In Uyghur society, lending money is more than capital exchange, it’s part of a practice that social theorist AbdouMaliq Simone refers to as “taking care.” In Xinjiang, as China’s “People’s War on Terror” accelerated, money transfers across international boundaries were seen as a possible sign of extremism — just another way that Uyghurs were cut off from their support networks and isolated from one another.
In 2015, a young baker named Yusup taught me the Uyghur concept of “caretaking”(Uy: qarimaq). I had been hanging out with him and his closest friend, Nurzat, a fellow migrant from Yusup’s home village near Kashgar, walking the bazaars and talking about life. They taught me how to eat piping hot baked dumplings called samsa without burning your mouth. The trick was to bite off one corner to release the steam, then hold the opened end up so you wouldn’t get seared by the lamb and onion broth as you nibbled. In a rush to pay the bill, they held back each other’s outstretched arm in an awkward dance, competing to pay the 20 yuan ($3) for the half-dozen dumplings.
They referred to each other as “life and liver” friends (Uy: jan-jiger dost) — a type of heterosexual male friendship defined by, metaphorically, the same liver, an organ thought to carry the essence of a person’s life. Like soul mates and blood brothers, they ate many of their meals together, shared the same values, and protected each other. They had dropped out of school during middle school, since their families couldn’t afford to feed and educate them. As a result, they had very limited knowledge of Chinese, but a deep understanding of Ürümchi alleyways. They had been sent to work as bakery apprentices in the city by their families — a hard but stable life path that taught them a trade and how to hustle. Both of them left their respective bakeries after kneading dough and baking naan and samsa for 12 hours per day for several years. They said their bosses treated them like slaves. They wanted real jobs where they could work when they needed money and quit if it got too hard. They wanted to be in charge of their own lives. They bounced from job to job, selling belts in the market, standing around in security guard uniforms, and working as waiters in Uyghur restaurants.