In this part Mia shares her experience in Kazakhstan as a foreigner
Let’s talk a little about you. What does it mean for you to be a foreigner in Kazakhstan?
I have never encountered any negativity on being a foreigner. But strange situations sometimes happen. For example, when I’m talking to my son in Danish on the playground, someone will always come up and ask – where are you from? And when you say that you are from Denmark, people suddenly become interested in your whole life – how, from where, why? Sometimes it’s very tiring. But in general, this is a pleasant attention – there are much fewer foreigners in Almaty than, for example, in Astana, so people are curious.
Which part of Kazakh culture is the most pleasant for you?
This is perhaps the main difference – alas! – from my native culture. Everyone here is very hospitable, open, ready to help in any situation. In Denmark, people are closed, you can’t just come up and talk to someone – it takes years to establish close ties. Here you never feel lonely – there is always someone who will offer you a cup of tea. We have a joke in our family about this. My husband is Kazakh, and when we visit his parents, we always pass through dastarkhan (rich table). We call it “Kazakh food torture”. You overeat, but you understand that there is such love behind the desire to feed!
And what part is the most unacceptable?
I don’t like some post-Soviet things, but this applies not only to Kazakhstan. For example, people do not care about their city: they litter, if something is broken, they leave it, because it is not their responsibility. And it saddens me because people have to take care of their home.Read more: The Danish girl: how a journalist from northern Europe wrote a book about Almaty, part 2
And how did your loved ones react when you said that you were marrying a Kazakh?
No one was surprised. I already have an international family. My sister and mom are married to Turks, and my dad was married to a Kazakhstani woman. Therefore, my half-brother has a mixture of Uzbek, Tatar, Russian and Danish blood – in a word, a typical Almaty (laughs). That’s why no one expected me to marry a Dane. And my friends from Denmark are interested in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, so they were not shocked either – like “KazakhSTAN? Oh my God!”. In this regard, I was very lucky.
Although we are talking in English now, you speak Russian perfectly. What about Kazakh?
I understand many things, but I don’t say them. Grammar is too complicated for me. But I know the most basic words – rakmet (thank you), salemetsiz be? (greeting), something else. I try to use them in everyday life – in the store, for example. But I really want to know more.
Do you speak Danish and Russian at home?
My husband and I communicate in English. But our son speaks Russian and Danish, but I think he understands English quite well. Although we live in Kazakhstan, it is very important for me to speak Danish with my child – after all, it is my native language. While I’m afraid to teach him Russian – cause what if I teach something with a mistake? Therefore, my husband teaches him.
Are Danes very different from Kazakhs?
They are completely different. There are universal values, but in general the difference is very noticeable. If we lived in Denmark as a Danish-Kazakh family, we would need to adjust, just like here. My culture is very individualistic, and here everything is aimed at the family. And a banal example: Denmark was a colonizer, and Kazakhstan was a colony, this also affects. It’s hard to compare.
Thanks for the conversation, Mia! I really hope to see your book on the counter soon.
Mia Tarp Nurmagambetova is Danish, but came to Almaty in 2000, and has since lived in the city periodically. She has two university degrees in Russian studies and has been doing postgraduate research about Kazakhstan for several years. Besides Kazakhstan, she has lived and worked in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Australia, Russia and Czech Republic, and spent a lot of time travelling the world. For the last four years she’s been based permanently in Almaty with her Kazakh husband Dias and their kids. Besides being a writer, Mia has worked as a journalist and with human and civil rights. Her debut novel, Frequency, which takes place in Almaty, came out in February 2022 in English. The Russian version Частота will be out soon.