Friday, 13 February 2009

Cross Cultural Understanding

Tonight, the 13th February, the kids' brand new school is hosting its first parent/staff event: a valentines evening of jazz music, drinks and snacks in the atrium next to the library. To date, parents have been kept at arms length by the school (partly I think to try to avoid having to deal with the over-the-top parents of which my father, who was a headmaster for many years, grew to be so fond (not!), and partly just because it has been hard enough to get things going with a paid up staff, let alone any other random influences being added to the mix). Anyway, having harped on about letting parents be involved in the school in some way, when the headmaster said that he would like to do a small event at this time, I and a few others agreed to help. 

We discussed at the outset that the school would provide drinks and music, and that the mothers would organize a range of finger food for the evening. I am the foreigner parent, and there are two Kazakh ladies also organizing. 

The idea was to keep it a simple affair and this has led to some hilarious conversations, because parties or events here are not so simple. In the Kazakh mind, I think, simple party = rubbish event. Full stop. For example, two hours of drinks and snacks accompanied by live jazz is enough of a small event for most people. For Kazakhs this is anathema, they like parties to be over the top. I heard about a Kazakh millionaire who spent $4 million on his 40th birthday, including flying Elton John in to perform for the night. I was talking to one of the managers at the Intercontinental about this, and he told me that not only had they flown in Elton John, but also his own full size grand piano. He also told me that this party had not been for business man celebrating his birthday but a government official - must be well paid, eh?!

So the original ideas for a few helium balloons, some chicken drumsticks and a few plates of crisps has now turned into two catering companies, seven wait staff, a balloon sculpture costing $400 and some jugglers (shame we couldn't get a troupe of dwarves for added entertainment! ha ha). The mothers and I have all had nights waking up and worrying that it is going to be a complete flop. 

As a PR exercise I think it is important to do a reasonable job, and even though it is only going to run from 7pm to 9pm, some care, thought and detail are required. The Kazakh ladies have been great, pulling in favours from friends to get a lot of things for free, but basically we have had to beg people for money and help. 

What was supposed to be finger food is now going to be a mini-banquet of blinis, cakes and other assorted goodies, eaten off plates with napkins and forks. And on several occasions my friends and I have had to explain to each other how a British event might be run, compared to a Kazakh event and vice versa and try to find a middle ground. For example, when I explained to one girl that the understanding of finger food is generally that you eat it with your fingers, she was genuinely shocked. And later, as we discussed getting plates, napkins and forks from the kitchen (we had always planned to have napkins) I explained to her that foreigners are quite used to picking up things to eat with their fingers, and just wandering over to a table and grabbing a couple of crisps... like animals, I said, knowing that this is what she was thinking about our behaviour! 

We had a good laugh about this, and I asked her why Kazakh people don't like to use their fingers. And she told me that they think hands are dirty. So I explained that we tend to assume that people wash their hands from time to time and have clean fingers, and so we don't worry about this too much, especially when the food is small and you pick it up, eat it and finish - there is no pawing allowed! 

Fingers (clean ones, of course) crossed that tonight goes well. 

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