Saturday, April 28, 2012

Eating Bitterness

I told my brother the other day that I was reading a book about migrant workers living in Xi'an that just came out last month - Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China's Great Urban Migration by Michelle Dammon Loyalka.

"Wow, that's esoteric," he said.

"Yeah," I responded, "I think the author wrote this book especially for me."

He laughed.

It's true, a book about migrant workers and China's rapidly developing economy set in my Chinese home city of Xi'an is right up my alley. When I heard of Eating Bitterness on Twitter a few weeks ago, I knew it was something I had to check out.

After having read the book, I don't think my brother's and my initial reactions were correct, though. The book is not esoteric. There's nothing technical about the sociology of urban migration or anything inside baseball about Xi'an in it. The book is about human beings trying to make their lives better. Anyone can relate with that.

Seeing that there are more than 100 million migrant workers in China right now taking part in the largest human migration in the history of the planet, this book is something anyone can and should read. It gives great insights into a truly massive demographic of the world's population.


Dammon Loyalka for her book embeded herself in the lives of migrant workers working and living in a city village (城中村) on the outskirts of Xi'an's High-Tech Zone. She shadowed a number of different types of migrant workers for weeks at a time. In her afterword, she said she spent upwards of three weeks, on and off, with each person she profiled. Because of her tireless shoe-leather journalism, an intimate portrait of each character's hopes, joys, and fears is painted for the reader.

The characters in her book are as follows:
1. The Veggie Vendors  
2. The Impenetrable Knife Sharpener 
3. The Teenage Beauty Queens 
4. The Ever-Floating Floater 
5. The Landless Landlords 
6. The Nowhere Nanny 
7. The Opportunity Spotter 
8. The Big Boss
Each one of these migrant workers with countryside roots living in the big city show a remarkable ability to "eat bitter" (吃苦). "Eating bitterness," the title of the book, is a phrase that Chinese people use to describe one's ability to deal with hardship.

A farmer toiling the fields during flood or drought in ancient China had to eat bitterness. A young girl sold to a warlord to be a concubine had to eat bitterness. Nearly everyone in every part of China had to eat bitterness under Mao.

Even today during China's economic miracle with all of its glitzy skyscrapers and black Audis, many in the bottom-rung of society have to eat more than their fair share of bitterness. China has come a long way in the past thirty years, but not everyone is enjoying the fruits of their hard labor equally. Dammon Loyalka's book shows how life is for those at the bottom of today's China trying to follow their dreams and trying to make life better for their families.

I really liked getting to know each one of these characters Dammon Loyalka introduced. Although I liked all of these stories, my favorites were #2, #3, and #6.

The Impenetrable Knife Sharpener was probably my favorite character in the book. Wang Quanxi is an illiterate old man trying to scrape by a living in Xi'an by riding his bike around advertising that he'll sharpen whatever knives you have for a couple yuan each. He lives in complete squalor so that his fixed costs are as low as possible and he can send back nearly everything he makes to his family living in Henan.

I particularly liked this passage where Quanxi spent hours sharpening knives for a restaurant:

An owner of a restaurant intentionally screwing over this old man, who broke his back making sure his knives are sharp enough, out of three yuan (or $.48) really hit me. There were plenty of times in Xi'an where I argued with a motorbike driver over two yuan or someone selling vegetables over .5 yuan. That's certainly different than reneging on an agreed upon price, but getting to know Quanxi makes me question some of the energy that I put into nickel-and-diming people with so much less than I have.

Despite any attempts to get good prices with the migrant workers I encountered while living in China, I was constantly taken aback by the migrant workers I saw everywhere when I lived in Xi'an. Whether it was a little old lady pulling a wheelbarrow down the bike path of a street or construction workers literally building the new China, I was always aware of that a great number of people in China have incredibly difficult lives.

Eating Bitterness gives me a lot more context for those images of migrant workers that I have in my mind. Knowing the stories behind at least a handful of those faces is really valuable, in my opinion.

I really liked Eating Bitterness. Much like Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang, it really opened my eyes to a group of people in China that I was very aware of but didn't know with enough depth. Eating Bitterness is written beautifully and is full of great information. I highly recommend this to anyone wanting to look beyond the gaudy GPD numbers and see the full picture of China's rapid development.