In Uyghur Culture there is a simple way to get cash fast… throw a party. They call it a chai it is more like a money borrowing system with your neighbours and friends. A group of ten to fifteen people take turns throwing a chai every month. Today I had the honour of joining said party and learned a lot about the culture and how money and friendship interact here.
The party I went to today was made up of a group of fifteen ladies; they are all retired and from the same hometown. Some of them have been friends since middle school. These ladies know everything about each other, good and bad. Trust me when I say that don’t let anyone forget any of it. There was so much gossip spinning around me at such a fast pace I was actually glad I couldn’t understand it all.
We went to a very fancy restaurant where we were given our own private room off to the back. The room had one large table, a TV and DVD player and a small dance floor. The meal itself was very extravagant, taking us more than three hours to eat it all. In order to join the Chai each one of the ladies was expected to bring 150 kuai with them (about 20 dollars, which trust me is a lot considering I can normally go out and eat at a restaurant for only 1 dollar). You can do the math 15 ladies X 150 kuai = 2,250kuai (or about 280 dollars). As we were eating the ladies made sure to ask the hostess how much the meal cost, and then compared the price with how much they had spent the last time they hosted the chai. It seemed that on average the hostess spent about 400-500 kuai to throw a chai. This means they make at least 1,700 kuai. That is a lot of money here. But as I said early a chai is just a way to borrow money from your friends and neighbours, because next month they will be invited by someone else in the group and expected to pay 150 again to join the party. In one day they can make some fast money and then spend the next year paying the loan off to their neighbours. And trust me they keep track, if one person missed one chai, the hostess of that chai is not expected to pay the other person for attending theirs.
The Uyghur people have a saying that says “good friends keep count”. This is true at chai, or any other time you go out to eat. I remember in college when a group of people would go out to eat, the bill would come and we would spend twenty minutes trying to break it apart and figure out how much each person owes, we would add in the tax and count down to the penny. But Uyghurs hardly ever split the bill evenly. One person is always treating. Fights break out over who will give the money, but even as everyone is fighting they all know whose turn it is. Part of being good friends is remembering who paid last time and making sure to pay them back next time with an equally valuable meal. It gets complicated after a while if you have a lot of friends.