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Meeting French expatriates in Kazakhstan

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Danielle Deffontaines did a seminar in  Kazakhstan for an important French company. Her surprises in a country that remains not so well known. 

I arrived with my stereotypes and a priori: Kazakhstan will be cold, inhabitants are narrow-minded and poorly helpful… Unfortunately, I did not have time to read about the country and its inhabitants. After a 12 hours flight from Paris to Almaty, and five hours of time change, I discovered the citu by night. The temperature was slightly over 0°C, and I felt like in a ski station:  firns in the streets, high mountains all around, cablecars…

The city of Almaty is the economic heart of the country. The new capital, Astana, was created artificially for political reasons. I found a mix of remains of the soviet era, with policemen wearing their chapka, driving old Ladas and inhabitants with many physical aspects, from Mongols to Chinese, but also including very blond Russians wearing hype Western clothes. However, many European clothes brands have a store in Almaty.

Second surprise: the heat in the offices! I came with warm sweaters, and the inside temperature was around 25°C! Coworkers wore T-shirts, sleeveless summer dresses. Due to the use of coal for heating, the old cars, the many factories around the city, pollution is like in Paris with a cloud of almost permanent fine particles that are visible when the sun shines.

Third surprise: people are very open-minded, willing to help and give information to the disoriented traveler I was. I felt lost between Cyrillic road signs and unknown language. However, our cross-cultural sequence during the seminar helped me understanding major points:

  • This country is made of 176 nationalities. The nation is founded on tolerance and openmindedness to the others. For instance, Kazakkh is the state language and Russian the official language. Co-workers I met told me they speak Russian at home and their children go to Russian schools.
  • Kazakhs are focused on family, more than French – they say who, and separate clearly personal and professional life
  • A modesty that hides emotions in the private sphere: Kazakhs are very surprised to see how we can get suddenly angry and calm down easily
  • They highlight the fact that the way they operate at work is still influenced by the soviet system from before 1990, where one is supposed to apply the rules and do what the boss tells to do. This is very confusing to French expatriates. On the other hand, French appreciate that when a decision is taken, it is implemented!
  • Expatriates willing to live here with their family must definitely learn Russian to be successful in everyday life. Their profile is usually young people from 30 to 35 years, with little children or no children, or seniors who left their students in France. As a matter of fact, schooling is a quite difficult matter as there is no French school in Almaty (there is nevertheless an International school). Several expats choose to be commuters or geographical singles, but the situation is uneasy with the five hours change of time making phone calls or Skype conversation complicated: when their day is over, the family in France is at work or at school!

Lastly, I was glad to do this seminar and appreciate the different aspects of Kazakh life, the uncommon kindness and, above all, I think, their eager to learn new methods, practice new tools…  Everyone took part; everyone had a positive attitude and asked many questions or explanations. An open-minded attitude I don’t always experience when I do a seminar in France.


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Marielle was very helpful and patient and I do not think I could have got anywhere to whe

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