On Birthdays and Celebrations in Kazakhstan

I must admit that I was a little bit apprehensive about living with a Kazakh host family for the summer as a 30-year-old PhD candidate. It is difficult enough to play the appropriate roles when I visit my own parents! But so far, I have had nothing short of an amazing experience.

A week into my time here I had my 31st birthday. I thought about keeping it to myself, but I decided to tell my host family. They got excited about it and so did I. It came on a Friday, which was perfect timing. They laid out an extravagant table with everything from homemade fruit juice (kompot) to besmarmak, the traditional Kazakh dish of noodles and horsemeat. I had eaten horsemeat in a restaurant a few days before and it was nothing to write home about. But with my host family it was a totally different experience. The closest equivalent I can think of is turkey, dark meat. And the associations with Thanksgiving made it an even more special experience. Delicious!

Members of the family gave beautiful toasts, and I tried to reciprocate with my own sincere words. There was dancing accompanied by live music on the dombra. As the party was winding down, my host mother disappeared for a few moments and came back with two kolpak hats! White with sky blue and gold-colored ornament, these hats share the same colors of the Kazakh flag. Perhaps the most touching thing is that the host mother had gotten two hats, one for me and one for my American friend, who also is studying Kazakh here for the summer. After our bellies were full, we took a walk around the neighborhood together to aid the digestion. It was a beautiful summer evening right at dusk. I had a great birthday, especially since it was so unexpected that the family would go out of their way to make it special for me and for them.

In addition to celebrating my birthday, I have had a chance to enjoy the Kazakh national holiday, President’s Day, which came this past week (July 6). My host sister and her friend invited me to the President’s park in the heart of Almaty. It was a beautiful, slightly cool, evening, and we caught the park right at sunset. The park is expansive, open, and new. As I entered the park, a breathtaking view of an elaborate fountain with mountains in the background arrested my attention. The park was full without being crowded. They were lots of people, mostly young families with kids playing around the fountain. I could feel the positive energy. The closest equivalent would be July 4th—a holiday predicated on good summer weather and appreciation for peace and stability. It took us a good forty minutes to walk all the way through the park and it was worth it. It was an evening of relaxation and reflection, with plenty of Kazakh language practice!

The members of my Kazakh family have been ideal hosts, and I work to reciprocate their kindness by being a flexible and appreciative guest. They have shown interest in me and I have shown interest in them and their Kazakh culture. I think I have become more than just a student who rents a room from them. When I return to Kazakhstan, my first action will be to visit them, share a meal, and catch up!

By: Beach Gray

Program: Eurasian Regional Language Program (ERLP)

Term: Summer 2015

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