Seen as an unusual expat destination, Kazakhstan is a little-known country, and there are very few online resources or guidebooks to help prospective expats prepare for their new life. Famous in the past for a nomadic lifestyle marked by camels and yurts, Kazakhstan has now become a regional economic superpower with modern cities to match. The remnants of the older way of life can still be seen in the villages out on the steppe. Expats moving to this gargantuan country will likely experience some degree of culture shock, though less so in Kazakhstan’s major cities.
Language barrier in Kazakhstan
While Russian is acknowledged as the ‘language of business’ in Kazakhstan, there has been a push to increase the use of Kazakh and to reintroduce lost traditions in the country. Most expats working in Kazakhstan will need to learn Russian, as this is universally spoken in the workplace. That said, even a few words of Kazakh will be highly appreciated by locals.
Although there is some discussion about altering the alphabet and moving the Kazakh language over to Roman script, both Kazakh and Russian are written in the Cyrillic alphabet. This can seem a little daunting on arrival, but it makes sense to learn the letters as quickly as possible. This helps expats adapt to life in Kazakhstan through language acquisition and is useful in everyday situations, such as understanding menus in a restaurant or the signage at the supermarket.
Most Kazakhstanis are keen to learn English, and there is no shortage of opportunities to learn Russian and Kazakh through a language-exchange agreement.
Bureaucracy in Kazakhstan
The post-Soviet bureaucracy in Kazakhstan is highly involved, confusing and often frustrating to both expats and locals alike. The bureaucratic nightmare, more than anything else, is frequently the biggest cultural shock for new arrivals in Kazakhstan.
Most officials only deal with expats infrequently and may therefore be unaware of the requirements for registering a car to an expat owner, for instance. It helps to research the exact requirements before meeting with the relevant authority, and then bringing along evidence of what is required. Remaining polite at all times and keeping a sense of humour will have most locals willing to do their best to help.
Business culture in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstanis want to be perceived to be helpful and always avoid letting people down. The Soviet legacy also means that people's roles within an organisation are very heavily defined, with a clear chain of responsibility.
This combination means that people will typically avoid giving a negative answer to any question and will simply ‘table’ difficult issues, hoping a resolution will come from someone else. This can be very frustrating for the newly arrived expat, and therefore adapting to Kazakhstani business practices can be a challenge. Expats should research the structure of any business, who is responsible for what areas, and address all queries to the relevant person.
Socialising in Kazakhstan
People can appear rude on the streets, so do not expect people to hold open doors or help carry a pram. Even so, expats will soon see that this is very much a facade, as Kazakhstanis are extremely friendly and hospitable.
New arrivals should not be surprised if they get invited to the home of a Kazakhstani they’ve recently met. If invited for a meal, it is polite to bring a small gift for the hosts and to try a bit of every food offered.
Family in Kazakhstan
Family is important in Kazakhstan; elders are respected as wise and knowledgeable, and children are cosseted and adored. The idea of a child-free wedding or celebration would be anathema in Kazakhstan, so expect to see children at all large events, from weddings to New Year’s Eve parties. Do not be surprised if invitees bring young toddlers to an evening meal.
Religion in Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is a secular state, home to people of many ethnicities. Kazakhstanis are proud of the diversity of their population, and the country strives to promote peace between religions worldwide.
There is freedom of worship, but expats should not proselytise. The majority of the population (about 70 percent) is Muslim, with the second-largest religious grouping being Christian.
Alcohol is freely available, although imported wines are exorbitantly priced. Pork is also available, but only at certain stores, and is kept separate from the other meat products. Most Kazakhstanis will enjoy a drink or, if not, will not object to expats drinking. When inviting people for a meal, do check their dietary preferences beforehand to ensure that they can eat the food served.
►For an overview of the ups and downs of expat life in Kazakhstan, read Pros and Cons of Living in Kazakhstan
"The greatest hurdle has been the language barrier. English is spoken more widely now, so you won't search too far to find a conversation. And of course, all attempts at using Kazakh or Russian to communicate encourage the locals to offer a quick tip and support." Read more of Jolene's thoughts on Kazakh culture in her expat interview.
"Kazakh people are warm and welcoming. Our neighbours lost no time in introducing themselves to us as soon as we moved in and people are always stopping to chat in the shops or on the street." Ersatz talks about her experiences with locals in her expat interview.
Are you an expat living in Kazakhstan?
Expat Arrivals is looking for locals to contribute to this guide, and answer forum questions from others planning their move to Kazakhstan. Please contact us if you'd like to contribute.
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