Our Campus: Head of the Asian Library Shirin Eshghi Furuzawa is a scholar and mother

Shirin Eshghi Furuzawa never planned to become a librarian.

We sat at a small round table in the southwest corner of her office, which she said had been unused for over a year. Her room is tucked behind the circulation desk at the entrance to the Asian Library, its door left open. Unfilled bookshelves take up three walls of her office — a reminder of the ongoing renovations and the impermanence of this space. The fourth is a full-length window which looks out to the garden surrounding the pavilion and through which the continual sounds of construction entered.

While Eshghi Furuzawa was an undergraduate at UBC she was looking for a job. She happened to hear about a student librarian position through a means she’s since forgotten. Laughing, she recalled being the last to enter her name for the lottery used to randomly assign the job. Now, decades later, Eshghi Furuzawa is head of the Asian Library.

“I thought maybe I’d do a minor in Japanese language,” said Eshighi Furuzawa. But her interest grew as she learned more, and Japanese became her main area of study.

Her start with Japanese literature was sparked by her Japanese high school roommate. She planned to make it just a small part of her education and keep her main focus on learning French with the intention to become a diplomat.

It was Dr. Kinya Tsuruta’s classes — which required Eshghi Furuzawa to translate snippets of Japanese text — that helped her realize that the language was her real interest. So she went on exchange to Japan in her third year.

She is still studying Japanese Literature.

Currently, Eshghi Furuzawa is writing her PhD dissertation, which focuses on “the aspects of sexuality that come through in Japanese literature ... and how women writers portray sex and sexuality within Japanese literature.”

As an Iranian-Canadian who immigrated to Canada with her family when she was very young, Eshghi Furuzawa told The Ubyssey that she felt somewhat disconnected from her culture when she was younger. Learning about and immersing herself in Japan's culture on exchange helped her contextualize her identity and understand different conceptions of the world.

“I got a different view of everything. And a different view of gender even; what it means to be a woman and all of that. The perspective is a bit different when you're looking at it through different literature from a different country. And it also helped me not feel like I needed to adhere to the perspective that I was shown when I was growing up,” said Eshghi Furuzawa.

Growing up in Vancouver, there were few people who shared her family's heritage, and her parents prioritized helping her learn English over Farsi.

“The pressure was quite high for them to make sure they did things in English with me,” Eshghi Furuzawa said.

During her teenage years, she enrolled in the heritage language program to learn to communicate with her grandparents who also lived in Vancouver and did not speak English. Her parents helped her with her language learning homework. “It really brought us closer,” said Eshghi Furuzawa.

She wants to pass down both Farsi and Japanse to her children. She humbly described her Farsi and her husband’s Japanese as “definitely not perfect,” but she wants to speak with and read to her children in the languages regardless. She encourages other parents to do the same and says many take books out of the Asian Library for that purpose.

“It is so important for everybody’s mental health to feel like they can continue with their culture and their traditions and their language and learn from each other as well,” Eshghi Furuzawa said.

Eshghi Furuzawa gave birth to both her children during her tenure as head of the Asian Library. The older of the two, aged 5, is enrolled in a Japanese language preschool, and she intends to enrol her youngest, aged 2, as well.

Being a new mom and the head has been a lot to manage, and Eshghi Furuzawa acknowledges this. “It has been really difficult, and I couldn’t say to you or to anyone else that you should do this because it’s so tough, and I wish it wasn’t quite so difficult.”

Following the birth of her first child, Eshghi Furuzawa took nine months of parental leave instead of the permitted eighteen. Though she was able to manage her responsibilities as a mother and head, she felt “really stretched.” She felt internal and external pressure to return to work as she didn’t want to miss out on important discussions.

“I’ve had to [accept] that things will move on,” Eshghi Furuzawa said.

After the birth of her second child she decided to take her full eighteen months of leave. Even with an incredibly supportive husband being a mother is still a very demanding job in ways that are not always recognized by the university.

UBC awards merit-based raises to its employees using its Performance-based Merit Pay program. This requires that staff submit a report of their activities each year for evaluation. This can disadvantage individuals dealing with the stresses in their life. “I didn't do presentations or papers, or whatever it is that we typically applaud people for. I really wish that we had a culture where we would applaud people for being able to manage all the things they need to manage personally as well as professionally,” said Eshghi Furuzawa.

Eshghi Furuzawa “dreads” writing these reports during periods when her work as a mother has made her less productive. “It can reflect your life sometimes but not all the time,” said Eshghi Furuzawa. She has had to give herself compassion during these times.

“I’m doing what I need to do,” she reflected.

Eshghi Furuzawa suggested that it may be necessary to change what “productive” means and acknowledge the work done by individuals dealing with “elder care, parental issues, illnessor other things.”

“I just had two kids. That’s the definition of productive,” Eshghi Furuzawa said, laughing.

She said that she doesn't know of any other “new moms” at her level or higher at UBC, lamenting the common preconception that women and mothers are not natural leaders. Despite feeling welcomed by upper management in her role while being a mother including President Santa Ono and her PhD supervisor as a mother, reactions have sometimes been less positive when she has brought her child to work and to events, she has organized.

“Some people are really taken aback,” recalled Eshghi Furuzawa. “There was a little bit of a jolt ... it’s not the norm.” These pressures and reactions wear on women and mothers, taking away their time and energy.

“This constant sort of having to prove that you're professional, that you're a leader. And then the kid thing may make you look even less of a leader. So then, you try to overcompensate and I really want to get out of that, just for my own mental health.”