Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China's Great Urban Migration

Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China's Great Urban Migration

by Michelle Loyalka

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Every year over 200 million peasants flock to China’s urban centers, providing a profusion of cheap labor that helps fuel the country’s staggering economic growth. Award-winning journalist Michelle Dammon Loyalka follows the trials and triumphs of eight such migrants—including a vegetable vendor, an itinerant knife sharpener, a free-spirited recycler, and a cash-strapped mother—offering an inside look at the pain, self-sacrifice, and uncertainty underlying China’s dramatic national transformation. At the heart of the book lies each person’s ability to “eat bitterness”—a term that roughly means to endure hardships, overcome difficulties, and forge ahead. These stories illustrate why China continues to advance, even as the rest of the world remains embroiled in financial turmoil. At the same time, Eating Bitterness demonstrates how dealing with the issues facing this class of people constitutes China’s most pressing domestic challenge.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520266506
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/19/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 276
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Michelle Dammon Loyalka has lived in China for 13 years, during which time she has written a language-learning textbook, launched a business consulting company, co-hosted a radio talk show in Mandarin, and headed the educational products division of a Chinese software company. A freelance journalist and editor, Loyalka holds a master’s degree from the Missouri School of Journalism and currently lives in Beijing.

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Eating Bitterness

Stories from the Front Lines of China's Great Urban Migration

By Michelle Dammon Loyalka


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95203-4


The Veggie Vendors

The sun sets on the High-Tech Zone as a hazy-orange disk sinking beneath a blanket of smog. It is soon replaced by a muted moon shining down on the day's last surge of activity. Gradually the traffic clears, the glitzy shops close, and the interminable construction work grinds to a halt. The last stragglers head home shortly after midnight and finally even the ever-present battalion of taxis camps along the empty roadways for the night.

By 3:00 a.m., the High-Tech Zone is a dead zone.

Suddenly, out of the silence bursts Li Donghua, reining in his three-wheeled motorcycle as it bounces and lurches along the city's deserted avenues. His wife, Chuan Shuanghai, sits behind him in a rickety metal cart, head tucked between her knees to avoid the brutal autumn wind. As they whiz through the district, they catch up with a nearly identical vehicle—right down to the tightly bundled woman riding in the back. Another three-wheeler cuts in from a side street, and then another, and another. Donghua guns ahead, jockeying for position at the front of the caravan.

Within minutes they pull into a sprawling, iron-gated compound and their daily trek comes to an end. Bright stadium lights extinguish the early-morning darkness and the clamor of frenzied business transactions engulfs them from every side. Donghua squeezes the motorcycle into a parking space and peers off toward a sea of flatbed trucks filled with eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, and countless other vegetables, all stacked high and selling fast.

This is rush hour at the High-Tech Zone's wholesale market, an outdoor foodstuff super center of sorts where Donghua and Shuanghai start each day. They have a little over three hours to stock up on veggies, load them into the cart, race back to their local retail market, and unpack everything before their own customers start trickling in. Donghua looks at the throng of other small-time vegetable peddlers already scouring for deals and starts to feel antsy. It's 3:30 a.m., time to get to work.

When Donghua and Shuanghai finally arrive at their own neighborhood market, their three-wheeler stacked high with the morning's freshly purchased produce, it's nearly 7:40 a.m. and they are running late. They navigate through the mob at the front entrance and push their motorcycle toward the interior, where small-time entrepreneurs stand over coal-block heated woks, cooking up local specialties hot and fast throughout the day and late into the night. With the cheapest breakfast selections in the neighborhood—piping-hot soy milk, tea-boiled eggs, and a batch of salty fried donuts, all for well under a dollar—business is already booming. Donghua's stomach growls faintly, but there's no time to stop and eat today.

Instead the couple moves past the dining area to the rickety, market-supplied wooden tables where more than twenty vegetable merchants display their wares. If there's one thing that makes Shuanghai and Donghua extraordinary, it's how painfully ordinary they are among their peers. Like all the other vendors here, they grew up in the countryside; they have low education and even lower life expectations. They dress simply, clad most often in hand-knit sweaters and old-style cloth shoes. And though the circumstances that compelled each of these peddlers to head city-ward vary, their purpose here in the market—and, for that matter, the purpose of the more than 200 million rural migrants residing in China's burgeoning cities at any given time—is very often the same: a quest for financial stability and opportunity that simply doesn't exist back in their villages.

And so for 200 yuan a month—the equivalent of about $30—Donghua and Shuanghai rent out one of the market's shaky little tables and hope for the best. Seeing that the other tables are already overflowing with a potpourri of red, green, yellow, and orange vegetables, Donghua quickly parks the motorcycle beside a small cement fish pond and then makes a beeline for the last and arguably worst spot in the market—the table right across from the dinky, hardly used back entrance, the table they call home.

They scramble for the next twenty minutes to lay out their produce, Donghua muttering all the while about the morning's already lost opportunities. They're not usually late—in fact, they almost always arrive first so that they can snatch up as many early-bird customers as possible. But tomorrow is October 1, the beginning of China's week-long National Day celebration, and they had spent a little extra time at the wholesale market stocking up for what they hope will be a big holiday rush.

Among the last items to make it onto the table are dried red pepper strings—hot sellers as popular as they are hard to get. As soon as Donghua sets them out, a customer materializes and, without even asking the price, snaps up two jin, a standard half-kilo measure used across China. An older lady with hair cut in a trendy Japanese-style shag and streaked with color scoots down the aisle, with grandson in tow, eager to get a look at their peppers. Donghua stretches a string between his arms. "I can cut this to any length you want," he encourages her.

"How much?" Grandma asks.

"1.5 per jin."

"1.5?" she says. "That can't be. That's way too expensive."

From across the table, Shuanghai looks up from the Chinese cabbage she's preening. "They were 1.3 wholesale," she says flatly.

Grandma isn't ready to pay that much and so she shuffles away, pointy-toed shoes clacking against the pitted concrete floor. Shuanghai returns to her cabbage, while Donghua moves on to the yams. But a minute later, Granny's back, arguing for a price of 1.3 yuan and hinting that anything more would be a rip-off.

Shuanghai's cheeks flush red. It doesn't bother her so much that these wealthy city people want everything so cheap. What really gets to her is their impression that all small-time vegetable peddlers are dishonest. Sure, some sellers—especially those with a prime location up front—mark prices way up when they think they can get away with it. Those are the same people who slide the market's management extra money to secure the best tables. But other than that, for the most part, they're all just people like Shuanghai and Donghua, trying to squeak out a decent living. That's hard enough without all these rich folk wanting their peppers and potatoes practically for free and yet still feeling like they're getting cheated over every cent. "We bought these peppers for 1.3, so how can we sell them to you for that price?" Shuanghai snaps at Grandma. "We should be selling them for 1.8, but we're only asking 1.5."

"Yesterday I saw them for ..."

"Yesterday? Yesterday!" Shuanghai brews. "Today's wholesale prices are not the same as yesterday's!"

Donghua pipes in, voice calm, playing the good cop to Shuanghai's bad cop as he explains to Granny what a good deal she's getting. He shows her how tightly the peppers are tied on the string and how thoroughly they've been dried. Just then, another lady swoops in to get a closer look, and Grandma, noting the dwindling pile and waxing enthusiasm, quietly relents. She'll take 4 jin at 1.5 yuan.

Shuanghai tucks a loose strand of hair into her ponytail and turns back to her produce with a hint of a smile.

Midafternoon is the slow time at the market, but even so the din can reach deafening proportions. From the whining of motorized steamers warming impossibly high stacks of mantou, or steamed buns, to the squawking of chickens as they're weighed, killed, and shoved into brightly colored plastic bags, layer upon layer of noise builds into a single buzz of activity that, for the uninitiated, can be nearly unbearable. But none of it even registers for Shuanghai—not the individual sounds, and surely not the hum itself. No, her attention is on adding right now, and that, for the moment, is her world.

"1.2, 2.4, 3.6 ... right?" she asks as she pulls a sack of zucchini off the scale and hands it across the table. An old man with an MP3 player tucked neatly in the front breast pocket of his fading blue Mao suit simply grunts, tosses a few crumpled bills her way, and walks further down the aisle. As he goes, he catches sight of Shuanghai's round, black eggplants—the ones that are a little harder to find than the typical oblong ones, the ones Shuanghai knows sell well, despite their slightly higher price, the very ones she and Donghua scoured the wholesale market for early this morning until, triumphantly, she snagged a 10-kilo sack of them. When they got here this morning she noted, with a glint of satisfaction, that only a few of the other vendors had them.

And so the old man stops, pulls the headphones off of his ears, and picks up one of her black beauties. "How much for these?"

"1.8 for a jin."

"That's too much," he whines. But there's no way she'll go down on the price, not with eggplants that look this good, and so he nods at her to hand him a plastic bag.

Soon Donghua arrives, back from his afternoon nap, and he and Shuanghai fall into their unspoken rhythm: she manages the front of the table, answering pricing questions up between the scale and the blue silk money box, while he works the back half, stacking and restacking the heavier veggies. Donghua thwacks a donggua, or winter melon—a watermelon-like vegetable with green outer skin and white flesh—and presses his fist down its length, subconsciously calculating how much longer it will last.

A little lull descends on the market, and he starts chatting with a neighbor who's peeling a pear with a butcher knife, working the giant blade from his body outward so that the peels fly onto the floor's ever-growing pile of discarded scraps. When he finishes, he hands the fruit to Donghua and starts working on one for himself.

Shuanghai points under the table to the pears they bought the other day, the ones that are already going bad. "You can't keep pears, they rot too quickly," she tells Donghua. It's the first time they've spoken about anything other than vegetables all day.

An old man wearing oversize glasses appears and asks about the price of their tomatoes. "1.6 yuan," Donghua and Shuanghai chime in unison, as if it were a rehearsed script. Even after so many years it sometimes still surprises them that they can do that. Though prices fluctuate each and every day, depending on what they pay at the wholesale market in the morning, they can still spit out the current price of any of their thirty-plus vegetable varieties without a second thought, despite the fact that they never discuss what the day's new amount should be. That, according to Donghua, is because "it's impressed on our hearts."

Yes, Shuanghai agrees, their hearts are full of many of the same impressions, full of vegetable prices and seasons and sellers and locations. But it hasn't always been that way, especially not at the beginning of their marriage. Shuanghai's two older sisters had already married men from villages several hours from theirs, and her mother didn't want to lose her third and final daughter in the same way. She was determined that Shuanghai should stay by her side, and the best way to make sure that happened was for her to marry someone local. And so it was that Shuanghai's mom picked Mr. Li Donghua, a young man whose parents worked the plot of land adjacent to theirs. He was the last of seven kids from a family not nearly as well off as theirs—which wasn't saying much, except that they'd surely be glad to marry their son off to her. And so her mom decided he was the one.

The only problem was that Shuanghai didn't agree. She couldn't stand the thought of it, to be more precise. It wasn't that she didn't like Donghua—she "never thought about that too much"—but, rather, that she didn't want to stay in their village, didn't want to live such a tired peasant existence tending the land. Simply put, she wanted a better life, and that, to her, meant life in the city.

But now, as she stands behind their table at the open-air market, feet and back and neck and knees aching from years of long, incredibly long, hours—3:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., 360-some days a year—every inch of her body concedes that life here is certainly more tiring than anything she could have experienced in the countryside. She examines her fingertips, calloused, peeling, and stained black with dirt that won't wash away no matter how hard she scrubs. Then she laughs and thrusts her palms into Donghua's. "I'm only in my thirties and already they're like a sixty-year-old lady's hands."

Migrants like Shuanghai and Donghua may drudge through each day with their own financial concerns in mind, but their collective endeavors form a key component of China's double-digit economic growth. It's not just that they provide a nearly endless supply of cheap labor, but that they do so with unimaginable tenacity and grit—a strength of character and work ethic reminiscent of America's early immigrants and the country's struggles through the Great Depression.

In Chinese, that ethic is called chiku or, literally, eating bitterness, a term that has no direct correlate in English but that means, roughly, to endure hardships, overcome difficulties, and press ahead all in one. While long considered a virtue in Chinese culture, the country's upheavals over the past sixty years—including the Communist and cultural revolutions, market reforms, and the recent spread of materialism—have honed this ability to a new degree of perfection. This is especially true among peasants, who have had to be far more savvy and entrepreneurial than their urban counterparts to survive this tumultuous period.

And so it is that no matter how greatly city life may differ from their expectations, China's peasants don't often turn tail and head back home at the first sign of difficulty. Instead, they chiku, accepting and enduring and adapting as each situation demands and ultimately filtering into distasteful factory or service jobs, searching out petty business opportunities, and even inventing new channels of their own. In so doing they provide the country with an unusually resolute and yet highly flexible workforce that is helping vaunt China onto the world stage. But when all is said and done, by molding themselves to the vagaries of a society in extreme flux, Shuanghai and her peers often find that they no longer belong to the nation's traditional past and yet neither do they have a place in its modernized future; they are a people caught in between.

Nobody needs to tell Donghua that it's almost dinnertime. He knows by the eerie glow of the market's fluorescent lights, by the clouds of chili-laced smoke drifting over from the dining area, and by the merchants hustling back and forth to their motorcycles to grab extra provisions. But most of all he knows by the way customers are suddenly pressed three-deep around their table, eager to get hold of some fresh produce for the night's meal. This is prime time at the market, and he and Shuanghai are working double-time.

From the very beginning, when Donghua first saw the High-Tech Zone six years ago, with its wide roads and new schools, he was hooked. "I knew that this place was better than others. I knew there'd be development potential here," he says.

Despite the district's obvious wealth, the open-air market itself was slipshod and simple, thrown up for the temporary convenience of nearby residents. But that didn't daunt Donghua and Shuanghai—after all, how else were they going to get a chance to work in such a ritzy area? Besides, they weren't planning to strike it rich. This just seemed to be a better opportunity than the petty peddling they'd been doing out of the back of a manual three-wheeled bike—a step up the mercantile food chain, so to speak. So they scraped together 2,000 yuan to buy a motorized three-wheeler—a necessity for hauling large quantities of veggies from the wholesale market—and that was that. "We never really thought about it too much," Shuanghai says. "We just did it."

At times like this, with customers swarming the mushrooms, the potatoes, the spinach, and the bamboo shoots, Donghua has to admit that things have worked out okay. They could, of course, always be better—he and Shuanghai could be renting out one of the tiny shops at the perimeter of the market where people sell things like grains, meats, noodles, and spices. Those vendors pay more for their spot, but then they make more, and they get running water, a cooking space, and even enough room to cram a little bed inside. As it is now, Donghua and Shuanghai get nothing more for their 200-yuan rent than a barren table.


Excerpted from Eating Bitterness by Michelle Dammon Loyalka. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


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


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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"What Loyalka finds is fascinating. . . . Details . . . make the book read like an ethnography, with a lot of first-hand discovery, and give it lasting power as a historical record of the biggest, fastest urbanization in human history."—San Francisco Chronicle

"A vivid portrait of the migrant experience in the burgeoning western Chinese city of Xi'an. . . . An insightful look at the hard lives of real people caught in a cultural transition."—Kirkus Reviews

"A thorough and insightful examination of the gritty, arduous side of the Chinese economic miracle."—Publishers Weekly

"One of the first books to examine the complexities of rural-to-urban migration through the life stories of individuals."—Pacific Standard

"Eating Bitterness sheds light on another dimension of the vast spectrum of Chinese society and is a valuable addition to the nonfiction literature on China."—Asian Review of Books

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