I’ve had a question about greeting/communication in my community, and I thought, although I talked my head off about customs in Kazakhstan when I was home, that I can always say more.
o The first thing I wrote was about greetings. Greetings are especially important for boys and men, who have different greetings than women. For women, it’s usually a hand sandwich with a kiss on the cheek. I’ve seen men greet each other like that, but their traditional greeting is a hand-sandwich, which involves all four hands, thumbs up (usually). Boys take about a million years to finish greeting everyone in the room, and they have to walk around the room to shake everyone’s hand when they come in. It’s true that they don’t do this every time, but if you walk into a room where people are already seated, you’re expected to walk around, at whatever inconvenience, and shake hands. It’s kind of fun. There’s a holiday coming up where this is especially important. I couldn’t get anyone to explain what it meant last year, so all I know is that it’s the hand shaking holiday and that you’re supposed to go to 7 houses. People say “how’s your health?” “How’s your health?” to greet each other.
o As do the Russians, Kazakhs say “ksss ksss” to call animals to food. They don’t often use people words to talk to animals.
o People don’t say thank you if you give them your seat on the bus (you owe it to them) pour tea or give them food (you owe it to them) help them make a purchase (you owe it to them) or do anything else that can be expected of you in your position. That’s not to say that they’re surly or don’t say thanks at all; while American culture tends to castigate people for taking things for granted, Kazakh (and Russian, too, it seems) culture allows people to take certain things for granted. But for other things, you’d better say thank you. I’m afraid I’ll seem rude when I go back to America, because I’ve also stopped saying “thank you.” It’s adaptive. Some people were confused when I said it, and I was made fun of at length on the bus for saying “thank you” to a woman who scooted over to make room for me.
o There are also some shared gestures that we don’t have. There’s a quick, angled shake of the head that would probably indicate (unclearly) a regretful “no” in the US; here it means approval of something remarkable someone’s done.
o As far as physical contact goes, there’s a lot more here, but different kinds. According to another volunteer, nothing’s gay in Kazakhstan. It’s true. It’s refreshing to never hear kids making fun of someone for acting or looking “gay.” But I know from teaching in a middle school in Chicago that a lot of the things they do - the way they pose for photos, how close they sit to their friends, the way they comb each other’s hair – would be thoroughly mocked in America. People press up against each other whether it’s necessary or not, and touch each other without any need. The kids in my school crawl over each other like puppies. But people don’t hug, certainly not in greeting. In church last week, a young girl came up behind a lady she’d met twice and started to play with her hair without asking. And someone who’s related to my hostess came into my room without knocking and sat my bed (I was in it) to chat.
o About other non-verbal customs – most behavior is very predictable and everyone knows what’s expected. So, at the tablespread (on the floor when there are guests), when everyone has put his or her spoon into a tea cup, everyone notices, puts their hands out, palms up to receive blessing and “washes” his face with them with a flick as they say “Awmeen” – this is grace, always said after a meal. Then the men stand up and everyone knows they’re going outside to smoke. And the younger women start to consolidate dishes and clear off the table, because everyone knows the youngest women clean up. And the older women shift away from the tablespread on the floor, and everyone knows they’re going to play cards. So, no decisions, agreements, or invitations are made verbally. You just sort yourselves out and do what your people do.
o It’s common to address a group as Kazakhtar or “Kazakhs.” All older women (in my region, in the other regions in KZ, it’s different) are called Apa, meaning “older sister.” All older men are Aga or “older brother.” If an older man talks to a young woman or girl, he’ll call her Karindas (little sister), but old people call younger boys and girls “my boy” or “my girl” in public. They are very confused that we don’t have a special title to distinguish an old woman from a middle-aged or young woman.
o People don’t read books. No one brings a book on a train or a long bus ride. Local newspapers are popular, though.
o People usually sit in silence on public transportation. It’s eerie, being crammed in on a bus, where everyone has someone’s elbow in his kidney and an armpit in his face, and still there is absolute silence.
o People stare at each other openly and shamelessly. I’ve never heard a mother scold her child for staring.
o Kazakh humor is funny and doesn’t seem odd to me. But it doesn’t translate well. There’s a certain way of saying something that makes it much funnier. It’s not dry humor, or self-deprecating, usually. And it can be mocking and mean in a way that’s absolutely unacceptable in America (for example, the school principal mocking a fat girl, making her cry, and the other teachers laughing at her for crying. But I like to think my school is a moral pit and not the rule), but it’s not common. A quick wit and a sharp tongue are highly valued here. They tease people a lot, and almost nothing’s off-limits. Their speech becomes far more modulated when they’re excited or telling a joke, and intonation and imitation are an important part of what they say and whether it’s funny. I haven’t noticed too much physical humor, and bathroom humor is absolutely embarrassing and off-limits.
o A lot of Kazakh humor is short, oblique comments or questions. A teacher was mad at our vice-principal, whose name means a certain type of cat (a large cat, I think.) Someone mentioned him, and she said “Maulin – isn’t that a cat?” and everyone laughed. The other day, a woman got on the bus and the driver asked her for her fare, she said to him, “Kazakh, I got on at the hospital stop. Do you expect me to have any money?” Hands-down, one of the most popular shows on TV is “Tamasha,” which is a bit Lawrence Welk-ish. The sketches are often about cuckolded and alcoholic husbands. There was one the other day, where one man was trying to convince his friend that everyone was Kazakh. He said that an Apache was a Kazakh whose grandmother had given him tea that was too hot. So he waved his hand in front of his mouth and went “awooo wooo wooo wooo.” He said that the Beatles were Kazakh and played “yesterday” on the dombra, and used words that sounded like the English “yestidim . . .” (I heard . . .) But, in my opinion, Tamasha isn’t nearly as funny as my students. What they say in English is usually blunt humor, like the girl who always uses flying saucers in her homework sentences. But they can say things in Kazakh that make the other students roar.