Michelle Dammon Loyalka is a freelance journalist and editor who has lived in China for 13 years. During that time she has written a language-learning textbook for kids, launched a business consulting company, co-hosted a call-in radio program, and headed the educational products division of a Chinese software company. Her first book, Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China’s Great Urban Migration, chronicles the triumphs and tribulations of China’s growing population of rural migrants. She currently lives in Beijing.
WWW I heard you talk about your new book, Eating Bitterness, on the radio and thought it sounded very interesting. In a departure from the usual format of our Untranslatable column, I wondered if you could talk about the title and explain what “eating bitterness” really means?
MDL In Chinese, “eating bitterness” means three different things all in one: enduring hardships, persevering and pressing ahead. There is no equivalent single word in English; it can connote all three things. Translated roughly, that comes out to “eating bitterness.” I didn’t start out with that title in mind when I started to do the research for the book, but when I was talking with the migrants I interviewed, they all brought up this idea of “eating bitterness” or chiku over and over again, as being the key to their ability to survive in the city. The migrants face a lot of different difficulties, and that ability—to eat bitterness—is really key to their being able to tough it out. I think it has also been the key to China’s ability to transform itself so quickly over the last few decades.
WWW Is it an old word? Do you know where it comes from? Is there a region of China it comes from?
MDL That’s a good question. I don’t know the origin of the word per se, though it dates from at least the Tang Dynasty, between the 7th and 10th centuries. It’s a pretty common word all over China. This is a long-held value in Chinese culture.
WWW What got you interested in studying urban migration in China?
MDL It’s a long story. I had been living in China for a couple of years and had written a textbook for kids to learn English. They were using it in schools and kindergartens throughout southern China, and as part of the curriculum package I would go to the schools maybe every month or so and give the teachers training and observe the class. In one of the schools the principal invited me to stay an extra day and go with her to a village nearby where her relatives lived. I went there and it was wonderful, a really beautiful farming village. At the end of the day her relatives asked me how I liked it. I said I loved it, and they said, well, why don’t you move here? So I ended up moving to the village. That was my first real-life experience of “eating bitterness.”
WWW What took you to China in the first place?
MDL It was kind of a whim, actually. I was running a research and technical writing company out of my house in southern California, and I just happened to meet somebody who was looking for English teachers to come to his school in China. I was 24 at the time and it sounded like a great adventure. I thought I was only going for a short time—that I would go for six months and then come back and keep running my company—but that was 15 years ago.
WWW Can you explain the two parts of the word, chi and ku?
MDL It’s chiku. Chi means “to eat”—chi-fan is to eat a meal—and ku means “bitter,” so if something tastes bitter, you would say ku. But ku also implies “difficulties” in Chinese. Chiku is often used in terms of doing hard, physical labor-type things, but it is also often used just to talk about the ability to work hard. So, for instance, my daughter takes violin lessons, and at one point her teacher said to me, “Your daughter can really chiku, can really eat bitterness.” She meant it as a compliment; to say that she is not like a lot of four-year-olds who can’t stay still for half an hour, she really sits and focuses and can be diligent in learning violin.
WWW So it’s a word you knew, a word that’s part of everyday speech?
MDL Everyone in China was really surprised that I got the domain name, because it’s such a common word there.
WWW So why do you think it is something that the Chinese actually have a word for? Maybe the other question is, why don’t we have such a thing in English?
MDL That’s a good question. We have it, but as three or four separate words. We don’t have this one word that encompasses all those qualities. We definitely have that concept and ability. I think that this ability to “eat bitterness” that I observed with the migrants in China is very similar to what happened in America when, say, immigration started in the Great Depression. I definitely believe people had that spirit very strongly at various times in America’s history as well. I don’t know why it’s not a word in English.
WWW Perhaps it doesn’t seem very evident here anymore.
MDL I think it’s human nature. When we get comfortable enough, we don’t have that willingness to bear down and plow through any difficulties.
WWW Do you think it’s a word that migrants particularly use? I thought that what you said on NPR—about how in China you get classified at birth, that is, as being urban or rural—was very interesting. Is this a word or concept that has particularly to do with migrants?
MDL No, not really. I’m sure that people in China people would definitely say that migrants have to eat bitterness more than the general population, but, again, as my violin teacher said about my daughter, it can be used about hard work and persistence and endurance in lots of different contexts.
China has a whole different system from the U.S. In China, when you’re born, you’re designated as either an urban or a rural citizen, and you really can’t change that very easily unless you go to college. But there’s one perk of being a rural resident, which is that if you have this rural registration, at birth you’re given a parcel of land, which is yours to keep, for life essentially. You can’t sell it, you can’t let it go fallow, but as long as you don’t do those things, it’s yours for life. So everyone who’s born in the country has this rural registration with a piece of land. But the problem is that because there are so many rural people still in China, that by the time you’ve divided up all the land, it’s like a sixth of an acre per person. If you consider a Chinese family of four, I think it comes out at, like, 600 times smaller than an American family farm. It’s a really small amount of land, and it’s hard to do much more than subsistence living on such a small piece. Which is why there’s this huge migration, and most families that want to do more than just keep themselves fed, they have to send somebody in the family to the cities.
WWW Asking it another way, is there something about the hard work that people had to endure? Is it about conditions being harsh?
MDL Perhaps. I’m hesitant to say for sure.
WWW So what brought writing the book about? When did you decide to do the book, and why?
MDL I left China in 2004 to come back to the States and go to grad school for a master’s degree in journalism. While I was there I won a fellowship for an essay I had written about the psychological repercussions of China’s super-fast development. Then I also won the Missouri School of Journalism’s McIntyre Fellowship, which gave me funding for doing a book-length project. That was in 2006, so after that I went back to China, to the part where I had lived before, which is Xi’an in western China. I knew I wanted to write about the transformation in the two different universes of experience that are in urban China, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to go about it. So I went back to that area. That was when I found that there was this old village, one that I had actually lived right by five or six years before, surrounded by a new high-tech zone. The village was about to be torn down, and all the migrants in the area were really worried. I realized that while they work in the high-tech zone—they build the buildings, they sweep the streets, they sell the produce, they do all kinds of jobs in the city that urbanites are dependent on—they don’t live in the city. They can’t afford the city, they can’t take part in urban life.
WWW Your book came out of your academic work, but it has a wider readership than just academics.
MDL I would not consider it an academic work, although it’s also published by an academic house. Mostly I’d say it’s for a wider readership, to give kind of an insight into the little people underneath China’s economic miracle. We hear so much about that, but people don’t really think about the people—how it’s all happening. It’s happening on the backs of people at this really low level of society who are really doing a lot.
Our thanks to Ying Wang of the United Nations Chinese Verbatim Reporting Section for the audio pronunciation.