved down memories of my deep insecurities as a child growing up with a conflicted identity. But among these queasy memories was also this resounding feeling of coming home to a place that helped me deal with those insecurities.
I still remember mouthing along to the words of an Artemis Fowl book, bringing home a stack of Lemony Snicket books per recommendation of my librarian, and the odd hours I spent sprawling out volumes upon volumes of Batman issues and examining each panel in exhaustive fervor until my eyes glazed over. I remember immersing myself into the worlds these books offered that helped lift my young, conflicted self from the darkest of places.
Amidst the confusion and insecurity I now similarly feel as a college student, I realized the origin and source of all my escapist comforts was always here between the shelves. The incessant buzzing of my phone that was asking for my attention didn’t even bother me in that moment. And for the first time in weeks, I was finally able to quiet my insecurities and dampen my deafening mind – and once again, escape into imaginative worlds unknown.
Rediscovering my safe space was the reconciliation I needed in this stage of my life as a young adult with an uncertain future ahead of her. In the same way that I ran to my books to find myself then, I run to them now to continue that never ending, messy, and seemingly crazy process of “growing up.” The thing is, you’ll never completely grow away from your childhood comforts. No matter how fast the world turns and no matter how much it changes – the library is a constant. And that’s perfectly fine to me.