Kirsten and Scott Morris, a US couple living and teaching in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, were riding to their apartment on the 16th floor one morning. Music abruptly started playing in the normally quiet elevator. After a startled pause, they spontaneously broke into dance. In the attitude of “go with it,” Kirsten and Scott rocked out to the elevator music until they reached their floor. When the doors opened, they calmly stepped out, giving no evidence of what had just transpired.
This moment epitomizes the couple’s travel philosophy and how they handle life as teachers in Kazakhstan’s capital. “Some of the most enjoyable experiences we’ve had here were when something completely unexpected happened and we decided to go with it,” Kirsten explains. “And some of the worst times we’ve had were when something unexpected happened and we got really upset or frustrated about it.”
Living in Kazakhstan wasn’t always the Morrises’ plan. “We wanted to travel, had a love for it.” Scott says. “Then we had this opportunity [to live in Kazakhstan], and we said, ‘Well, let’s make it plan B.’ And then plan A didn’t happen, so here we are.”
After they flew to Kazakhstan, they took a noisy bus from the airport to their apartment. From the bus windows, they got their first impression of Astana, the city they would be living in for the next year. Scott says that its futuristic-looking buildings—most of which were built during the past 10 years—make it look like Tomorrowland. That view is one of Kirsten’s favorite things about the city. “The skyline of Astana is unmatched,” she says. “You would never mistake a picture of Astana, day or night, for another city, and it’s beautiful because of that.”
The city’s architecture was not the only thing to give a polished first impression. The Kazakh people, including teens, are “dressed to the nines,” Scott says. “They’re really into fashion. In the States, if there’s a TV on in a restaurant, it probably has a game on. But here, if there’s a TV, it has the fashion channel on.” Kirsten laughs as she remembers, “Everyone looks great all the time—it was a little bit intimidating.”
Searching for Food
Scott and Kirsten quickly realized that living in a country where you don’t understand the culture or language makes commonplace activities, such as finding food, feel adventurous. “It was hard to find milk when we first got here,” Kirsten says. “We kept going to the refrigerated section and would look for things with cows or percents written on them, and when we got it home, it would be buttermilk.”
“At one point,” says Scott, “we had four cartons in our fridge; none of them were milk. Finally, we looked it up in the dictionary and asked someone ‘where is milk?’ We found out that the milk here is evaporated, so we were looking in the wrong place.”
Ordering food was also a struggle, especially for Kirsten. A month after moving to Kazakhstan, they went to a food court in the mall. All Kirsten wanted was a salad, but as Scott quips, “They don’t do vegetables here.”
Kirsten explains, “I was wandering around looking for a salad, and I was kind of standing back, trying to pick something out, because as soon as you walk up to order, they expect you to say your order right away. . . . We didn’t even know how to say ‘I need a second.’ I was so overwhelmed making a decision. The only things I could make out were things like ‘hot dog on a stick’ or ‘pizza.’ I was so frustrated that I decided, ‘Well, I’m not going to get anything.’ My eyes were getting really teary.” Eventually she gave up. “It was a defeating experience for me,” she says.
That experience gave Scott and Kirsten more motivation to learn some basic Russian. Scott says, “The first word we learned was the Russian word for ‘this’—eta. I have learned that when you travel, the words you need to know are this, yes, and no. Those words go a long way.” So, they used pointing and the word eta to communicate what foods they wanted until they were able to learn more specific words.
“There are so many surprises,” Kirsten says. “The most fun we’ve had is when we’ve had the attitude ‘let’s go with it.’” This attitude is what helps them navigate difficult situations. They once asked a bus driver in Almaty, a large city in Kazakhstan, if he could take them to their destination. Scott relates, “He said ‘. . . yes?’—a really questionable ‘yes,’ but we got on anyway.” They rode on the bus for a while, asking the driver every once in a while, “Does this go here?” and pointing to the destination on the map. After riding for 45 minutes, they concluded that they were completely lost and that the bus driver hadn’t understood where they wanted to go. They tried to get off the bus, but the bus driver told them to stay. At this point, they thought, “You know, who else can you pay 50 cents to and get a tour of the city?” So they stayed on the bus and got to see most of the city. Eventually they asked him again if it went to their desired destination. They say that “the bus driver’s face fell and he let out a low, ‘Ooh . . . ’” and told them to get off the bus and catch a different one.
Their Philosophy on Traveling
Both Scott and Kirsten say that living abroad helps you value what is good in your culture, learn what you take for granted at home, and appreciate how other people do things. Scott likes learning about people’s worldviews. “When you start talking to people about politics, religion, and food,” he says, “you realize that your way of doing things could be different.” Kirsten adds, “Living abroad helps you see your own worth, but you also get to see the worth of other systems, other ways of doing things.”
Although Scott and Kirsten learned these things far from their home in the United States, they don’t think travel is the only way to expand your knowledge about the world and learn to overcome challenges. Scott reflects that just talking to people can expose you to different worldviews and help you understand who you want to be. “Each person is like their own little foreign country,” he says. “I think anything that gets you out of your comfort zone is good for you. You either go crazy or become a different person. You grow.”
There are many rewards for the hard work they have put into teaching and adapting to this new way of life. “I can look back on this and say that it has been a difficult experience,” Kirsten says, “but it has made me so much stronger. I am capable of difficult things. I can tell myself, ‘I did something really hard. So what else you got?’ I feel empowered, and that’s one of the really neat benefits of doing something like this.” Living in Kazakhstan was an exciting opportunity for Scott and Kirsten to challenge themselves. Kirsten says, “Some people run marathons; we moved to Kazakhstan.”
After Kirsten earned her teaching certificate, she applied to all the paid teaching positions she could find. She heard back from a job in Kazakhstan, which was posted on TeachAnywhere.com. She and Scott are now working with the Nazarbayev Intellectual School of Astana (NISA), teaching critical thinking and history.
Teaching in a Kazakh school is “exhausting, mentally and emotionally,” Kirsten says. Yet this experience has helped Kirsten gain insight into her professional practices. “You find clarity in doing something different because you have something to compare it with,” Kirsten says.
Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world.
Kazakh and Russian are the official languages.
Kazakhstan has a population of 16.7 million, the 60th largest population in the world.
Kazakhstan declared independence on December 16, 1991; the country is now just over 20 years old.
A traditional Kazakh dish is beshbarmaq, horsemeat and onions drizzled with meat broth and served over flat, wide noodles.
The national beverage is kumys, fermented mare’s milk.
Apples were first discovered in Kazakhstan and are called alma in Kazakh.
In the London 2012 Olympics, Kazakhstan ranked 12th, with 13 medals (seven gold, one silver, and five bronze).