ASTANA – Raquel Reinagel, 28, swapped Texas’s humid weather for Astana’s continental climate five years ago to gain new work experience and work as an English teacher at Nazarbayev University’s Center for Preparatory Studies. It was a life-changing moment for her.
She quickly learned Kazakh well enough to maintain conversations with people, found a new hobby, and runs a blog under the Rocky Journeys nickname on YouTube with more than 28,000 subscribers.
In an interview with The Astana Times, Reinagel said she had no specific reason, like “gaining fame,” for making vlogs about her life in Kazakhstan.
“I did it because I like to make videos and blog. I thought this is a good way for me to experience Kazakhstan and process what is happening,” she said.
Her first week in Kazakhstan was full of anxiety, the most she had ever experienced. She decided to document those emotions in her first video, which Reinagel says is not her favorite.
“I was having a terrible time because it was my first time living abroad. I learned from that video that it is not my life anymore, so I decided to document my feelings and emotions,” she added.
Before coming to Kazakhstan, she had 150 subscribers, which went up to 300 in her first year in the country and 17,000 later in 2020.
“I witnessed a large influx of subscribers after I posted a video about things I have learned in my two years in Kazakhstan and videos where I went on dates with Kazakh men,” she added.
Reinagel noted that people began to recognize her in the streets after she posted about the average cost of a weekend in Astana in March last year.
“What is funny is half of them come up and speak to me in Russian. I have pretty much indicated that I do not know Russian, but, however, people are more comfortable speaking it to me,” she said.
Reinagel said that she first studied Russian but gave up learning it due to its grammatical complexity.
“I stopped at a part where we started to put prefixes in front of verbs. There were approximately eight options and I suggested there was a rule for choosing the variants, but there was not,” she explained.
After that, she started to learn Kazakh on her own with the “Colloquial Kazakh: The Complete Course for Beginners” training manual.
Her efforts to find a teacher competent at teaching Kazakh to foreigners were unsuccessful initially. She found a tutor only after a month of learning the language in an intensive mode.
“We tried, but we had several issues. First of all, my tutor could not adjust her language level to make it understood by me. Secondly, she did not have any materials because she had never taught Kazakh before. We were reading many children’s books, but I do not believe they are good for adult learners as they contain a lot of useless vocabulary,” she said.
In 2021, Nazarbayev University opened an intensive intermediate Kazakh course that lasted eight weeks and included four-hour classes five days a week.
“I do very well with those intensive types of courses. It is very tiring because it is four hours a day for eight weeks, but I think I improved a lot even though I am still not a fluent speaker,” said Reinagel.
Last summer, she continued her studies at the upper intermediate level.
“I actually got some of what is called automaticity. So my brain finally figured out how to say things automatically with less processing time. I still have to process things and ask people around to speak slower or repeat the sentence, but those courses helped me a lot and now I can talk to people and have a basic everyday conversation. I can talk about many things, but not politics, physics or math,” she said.
Speaking about the language’s difficult aspects, she said that pronunciation of such specific sounds as “ө,” “ү,” and “і” is hard for her.
Breaking stereotypes about Kazakhstan
The first cultural quirk she noticed was the habit of always being late.
“I think it is debatable and not always true, but it is definitely culturally acceptable. So when you invite your friends at 7 p.m., you need to be ready to accept them at 7.30 p.m. It still does not mean Kazakh people are late all the time, it is not in their DNA,” Reinagel said.
Reinagel found that the legendary Kazakh hospitality that she had heard so much about was a bit more subdued than she was initially led to believe. At first, she was disappointed, explaining that she hadn’t personally experienced much hospitality when she first moved to live there. But she also found something to admire in Kazakh culture and stressed the hard-working nature of many people in Kazakhstan.
“In my opinion, Kazakhs are very hard-working, especially my students. They work hard and have goals and dreams which are bigger than that of Americans of the same age. They try to reach them and are always trying to improve themselves,” she said.
New hobbies found in Kazakhstan
Reinagel said she has been dancing bachata for almost a year, a type of social dance that originated in the Dominican Republic.
“In February 2021, I went to a bar and met a guy who taught bachata and asked me to take his classes. I agreed because I wanted to meet actual people from Kazakhstan and leave my bubble. What is interesting is I was into bachata music in high school and liked Romeo Santos and Prince Royce, thus, bachata has taken over my life,” she said.
Breathtaking scenery in Kazakhstan
During her stay in Kazakhstan, Reinagel has visited Almaty, Shymkent, Taraz, Turkistan, Pavlodar, Semei, Kokshetau, Kyzylorda, Atyrau, and Karagandy. The Kolsai Lakes in the Almaty Region impressed her the most.
“It is so stereotypical, but my favorite place is the Kolsai Lakes. It is very beautiful. It looks like you would not think Kazakhstan has it, but it does. I have only been to the site once, but it was really nice. I would like to come back and stay in a dacha [summer house] or a guest house around there,” Reinagel said.
She said she wants to visit Ust-Kamenogorsk and Katon-Karagai State National Natural Park in eastern Kazakhstan in the springtime or early summer and see the saiga, a rare endangered animal species.
The most exciting experience in Kazakhstan so far
When asked what was the most exciting experience of her stay in Kazakhstan, Reinagel said that this occurred during her visit to Turkistan.
“I rode a camel and I fell in love with that animal. It was the most beautiful beast I had ever seen. It was wearing some garments and adornments on it. It was magical. I just rode around in a circle but still. If I ever go back to the US, I want to buy one. I think there is a guy who sells them in Montana,” she said.