It’s been a month since I’ve arrived in Almaty. This is my first time in Kazakhstan, and it’s been lovely so far. The city is beautiful, the people are generally kind and their open and welcoming nature is reflected in their traditions.
One tradition that I’ve encountered more than once occurs at the dining table. In Kazakhstan, if you’re invited to someone’s home for a meal, your host will serve you food and continuously serve food as long as you keep eating! At first this astonished me because I thought they really believed I could eat so much food. The last thing I wanted to do was offend the host, so I would keep eating. I didn’t understand that no matter how much I ate, no matter how hard I tried to finish what was on my plate, they would always, without fail, put more for me to eat.
As my first meal as a guest went on, I began to be bothered by their insistence. I tried to explain that everything was delicious and that I was full, but that wasn’t of much use. The second time someone invited me to their home, I began to look at the other guests around the dining table and wondered how they were managing. Could they be eating as much as me? How is it possible that they could eat like this? Then I noticed the other visitors were no longer eating, yet they did not have empty plates. A small piece of meat, some bread or a half eaten samsa, all plates contained some food. That was the “ah-ha” moment when I finally understood how to be a polite guest. If I was full, all it took to show it was to not completely finish my plate!
While that seemed strange for an me, I later recognized their reasoning. Their goal is to take care of and treat the visitor as hospitably as possible. A guest, for instance, may be shy to ask for someone to pass over a tasty dish, so hosts make sure that their guest has access to all the foods laid out on the table. For Kazakhs, they simply want everyone to feel comfortable and eat well.
Another tradition that was strikingly different for me at dinner was toasting. When family, friends and guests gather at the dining table for a special occasion, you can count on toasts. They can be short or long, sometimes funny but usually heartfelt, and it’s something I was not prepared to do. The first occasion was a birthday party for the two-year-old daughter of the host. I heard friends toasting for her health, her happiness and even her future husband! I thought I would simply watch and listen, but as the toasts went down the table, it reached my turn, and all eyes turned on me. I felt nervous since I had the attention of so many people and was about to give my first toast in Russian, but all turned out OK. It seemed that they were more content with my willingness to partake in their tradition than what I actually said.
For anyone traveling to Kazakhstan, prepare yourself for the dining table. Now you know how not to over eat while still showing your gratitude, and you’re aware that if the event is a special occasion, you probably will be asked to give a toast.
By: Esus Oberlaender
Program: Russian Language & Area Studies, Almaty, Kazakhstan
Term: Spring 2019