Kazakhstan- what's it like to live and work there?

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Today we feature Lizzy, an Irish teacher who used to live and work in Almaty, Kazakhstan. I honestly didn't know much about Kazakhstan before chatting to Lizzy, but she definitely paints a persuasive picture of expat life there. What do you think?

How long have you been teaching abroad?

I moved to Almaty, Kazakhstan, on the 9th of August, so just over 1 month (at time of writing!).

What made you decide to move overseas to work?

While I was happy working in Ireland, I decided that a move abroad would benefit me personally and professionally. I wanted to gain experience teaching a different curriculum (I work in an IB school) and to teach in a very multicultural context. I also wanted a bit of an adventure and to explore this part of the world. Another benefit is the opportunity to save money. Housing, utilities, taxes, medical insurance, flights and Russian lessons are included as part of my contract and the cost of living is very low here.

Side note: I thought that it would be best to move abroad while I’m young, however, since coming here I’ve realized that many expat teachers are older (retired or close to retired in their home countries), have relocated with family, or have married locals and settled here. I thought that expat teachers were predominantly young and single but that’s certainly not the case in my school.

How did you find your current job?

I registered with an agency and expressed interest in this job. After a Skype interview, I was offered the position and was delighted to accept.

Why did you choose that location?

There were several factors. Almaty is surrounded by mountains and therefore very ‘outdoorsy’. You can visit the ‘Singing Sand Dunes’, Charyn Canyon and Big Almaty Lake as well as Medeu, which claims to be the highest ice rink in the world! Hiking and camping are also popular summer activities. In the winter, I plan to learn to ski and also ice skate! The low cost of living was another reason for my choice of location. In addition to this, as an extremely pale Irishwoman, I was wary of moving to a very hot country, so Almaty was perfect!

What is it like living there as a single female?

There are no problems, in my (somewhat limited!) experience Almaty is very safe and a liberal, secular city. For me, and example of how safe Almaty is is the prevalence and popularity of ‘gypsy cabs’. There are very few ‘official’ taxis in Almaty. So, while Yandex (similar to Uber) is commonly used, most people use ‘gypsy cabs’. Basically, you stand on the road and whichever car stops is your taxi! You negotiate a price, and if both the driver and customer are happy, then off you go! I was unsure about this at first, but I have never heard of anyone having any problems (language barrier aside!) and locals seem to use ‘gypsy cabs’ all the time. There are no restrictions in terms of clothing at all. Locals are very welcoming and it’s easy to make friends, everyone wants to chat on WhatsApp! (I’ve already met a few friendly, English speaking locals in the gym I go to)

What are its advantages?

When I told people I was going to Kazakhstan, most had only ever heard of the country because of the film ‘Borat’, but it’s so far from reality! Almaty is a beautiful city with plenty to do and a very open, unrestricted and welcoming society. The school I work in is great (and I’ve heard great things about other schools too). There is plenty to do here so you’ll never be bored. The cost of living is very low so there is massive potential for saving money. I’m very attracted to the winter sports here so I can’t wait until skiing season!

Are there any negatives?

The only real problem that I have encountered so far is the language barrier. While younger people can sometimes speak some English, it’s not commonly spoken. So far, I’ve had some ‘interesting’ experiences in the supermarket (there aren’t any English labels so I accidently filled my freezer with mutton instead of beef and bought a jar of mayonnaise thinking it was carbonara). I also prepared myself for a potential disaster in the hairdresser’s last week, but thankfully everything was fine! Coffee shops are fine, but I can’t yet read a menu in a sit down restaurant or ask for help in a shop so that can be a challenge.

How did you deal with homesickness or loneliness?

I keep in contact with family and friends on social media and phone/Skype my family regularly. I have very supportive colleagues and principal so there is always someone to share your thoughts/concerns with. I think that it’s important to socialise to avoid any loneliness.

What has been the best part of your experience?

So far, I’ve made great friends with colleagues. We socialise together regularly. The local staff have been great, giving us tips about where to go and what to do. Even people that I’ve met in the gym have been super friendly and have avoided laughing at my lack of Russian! So, as cheesy as it sounds, so far the best part of the experience is the friends I’ve made. I’m really looking forward to learning to ski too.

What are the biggest differences with teaching at home?

It’s quite different! The school day is longer, but I have planning slots when my pupils to specialist teachers so my contact hours are shorter. I have a full time TA (teaching assistant), which is amazing and a very small class by Irish standards. The IB is quite different from the Irish curriculum so I’m still getting used to that! I don’t teach the range of subjects that I would teach in Ireland (I don’t teach Art, Music, Drama, PE or Irish). I don’t have the same paperwork (lesson plans, etc.) that I would have to write at home.

What is normally included in a good teaching package in your location?

In general, accommodation, flights, medical insurance, taxes, utilities and Russian or Kazakh lessons. Salary varies according to experience and school but is usually very competitive especially when the low cost of living is taken into account.

Is there tax on your salary?

Yes, but the salary that I was offered as part of my contract was ‘net’. The school pays the local taxes.

How did you find your accommodation?

The school found my apartment, but I was under no obligation to stay there if I didn’t want to. I like where I live as it’s very close to where most of the other teachers in my school live. We are free to live in whichever part of the city we want to, so some colleagues live ‘downtown’ and others live close to the school.

What is the social life like there?

I have a great social life! Cafés are open late so I often go for a coffee at 8 or 9pm and there is an abundance of restaurants for all budgets. I haven’t been to a nightclub yet, but there are loads of really nice pubs and almost all of them are very affordable. There is also a cinema which shows films in English on a weekly basis. Almaty seems to have hundreds of parks and they are all beautiful, really nice places to walk or run in the evenings. There is always something to do, I have plenty of day trips and museum visits on my ‘to do’ list.

Any insider tips? E.g. when applying for jobs, renting, living and working there?

I went through an agency, but you can apply directly to schools here also. Ensure that your salary is pegged to a stable currency (e.g. USD, EUR, GBP) as the Tenge can fluctuate (although not as much as it used to, or so I’ve been told). My biggest tip is to learn some basic Russian (numbers, days of the week, colours, greetings, food, drink and restaurant vocabulary and ‘polite words’ e.g. hello, goodbye, please, thank you, may I?, how much? etc) and to take advice from local staff. Download the Yandex, 2gis and Google Translate Apps! Don’t be afraid of ‘gypsy cabs’! Clothes and shoes are also quite expensive so it’s a good idea to bring as much as possible from home. Also, some common school resources are unavailable here so it might be a good idea to bring some (e.g. blue tack, handwriting copybooks, junior grip triangular pencils, large squared maths copybooks, project books, sticky name labels). Remain open minded and taste popular local cuisine, horsemeat is very tasty! Take all of the opportunities that present themselves (e.g. if invited on a day trip – go!).

My name is Sorcha Coyle and I’ve been teaching in the Gulf (Qatar and Dubai) for the past 9 years. I also run Empowering Expat Teachers, whose mission is to empower future and current expat teachers to lead personally, professionally, and financially rewarding lives. If you haven’t already, join the supportive EET FB group here and follow me on IG @sorchacoyle_eet for lots of research, CV, and cover letter tips! Last but not least, I also provide CV and cover letter support to future and current expat teachers with my range of services in Teach Abroad Academy- check them out here!


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