My husband and I moved to Kazakhstan back in 1995 with our two small children, aged 2 and 4 months old. To say it was an adjustment would be an understatement. Kazakhstan had just become an independent country less that 4 years prior and was going through all the growing pains of a post-communist, newly independent country. However, there is a benefit in being thrust into a completely different environment than one is used to. Over time, I began to see with new eyes and learn to appreciate and open my heart to all that I was becoming a part of. We added two more children to our family and the six of us ended up living in Kazakhstan until our oldest graduated from high school in 2011. Now Kazakhstan is our adopted home country. I appreciate the opportunity to share just a few of the many things I learned during our extended time there.
- Time is for people. I was shocked to find out that no one ever planned a party or gathering more than 1-2 days in advance in Kazakhstan. Coming from a very scheduled culture, I wondered how this could possibly work. But somehow, amazing get togethers happened on a regular basis with very little advanced notice. I eventually realized that it works because everyone agrees that they are not going to be controlled by their calendars. If everyone in an entire society is always available, then you can do things as the occasion arises. It doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does. Even when phones were scarce in the early days and the internet basically non-existent, somehow everyone knew the news. I grew to love people arriving at my house unannounced and staying for as long as felt right. Each situation was given the time it needed. After all, time is for people, right? We don’t exist to serve time. Now coming back and living in Los Angeles, I have really had to readjust to my country’s way of doing things and I often I wish it could be more like what I learned in Kazakhstan.
Fresh produce really does taste better. Almost all produce in Kazakhstan is sold in little neighborhood stands and is incredibly fresh. I’m going to be honest with you – it tasted way better than what I’ve had here, especially what comes from U.S. grocery stores. Kazakhstanis are very pragmatic about their yards and only plant trees that will actually produce something edible for the family. Coming back to the U.S., I adopted this practice and filled my yard full of fruit trees and herbs and berries. After all, what better way to use a yard in California, the land of produce? My yard has given back hundreds of dollars each year in fresh, tasty produce and I’m thankful for this value I learned. Privacy is overrated. One thing many Americans hold near and dear to their hearts is privacy. In contrast, privacy isn’t really much of a concept in Kazakhstan. My Kazakh neighbors would ask me all kinds of questions like how much money I made, what my house cost, why I had gained weight, etc. Obviously, this was a shock to my system at first. However, what I realized is that the main way you learn things is by asking questions. The beauty of this aspect of Kazakh culture is that I could ask many questions in return, and as a result, I learned a lot about their beliefs and practices. Furthermore, this freedom to learn through questions has come back with me to the U.S. and while sometimes it gets me in trouble, it has also given me a great deal of understanding that I would not have otherwise obtained.
- Social security is just that – social. In the U.S., we rely heavily on the government to help us in challenging situations – unemployment, mental illness, aging, poverty, etc. However, the governmental safety net in Kazakhstan is much smaller. As a result, people have to rely on their family and neighbors and put an extremely high value on these relationships. The grandma who lived next door regularly gave us milk from her goat. We wanted to thank her by giving her money. She refused to take it. She wanted to give us the milk. However, she told us that if she ever needed someone to go fetch the goat from the pasture if she couldn’t do it she would call on us, and she did. She also said she would call on us to pay for the vet if the goat got sick. That is the neighborly system. Family is definitely expected to help out other family – often girls were sent from the village to live with relatives who needed help with their young children. In exchange, they were able to go to school in the city. I have always valued family and neighbors, but Kazakhstan gave me a deeper understanding of just how important your community is to weather the storms and challenges of life. The Lone Ranger mentality only gets you so far.
- Honor what gives you life. In Kazakhstan, bread is equated with life. If a piece of bread accidentally drops to the floor, you must pick it up. Some even kiss it and put it up high. Leftover bread is carefully put in a packet and left out for needy neighbors. Kazakhstan has gone through times of famine, and Kazakhstanis never forget the importance of bread. Similarly, Kazakhs honor the elderly and their ancestors that came before them. All Kazakhs are supposed to know and be able to recite their family line seven generations back. Furthermore, in Kazakhstan you never contradict an elder. They are always given the seat and position of honor. The elderly are looked to for wisdom and have high respect. Everyone knows that they came from their elders and owe them their very lives. I have become much more interested in my own heritage (even further back than my parents and grandparents) due to my time living in Kazakhstan. The elderly are meant to be the elders of our society, giving us wisdom for life, and we would all benefit from treating them as such.
I have many, many more stories to tell, but I’ll stop here. No country is perfect, be it Kazakhstan or the U.S. or some other place. However, the opportunity to learn from another culture is a huge benefit and one for which I will be forever grateful.