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Interview with Kristina – an American expat in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan

Updated 8 Feb 2017

Serial expat Kristina Gray has spent over 15 years living outside of the US, her home country. Having lived in countries including Ukraine, the Phillippines and China, here she speaks to Expat Arrivals about her time in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Currently, Kristina is back on home soil in America. Check out her blog, Kazakh Nomad, for regular updates from Minnesota.

About Kristina

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: US.

Q: When did you move here?
A: I lived in Almaty, Kazakhstan, as a Peace Corps English trainer the summer of 1993. Then fall of 1993 until January of 1995, I was a Fulbright Scholar in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. My husband and I moved to Almaty, Kazakhstan in fall of 2007 until March of 2011.

Q: Did you move to Almaty alone or with a spouse/family?
A: The first time I was single but the second day in Kazakhstan, I met my future American husband on May 2, 1993. We were married by December 1994. I came the second time to teach at KIMEP University in Kazakhstan for the fall semester of 2007 when my husband got a full-time teaching job at KIMEP, a Westernized university.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: As a trainer, I worked with the first batch of Peace Corps volunteers on the technical aspect of how to be English teachers in the summer of 1993. When I returned to Almaty, Kazakhstan in the fall of 2007, I taught TESOL English to the first-year students at KIMEP until the end of 2009. After several years teaching in Almaty, we then moved in January 2010 to Astana where I eventually taught a Professional Development class at Nazarbayev University (NU) to ten teachers, I was part of the start-up of NU. I left Astana and NU in March of 2011 to return to Minnesota.

Living abroad

Q: What do you enjoy most about the cities you’ve lived in? How do they compare?
A: I have had the advantage of living in Almaty, the former capital city of Kazakhstan. Almaty is much warmer in the southern part of Kazakhstan and has a long history. Another Central Asian city I have lived in was Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, a neighbour and close to Almaty by about a three to four hours’ drive. I also have taught in the new capital of Kazakhstan, Astana, in the northern part which does not have as much history but has more futuristic buildings. Almaty had mountains to look at and enjoy while Astana was just a start-up city with many building projects going on.  Almaty was established while Astana was finding its own identity.

We had better apartment situations in Astana than in Almaty. What I enjoyed most about all three Central Asian cities was the warmth and hospitality of some of my fellow teachers and hosts in each country. I learned much history that is little known or talked about in the Western world.  The country of Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world and yet not very well populated so there is little representation of people from Kazakhstan to explain who and what their country and culture should be known for.  I would explain to people once I came back to the US that it is a diamond in hiding, very valuable with a very rich and proud culture. The same could be said about Kyrgyzstan as well but they do not have the oil resources and wealth Kazakhstan does. The Kyrgyz people are every bit as proud of their own culture and history as the Kazakhs are.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home? 
A: The negatives in all three places that I lived in over six years was that the former Soviet mentality prevailed. It was still very much present in the decisions that were made in administration, particularly in older established institutions of higher learning. Each Western university wanted to be considered in the “world-class” category. However, they had an old and undemocratic way of making their appointments or discriminating against new ideas which they deemed suspicious.

I have experienced teaching under very good administrators in the US and elsewhere. Unfortunately, I never experienced such misinformation or unfortunate decisions made against foreign faculty as when I lived in both Almaty and Astana. But I also witnessed erroneous decisions made against their own Kazakh or Russian teachers if they were smarter or had more experience overseas than their authority figures. It seemed there was a pecking order of not who was the most qualified to take a certain position but who fit into the party line of whatever the administrator believed. I saw many good and conscientious teachers let go while those who were ill-equipped to teach continued to teach because they had an “in” with the very unqualified administrators. What I missed most about my home institutions was there were ways to make your voice heard. However, in Kazakhstan, if there were any complaints about certain policies that worked negatively against the faculty member(s) or ultimately the students, it never seemed to be resolved or changed.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Kazakhstan? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?

One thing across the board with the different apartments we lived in while teaching in Almaty was dealing with landlords or landladies. I did not have a problem in Bishkek and I had a good experience in Astana, however, we would hear other terrible experiences from others about their apartments.

One thing too about Almaty is that you would want a place that was higher up the slant of the mountain than lower where all the smog gathered. The rent costs would be higher the farther away from our university campus you would go, but the air was cleaner.

Living in Almaty, you might also give directions for being on the upper part of the street or the lower side of the street. Another thing is trying to find people’s apartments; there seems to be no rhyme or reason with the numbering system. It was almost better to meet your friend at a grocery store or shop before you ventured by car or taxi to find their home. At night, it was particularly vexing to have a building number beside the street number apart from having to know the floor and apartment number.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to the US? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: I don’t believe it is easy to compare the prices of homes or apartments from my home state to that living in Kazakhstan. They don’t usually ask for a deposit of a month’s rent. The Kazakh landlords might make a distinction of whether the apartment is Kazakh style or American style which means the former might have red carpets on the wall and will have loud paint or wallpaper colours. They will also have a separate toilet area with a shower stall from that of the wash sink.

The American-style place will have bare, white walls and a bathroom that is together with the sink, toilet and tub.  Many older apartments will be like countless others from the Soviet era and might be cheaper.  Most of the time, if there are five to six floors it will not have an elevator and perhaps only stairs which might mean the top floor would charge cheaper rates and might be considered safer than the first or second level. If the apartment has 7 to 15 floors, there will be an elevator and there might be a high charge for that as well as any parking for cars. Usually, if you live in an apartment complex, everyone uses the public transport system. People who live in homes might have an attached garage and they would be charged more rent. I would say that prices are comparable to what you might pay Stateside for the amenities you have, safety, elevator, parking, view, clean air, etc.

Q: How would you rate public transport in Kazakhstan? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: The options in Almaty and Astana were only taxis or buses, no subway in Astana because it is situated on a water-saturated base. You might use a driver on contract who would be paid monthly or for whatever length of time to show up at a certain time to take one to work and back home again. The buses used to be quite packed in Almaty, but I think they got more buses so it eased that problem. Astana had newly equipped buses that were rarely packed. Many of our friends who were in Kazakhstan long term did own cars and drove or hired drivers.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in your Almaty and Astana? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regard to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: In both cities of Almaty and Astana, my university provided their healthcare package. They were very good about getting things taken care of and would assist with having a translator there to help interpret the doctor’s orders or recommendations. I never stayed in a hospital but went to several clinics for different minor reasons. The one university in Almaty had a private physician on call for both faculty and students and they were Western-trained.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Kazakhstan? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: I would recommend that the biggest safety issue to be aware of is walking on the sidewalk and being aware of the drivers on the road. Drivers will drive on the sidewalk if the roads get too congested, and pedestrians do not have right of way as we are used to in the US. The person behind the wheel is the king of the road, and they will make that known to anyone on foot.  Also, be aware of public transport and do not wear your backpack on the bus – that is a dead giveaway that you are a foreigner. You cannot see when they are going through your pockets especially if the bus is crowded.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Astana and Almaty? What different options are available for expats?
A: I would say that most apartments within a certain price range are substandard, the more you pay, the better your accommodation will be. Almaty could be quite expensive the farther up the mountain and away from the main part of the city you go. All different options are available to expats, you have to find out from other expats what they would recommend.

Q: Any areas/suburbs in Almaty and Astana you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: In Almaty, as stated before, away from the smog is better. In Astana, there are many new apartment complexes all over the newer part of the city. If you go to a city that was built during the Soviet period, there might be better prices to negotiate.

Meeting people and making friends in Kazakhstan 

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women etc.?
A: Kazakhs who have lived in the UK or in the US or Canada are much more tolerant of our Western ways. People who have not might be curious about a Westerner but they might not have the language to ask questions. Central Asia is an oral culture, and so many are quick to pick up English and try to talk. I think expats should answer as best as they can in English or whatever level of Russian they are at. If you know Kazakh, then you will be very highly esteemed. I did not detect any obvious discrimination about religion or actions working against women.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: I think it was very easy to make friends with the Kazakhs if they are involved with your working environment. I had many friends at my first university and we would commiserate together over some of the decisions that worked against us. There were many good teachers in the first place. In the second university, I did not get to know as many of the British teachers because we were kept separate within our Professional Development group. The way I met other expats and nationals, besides attending church, was by joining the women expats' community. I would attend the weekly meetings which were far more active in Almaty than in Astana. Many expats could compare their stories from other countries about what they had experienced in their own work or home environment.

Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?
A: I would make friends with the locals at work but I would mix with the expats who were in different jobs or workplaces than my own. I would recommend starting up some kind of club that is of interest to you and finding out if people, whether locals or expats, want to join your interest. If there are groups like skiing, walking, running, cooking or book clubs already in existence, join them to meet other people. I took a very active part with the Almaty women’s club that met every week at a high-profile hotel, and I was also active in the Astana expat women's club at a big Western hotel that was just starting up.

About working in Kazakhstan

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: I think in all instances, our universities helped us to get our visa and work permit. In my last attempt to get a visa, it was stamped in Russian something to the effect of “MUST NOT WORK”, which meant that I could not be employed while my husband had a job. It was a very short period and if my future, temporary employer were to hire me, they would be prohibited to pay me for teaching. I did not use the last visa I had paid for.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Almaty and Astana? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: The economic climate in Almaty seemed to be higher priced because the city was no longer the capital of the country. Whereas Astana was also expensive because it was the new capital of the country. I would recommend that you know before you go to either city or anywhere in Kazakhstan that you have a job before you arrive. It is very difficult to negotiate contracts without a go-between you can trust to work out your pay and also the policies or rules of the hiring organization. I experienced some difficulties working at NU because they needed my contract to be in three languages, English, Russian and Kazakh. That seemed excessive and perhaps the rules have changed because it is difficult to have all the fine-tuning taken care of.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Kazakhstan?
A: The work culture in the Kazakh environment compared to what I am used it is that many of the Kazakhs will tackle doing things without much experience but they will try the best they know how. However, they will also use people to benefit them in order to get something done and you have to be careful about what is said about you. I had an administrator that lied about my job performance in front of my Kazakh colleagues, I was not ready for that kind of attack and was taken off guard. Best to document everything that you do and make sure that the truth wins out. In Almaty, I had a few fellow Kazakh teachers who worked with me and took the credit but were ready to purge me as a “friend” once my methods or ways of teaching did not line up with what they all did. Document and gain favour with all by diplomatically telling the truth when necessary. 

When signing off from the NU university in Astana, one administrator claimed I was using one of their computers that they issued to all teachers and that I must return it. I was shocked and very saddened. I had asked for a computer from the very beginning not only for my use as a teacher but also for my ten students to have a computer lab. That was always denied but then they expected me to give back a computer I never had. I used two of my own computers to conduct classes the whole time I was in Astana. That is why you need to be sure of all your facts but even when you have that on your side, logic and truth might not win out. Beware of contracts and beware of administrators or colleagues that do not see democracy the same way you do.

Family and children in Kazakhstan

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: My husband knows Russian, so that helped in many instances with negotiating our contracts with landlords or landladies. Challenges for a “trailing spouse” might be that they don’t know or understand your work environment. In our case, we were both in the same institutions most of the time so there was a basic understanding of the complexities that came up. If both have a life outside of work together such as clubs or church or other expats to hang out with, then there are no major adjustments to deal with within that relationship. It should be a team effort because you often feel baffled and outnumbered as an outsider in a different environment.

Q: What are the schools in Astana and Almaty like, any particular suggestions?
A: I witnessed the Orken (intellectual) schools in Astana which are the accelerated schools for Kazakh students. These students were worked very hard, and because of the shortage of schools that there are early morning classes and then afternoon classes with two different student populations. They needed to use the same schools. I knew some of the expats who had their children go to the Kazakh public schools but because of the scheduling of classes, one child might be there in the morning and the other in the afternoon. There were the expensive Westernized schools that our expat friends taught at which are probably the best place to register children because they will be in classrooms with many different cultures and it was taught in English.

Final thoughts on Kazakhstan

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?
AI think the best advice is to let people know when you need help. I was going back to a new apartment that I had only seen during the day. I was taking a bus up the hill in Almaty and I was not sure where to get off and then how to walk in the dark through fences and into the courtyard of our new place.  My Russian is not that good but I had the directions to my place written out.  I was “talking” to someone on the bus about where my next stop was and he helped me get past a drunk in the opening of a fence and he walked me to my door. (I had to fumble in my purse for the combination of that outside door). I believed this stranger to be an angel. In my very bad Russian, I tried to let him know that he had saved me and he seemed pleased that he had done this good deed for a stranger.  I suppose I would have eventually figured out how to get to my apartment by another longer and “safer” route but it made me mindful that there are many Kazakh people who want to help, just let them know what you need.

Another instance was a young Kazakh father who had an infant daughter he was carrying. I was walking home from my university and I could see the complex situation he found himself in. His little boy of about five to six years old and his little friend had both run across the busy trafficked street to get to their car. He was yelling at them in Kazakh and chasing after them; he had to put down the little toddler. I stayed with the little girl and he saw me there talking to her while he chased after his boys. I hoped to allay any fears he had about taking on three children under the age of five in the big city. I was being a guardian to his little one.

I was helped by a stranger who I termed my angel. In turn, I had helped a young Kazakh father when the necessity arose. People are the same in whatever country you live in; keep smiling and helping others.

– Interviewed in December 2016

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