Kazakhstan is a large, landlocked country in Central Asia. Its population is about half ethnically Kazakh, about 30% Russian, and then there are also Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Germans and Tatars. The north of the country is mostly Kazakh, while the south is mostly Russian and Ukrainian. There has been a nationalist revival movement in Kazakhstan, as many of the street names have been turned into their historic names, and Kazakh people are encouraged to be prolific to populate the country.
The two major religions are Islam and Russian Orthodox. Kazakhstan is bilingual; Kazakh is spoken by about 65% of the people there, and is noted as the “state” language, while Russian is spoken by almost everyone and is used in business, and is noted as the “official” language.
When talking to or about someone from Kazakhstan, it is important to know that “Kazakh” refers to the ethnic group, but “Kazakhstani” means anyone that lives in the country. In ancient Turkish, the word “Kazakh” translates as “independent nomad,” and this group of people has traditionally been nomadic and led by tribes. People still practice arranged marriages in many rural areas of the country as a tribal tradition.
Many Kazakhs still preserve the patriarchial traditions of their society. It comes from a long history of sticking together with tribes to defend their herds. All of the grandfather’s sons were considered under one tribe, and husbands take the role as head of the family. There is also an observed hierarchy, in which older people are considered wise and demand respect.
When greeting somone in Kazakhstan, the usual gesture is to shake hands using both of your hands, and smile. Those who are religious Muslims will not touch members of the opposite gender. People who are close will hug, but you should wait to be initiated.
If you are invited to someone’s house for dinner, it is polite to give a gift like pastries, but not necessary. Many Muslims do not drink, so be careful about giving alcohol. Kazakhs will be very hospitable when they invite you in their homes. Even if you are just invited over, they will probably serve you tea and bread. Arrive on time to your invitation, and dress conservatively. Table manners are not strictly observed, and many foods are eaten by hand. At dinner, they will probably hand you a bowl full of broth or tea to drink, and if you do not want any more, turn your bowl upside down. If you are in the countryside, you may eat while sitting on the floor. Meals are considered very important events, and will probably last a few hours. When you finish eating, leave a little bit of food on your plate, or else you will be automatically offered more.
If you go to a very traditional rural place for dinner, there is a custom of serving the guest of honor a cooked sheep’s head on a plate. The guest is then expected to cut the head and give it to the rest of the table.