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Wednesday, January 5, 2011


People always, always joke that we (the volunteers) will get married
and stay in Kazakhstan. When we don’t jump at their offers to find
Kazakh boyfriends, they exasperatedly ask whether their Kazakh boys
are good enough, pretty enough… I usually deferred with, “I can’t
marry a Kazakh boy because I would miss my family too much.” This
worked wonderfully until I met the love of my life. I can’t express
enough how much this caught even myself by surprise. I am a vehement
believer of not needing a man in my life (as I have often preached to
all of you), but couldn’t control fate forever.
I think that you all know me better, but I hope that got some of you!
Haha! I didn’t meet the Kazakh man of my dreams, but my theme will be
marriage because I was lucky enough this week to be invited to a very
traditional marriage ceremony in my host mother’s village. Her nephew
was recently engaged and my mom was generous enough to take me with
the family to watch the unveiling of the bride.
We traveled for about 45 minutes to the village to the family’s
house. The festivities actually began the night before, but I was
sleeping cozily in my bed so I don’t know what happened. I just know
that most of the family members had been there until really late and
started working early in the morning, preparing a feast for about 200
people. When the guests first walked in the house, they went to see
the bride. She was behind a white curtain in the corner of a room
with a white veil over her head and shoulders. She stood all day with
her hands together at her chest and her head bowed. The guests came
to congratulate her (I think- I’m not sure exactly what they said to
her) and she bowed to every new person. Then the guests feasted for a
couple of hours and made a lot of toasts to the family, particularly
the eldest person, in this case the grandmother.
After the feast we all went outside for the unveiling. Again, the
bride stood with her head bowed in front of the whole audience. This
time there was an MC of sorts. At all wedding ceremonies, they hire a
guy who plays the dombra (traditional guitar-like instrument) to
entertain the crowd. For this occasion, he read the names of the
guests and their families and joked about everyone. As he read a
name, the person or group went up and put money in the “bank”- mason
jars- and the bride bowed again. I am not sure who the money goes to-
I heard it was for the musician, but I saw the family take the money.
I don’t think it goes to the bride for her patience all day! Once
everyone had been called to donate money, (I had to donate money twice
for some reason and was the butt of many jokes I didn’t understand.
Always a pleasure!) the mother of the groom took off her veil. I
think at this point, the couple is actually married, though the groom
had virtually nothing to do with the ceremony. He was dressed in
jeans and had to be searched for to make an appearance in the end.
This is not to say he was uninterested, he is a nice guy; I think this
ceremony is simply more about the “welcoming” of the new woman into
the family.
In about one month, the couple will have another wedding ceremony
that closely resembles our wedding reception. We will all go to a big
wedding hall and sit at large tables with lots of food. Every group
at the wedding (hundreds of people will attend) will make a lengthy
toast to the bride and groom who sit at the front of the room. There
will be drinking and dancing, etc.
I don’t know want to give you any bad impressions of Kazakhstan or
seem culturally insensitive, but feel it necessary to give some
personal thoughts on the unveiling ceremony. I should say that I
don’t fully understand the customs behind this day, yet I know it
would be hard for me to bow in respect to hundreds of people I don’t
know. The display of respect in general here is much different than my
concept of respect.
Young children are taught from talking age to give respect to elders,
no matter the person or occasion. Unlike in English, there is a
formal verb tense and noun endings used when speaking to important
people or elders. Young wives in particular are expected to give
special respect to their new family members. (This account is of my
observations in the south of Kazakhstan. Traditions vary widely from
region to region and of course family to family.) Many new couples
live with the groom’s family for up to 4 years in the same house and
the wives must bow to the family members in the morning or when seeing
them for the first time in a while. This new bride even bowed to me
when I saw her on New Year’s Eve. I wanted to give her a big hug and
tell her that I am absolutely undeserving of such deference.
Growing up in the informal state of Colorado, in the relatively
informal country of the USA, and being relatively head-strong, I am
impressed and awed by people’s unconditional respect in this country.
They are far more patient and better behaved than I am. My parents
taught me, of course, to always respect my elders and show respect to
all people until they didn’t deserve your respect. That’s where my
patience ends and a Kazakh’s keeps persisting.
You can form your own opinions on the subject, as mine are not yet
solidified. I have months worth of observations left! My day to day
life is very similar to what my life was in the States, though less
hectic (sadly). This experience reminded me of the differences in my
two close-to-heart cultures. Don’t worry though- you won’t be
receiving an invitation to my unveiling any time soon!



  1. i didn't believe you for a second.

    ...but it was still an entertaining (and informative) blog post.

  2. Hi Jannie,

    I'm kazakh girl, and just wanted to clarify some issues, the ceremony of bowing is really made to see a new person in the family. it varies from place to place, in some places this ceremony is held just when a man brings girl into home, in some places the ceremony is held in the actual wedding evening. it is nice to see that our culture's elements are discussed.