Along with delight at returning to a country familiar to me from childhood, the overwhelming impression I have had of Almaty, Kazakhstan, since arriving here for the Kazakh language program, is one of vivacious cosmopolitanism and creativity. Perhaps this is in part because of my host family, who kindly welcomed me into a home full of evidence of travels beyond borders, with links to and experience from places as diverse as Italy, Dubai, the US, and China. My host mother spent time getting her master’s degree only an hour away from where I live in the US! The whole family is well-travelled, connected to international events and people, and their interest in adopting a stray American for the summer clearly springs from a sense of the value of cross-cultural interaction (as well as from the Kazakh tradition of genuine hospitality).
Even if such explicitly international lifestyles are not common to everyone, many of the people I have talked to have travelled outside of Kazakhstan for one reason or another, if only to shop in China for goods to sell in Almaty! Others have relative s to visit in their countries of national origin, people who remained in or later immigrated to Germany, Russia, Israel, or elsewhere. Then, of course, there is the world as it comes to Kazakhstan – from the oil companies in the West that provide and color many people’s experience of work in an international setting, to the plethora of new international franchises setting up shop in Almaty. International visitors, like the (most impressive!) German couple I met who were cycling from Berlin to China, also contribute to this overall impression of vitality and connectivity.
On my very first day here, my host sister took me under her wing for a trip to the mall and some outdoor events, all of which highlighted how connected the city is to the global marketplace. The mall was full of shops and restaurants that I recognized from both the US and the UK (even a Lush store, always fun from the UK!), with others from Australia and elsewhere. We went by a concert, sponsored by Fanta, where a popular singer from Italy and his group performed in English, Kazakh and Russian (often all in one song). We attended a motorcycle-horse show, sponsored by Red Bull, featuring impressive airborne acrobatics by the cyclists and impressive horse-riding skills by a group in traditional (well, traditional-inspired) Kazakh outfits. They even combined the two, as one of the horsemen rode straddling two horses as a motorcyclist drove between them.
As the creative approach of these performances suggests, my impression, at least, is that globalization is less a matter of imitation than of incorporation – a chance to try different things and experiment with new ideas. Perhaps this experimentation springs from necessity rather than leisure. A lovely lady who started her own curtain-making business in western Kazakhstan (in a setting where demand is high as oil workers cycle through) perceptively traced her entrepreneurial skills to earlier experience helping with her mother’s improvised businesses in the years just after everything collapsed. Still, it is striking that such challenges are met with entrepreneurship, rather than with inertia. From the small tramcar café that rides through Almaty twice every evening, providing a quirky and classy (if occasionally lurching) dining experience, to the lady who runs a sort of bespoke fairy-tale book business (personalized to star the child or friend of your choice, in English, Russian and Kazakh), the sense of inventiveness and possibility is palpable.
This dynamic creativity is reflected in the linguistic context as well. In our Kazakh class itself, we speak mainly Kazakh, of course, but explanations are conducted in an improvised mix of Russian, German, and English that always keeps things lively. Conversations on the street and discussions at home similarly involve a whirlpool of languages, which often adds a dimension of camaraderie to even the most mundane conversations. Even at the karaoke bar with my host mother (where my attempt to contribute an Abba song left much to be desired), the group moved between beautiful Kazakh songs and soulful Russian ballads, pop music in English and whatever language is used in Shakira’s “Waka Waka”, with wholehearted enjoyment.
It is an exciting and colorful environment in which to learn.
Posted by Rebekah Ramsay / 07.05.2012