Eating Bitterness: China’s Great Urban Migration

April Rabkin reviews Michelle Dammon Loyalka’s new book, ‘Eating Bitterness‘, for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Being a migrant in China is a bit like being an illegal immigrant in California. Essentially, when Chinese people move from the countryside to the city, they leave the benefits of citizenship behind ….

In “Eating Bitterness: Stories From the Front Lines of China’s Great Urban Migration,” Michelle Dammon Loyalka chronicles their inner lives. She chooses eight living in one neighborhood of Xi’an, the city in northwestern China famous for terra-cotta warriors.

What she finds is fascinating: The nanny loves the spoiled toddler she works for more than her own children, who are stuck back in the countryside until they finish school; the knife-sharpening peddler can’t get used to city prices, and impossibly saves three-quarters of his meager income; the innkeeper, returning to her hometown, is preoccupied with keeping her black leather pants clean, next to neighbors washing clothes in the river. She looks down on them and no longer fits in there, but has yet to assimilate to the city. Loyalka writes about people in limbo.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom discussed the book with Loyalka at The China Beat last month:

JW: Novelists are often asked if they have a favorite fictional character, so I wonder if you have a favorite among the people you profile … as someone to write about? I guess that’s really a way of asking if you have a favorite chapter in the book?

MDL: That’s a tough one. Everyone I talked to had such a different story to tell, and I find each one so compelling in its own way. But if I had to choose a favorite I’d probably pick Chapter 8, “The Big Boss.” It’s about a 32-year old second-grade dropout who’s amassed a small fortune, only to find himself more lonely and dissatisfied than he ever was as a poor man. He longs to turn his focus toward philanthropy, but those around him find this desire completely incomprehensible.

To me his story really does represent the direction China is heading. In recent decades Chinese have focused on material progress to such an extent that anything else is seen as a distraction. But as conditions around the country continue to improve, people are gradually reassessing that mindset. There’s a real restlessness that’s starting to set in, and “distractions” like religion, volunteerism and social activism are all on the rise. As China’s economy continues to rocket ahead, that search for a purpose beyond sheer material prosperity is only going to grow.

Michelle Dammon Loyalka will discuss the book at a series of events around the US in the coming weeks. April Rabkin was awarded the Asia Society Osborn Elliott Journalism Prize this month for her writing on recycling tycoon Chen Guangbiao, the role of social networking in China, and a group of elite Beijing high school students.