update on the electronic gate

One of the head dude’s here at the Central Library left a few weeks ago to go finish his master’s in Italy.  He e-mailled me and asked how things were going… so I casually mentioned that I was in the process of helping the director write a grant proposal to buy an electronic gate.  Well.  That sparked quite a debate/upset over the whole thing, in which he wrote me several e-mails urging me to try to convince the director not to ask for money to buy the gate, and saying that my job “isn’t just to follow whatever the director telles me to do, but to be an adviser as well”.  I explained that I had initially tried to tell him we didn’t need it, but his mind was set, and at least I had successfully convinced him to go with the least-expensive model.

Then I got this response:

“Hi Nicole,

I am really very concerned about Asia Foundation project. As I side I do not agree with the idea of purchasing electronic gate.
The reasons are:
1. What is the percentage of book lost very year?
2. How much does the library pay for lost books and hire staff to do the check out every year?
3. What is our library mission? To serve the users’ need or to equipe with modern technology? Or to protect books from the thefts?
4. What will the users benefit from that gate?
5. If we use that money (19,000 $) to hire someone to do the checkout, it will last for 20 years.
6. Why not use this money to develop our automated system to make it more standardised.
7. If we have that gate what other additional works do we have to do? We have to take out all the books from the shelves to put the tape in.
8. What about if we have new building? Why not include this in the proposal for new building?

I don’t have any objection with purchasing books, computer and electronic resources. Or even staff development.

Nicole you can print out this mail for Mr. Somephone, so he can share te idea. Maybe you can talk to Mr. Somexay about this.
Is it possible to send me the draft of your proposal?

Sithong ”

So, I got myself in the middle of a big Library-Management argument.  Anyway, the director had already submitted the proposal so there is little I can do at this point.  Yes, I think $20,000 for an electronic gate is a lot of money that could be better spent on other things… but who cares what I think? I’m just somebody who has a piece of paper saying I showed up for class most of the time and turned in a few papers about libraries at some school in Canada.  All they really want me to do here is correct their English documents and make their website “more attractive”.

One of my favorite library ladies, Mrs. Bounsalong, just told me today that she only makes 80,000 Kip per month.  This is roughly equivalent to $9.  I  am not sure if this is a mistake or the truth.  In which case, I think $20,000 could certainly be used for giving the staff raises.  But, this has nothing to do with library politics, all of the staff salaries are determined by the University’s President… who gets his limited budget from the Ministry of Education, and some from student fees.  Basically the University, and therefore the library, as no money.  They can hardly pay their staff.  They certainly can’t buy books or computers.  I just don’t understand why so many Lao people want to be in academia considering how shit it pays in this country.  These are really smart people.  They could be earning loads some place else.

boring work-related post

Well, I guess I am settling into things here and getting used to the idea of living in Laos, now, after 3 months.  The reason I know this is because I feel like I don’t really have any exciting news to post about.

I am still working on the library website.  I created this list of academic electronic resources for the library.  I think it could actually be quite useful in any context, not just the National University of Laos.  I am working on trying to organize it better, and also to organize it by subject, and title of the resource, and possibly make it search-able.  Unfortunately, I just don’t have the computer technical skills at this point to do that sort of thing.

I have also been helping the director write a proposal to The Asia Foundation to purchase a electronic-gate for the library.  I thought that an electronic gate was a little unnecessary, in my experiences the Lao don’t seem like potential library-book thieves.  But, according to the director, and other people I have spoken to, this I am incorrect.  Since books are quite rare in Laos, and the library has a lot of unique materials, and materials from the USA and Thailand and other countries, people are very tempted to steal them.  The director also showed me some kind of list of “missing items” that were checked out and never returned, and we can’t get a hold of the borrowers.

So, for the time being, I am drafting a fax to send to 3M Thailand to solicit quotations for library detection systems.  They are surprisingly expensive.  Like $20,000 for the lowest-end model.  Damn!


It’s so cute I had to post it.

at the central library
at the central library

This guy is the youngest son of one of the ladies I work with.  We like to say that he is my brother, since we like to say that his mother is my mother.  Don’t try to steal any books from the library – or you will have to answer to him.

lao cultural resources at the UCL

I am going to a conference on “Local Knowledge and Indigenous Information Resources” in Thailand next week.  I’m really excited also because the director of the Mahasdrawkan University’s Academic Resource Centre has invited me to stay with her in her house during the conference.  I’m excited about doing a home-stay with a Thai academic!  Hopefully she can teach me to cook some Thai food too.

In preparation for the conference, the director has asked me to scan some “Local information materials” that he can use in his presentation.  In going through some of the stuff I found some hidden gems.

frangpani is the lao national flower
frangpani is the lao national flower

and this one is nice:

but this one is by far the best:

Translated roughly:

the lao young girl, coquette and smiling
greets you with grace, making soft eyes
with a slow, shy, kind and gracious gesture
she knows how to speak to you with a suppliant voice
with her lao skirt, her primping
she shines everywhere with a great brightness
peaceful, she is attached to the ground by her ancestors
Weaver,  housewife, she leaves, seductively
to the market
then back to her home kitchen
preparing her best lunch and dinner
the lao girl, modest and prudent
prefers to stay at home, taking care of her pleasant foyer
helping her mother to care for her housework
What agreeable sweet asylum and hospitality!
oh….that Pusao Lao !

some insights into lao culture

I witnessed/participated in a really funny conversation yesterday that I though provided some insight into the Lao culture and thought I should share with the rest of the world.

It began when the ladies told me that the dress I was wearing was very beautiful, and I told them that I had made it.  Then they pointed out that my shoes and my earrings also matched (yes, I did that on purpose.).  Around this time the director wandered over, and started talking about how his outfit matched too; his shoes, his pants, his belt, and his hair were all black!  Then some of the ladies said “What about your underwear?”, and suddenly everyone was trying to guess what color underwear the director was wearing.  He tried to change the subject by asking Mrs. Bounsalome what color underwear she was wearing, to which she replied “No underwear!”.

I thought this was really funny considering the fact that Laos scores quite high on the “power distance index” according to Dutch Sociologist Geert Hofstede; meaning that normally there is a very well defined hierarchy of authority which people tend to respect, and have very high expectations of “professional behaviour”, and are generally quite reserved and reluctant to talk about sex or other topics in a direct way.  But they also usually have a good sense of humor and like to tell dirty jokes!

One of the young guys I work with (Vay) was telling me about some other Lao jokes.  He told me that a lot of Lao jokes are about how all men don’t get along with their father-in-laws.  Kind of like the mother-in-law jokes in the rest of the world, right?  Anyway, he went on to to tell me this really long joke that was actually quite funny.

An old man visits a medicine man and buys some kind of spell that will make him invisible.  So, he goes back home, takes off all his clothes, and does the spell, and then comes out of his house and sees his son-in-law.  He says “Son in law!  I have a magic spell that has made me invisible.  Can you see me?”  Of course, the magic did not work and the son in law and clearly see the naked old man. But he says “Wow!  It’s amazing!  I can’t see you!  You really are invisible.”  Then the son-in-law says “Father, since you are invisible, you should go to the market and everyone will be very impressed.”  So, the father in law decides this is a good idea, and walks to the main road and then to the market, where everyone sees him naked and makes fun of him.

Anyway, I didn’t tell it as good as Vay, but hopefully you get the gist of the joke.  It involved being naked and being mean.

He also told me this strangely sexy joke about how to spell the word “error” in English.  At first I didn’t understand.  “E-R-R-O-R” I said.  And then he said “Eeeeeeeee, ahhhhr, ohhh ohh, ahhhhhhhhhr.”

I don’t know if that’s appropriate for a workplace but I feel quite comfortable and enjoy the occasional bawdy conversation.

vientiane times

Things have been pretty calm an quiet here in Vientiane.

Last weekend I went to a party at Mr. Seethong’s house, one of the people I work with at the Central Library.

I arrived around 11:30 am, and Mr. Seethong had explained to me that he had invited some monkes over to give them alms and then they would bless his house or something along those lines.  So, when I arrived, the monks were seated on the floor in the living room, eating.  Then, some kind of ceremony took place, where some old guy gave a speech, then the monks started chanting, then the took a bowl of water and flowers, and dipped some leaves in it, and then one of the monks used the wet leaves to sprinkle water all over the place.  I suppose this is not a very good description of the events, but I didn’t really know what was happening, and couldn’t understand anything being said.  They just told me to sit down with my head bent and my hands together.

During this entire ceremony, several people answered their cellphones.  At one point everyone took out small bottles of water and poured them into bowls with candles in them.

Then some people went up to the monks and had them tie string bracelets around their wrists.  Mr. Seethong told me I should go and get one, so I kneeled in front of one of the monks, who is probably about 80 years old, and he tied a white string bracelet around my wrist, and said some things in Lao I did not understand.

Then, at 11:57, all of the monks left.  For some reason also there were rice grains all over the floor.  I tried asking people about the significance of all of these events and aspects of the ceremony but the only thing I could understand was that it was for good luck.

After the monks left, my boss arrived, and some food was served, and excessive amounts of Beerlao were distributed.

While a variety of food was present, the most notable (sorry… no picture) was some kind of Tom Yum style soup with chunks of congealed blood in it.


Luckily, the Beerlao was also served room temperature with lots of ice, so even though they insisted upon refilling my glass every 10 minutes from noon until 3pm, I managed to not get totally schlitzed in front of all of my work colleagues on a Saturday afternoon.

Mr. Chansy Phuangsouketh, Director, Central Library, National University of Laos, and Beerlao spokesperson.
Mr. Chansy Phuangsouketh, Director, Central Library, National University of Laos, and Beerlao spokesperson.

However I did glean this important detail from the whole experience:  the little bracelet the monk gave me would bring me good luck, and according to Mr. Chansy, help me find a “Pubao Lao” (Lao young man) to marry.

mekong flood emergency response team

The Mekong is flooding!  The Mekong is flooding!

Everyday the water has risen a bit higher and now it is dangerously close to flooding the entire city.  I live about 200m from the Mekong so, of course, I am concerned.  I went to go look at the river last night, and ran into a group of teenagers who were making sandbags and putting them along the river.  One young lady (who is actually a pretty interesting character…) approached me and invited me to help them out.  I felt like I should do something, so I accepted.

I helped the kids shovel sand into bags and then tie them closed, and helped haul them to a wheelbarrow.  I had the easy jobs, mostly just tying the bags shut, or holding them open while other people shovelled.  This went on for about an hour last night, during which time some guy on a megaphone kept yelling “Kop Chai Miss USA!  Kop Chai Miss USA!”, which eventually turned into “Thank you, Miss World! “.  The megaphone guy then insisted I take a juicebox and a little package of cookies for my work.  I tried to say “No thank you”, but they would not take no for an answer and told me that all volunteers receive some snacks.  The megaphone guy also told me he would be staying at the river all night, on watch, and would sound an alarm if the waters rose too high.

Even though I didn’t really do much, I got a round of applause from everyone present when it started to rain and I decided to leave around 11 pm.

The girl who invited me to help asked me if I wanted to see her house, which was right on the bank of the river.  She is the one in the picture standing on the sandbags.  I’m not exactly sure what her deal is.  She lives in a huge house by herself, and told me that she has a 42 year old canadian boyfriend in Vancouver.  She also told me that she really wants breast implants and her boyfriend might pay for them for her.  Maybe she’s been reading the Bangkok Post?  I think she was somewhat drunk during the entire time.  I asked her if she had a job and she said she had been a maid for a handicapped man before, but his girlfriend got jealous and made her quit in April, and she hasn’t been working since then.  She seemed really eager to be my friend, but I’m not really sure where this relationship is heading.

The library was also required to form a Mekong Flood Emergency Response Team (I have just decided to call it that, I don’t know what the actual name is for their effort), and 6 of the staff members were required to go to a certain part of the river last night at 11 pm to help sandbag, since they are technically government employees.  I haven’t seen any of the 6 around yet this morning, but I know that it started pouring rain right around 11, so it could not have been an enjoyable experience for any of them.  I hope they took the day off.

These events have resulted in some strange, almost mefloquine-like dreams.  Last night I imagined that the dam at Ban Koen (about 50 km upriver from Vientiane) had broken, and a giant tsunami wave was washing down the Mekong, sweeping all the houses away.  In my dream, in the pouring rain, somewhere Hannah E. Carmichael was playing “Mad World” on the piano, and I was shoveling sand into a military truck.

But the people at the library have assured me that while dams have broken in other countries, this could never happen in Laos and I have nothing to worry about.