Bittersweet tales

Updated: 2012-06-08 12:41

By Ariel Tung (China Daily)

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Bittersweet tales

Michelle Dammon Loyalka visiting the home village of "The Big Boss" in one of her stories - Guo Huilin, the young migrant who became a wealthy owner of a chain of businesses. Posing with her is Guo's older brother. Provided to China Daily

Author captures doughty spirit of chinese migrant workers

Year after year, China's staggering economic growth impresses the world. For the past 30 years, China has grown at an average annual rate of about 10 percent. While the West looks at China as a rising power that's on track to become a fully industrialized society in 50 years, what is often unseen and untold are the hardships and self-sacrifices of individuals underlying China's rapid urban transformation.

Michelle Dammon Loyalka's newly published book Eating Bitterness: Stories from the front lines of China's great urban migration is a series of true stories about eight migrant workers who came to the city of Xi'an from the nearby countryside, offering an insight into their trials and triumphs.

Every year, more than 150 million people leave behind their family in rural China and head to industrialized centers to forge a living. Though they play a big role in China's economic development, these migrant workers often are unable to integrate socially. They live under less than desirable housing conditions on the outskirts of the urban centers.

Loyalka, an American citizen, first came to China in 1997 to teach English in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. She thought she would stay for a couple of months, but that grew into 13 years, during which she opened a business consulting firm, worked at a software company, wrote a language-learning textbook for children, and co-hosted a call-in radio program.

"There's something addictive about China that keeps me here. There's so much happening here. It's transforming so quickly," Loyalka says.

It was Loyalka's experience living in a remote banana-farming village in Guangdong that sparked her interest in portraying modern-day China from the point of view of the rural population. She stayed there for six months before moving to Xi'an to study Chinese.

A year later, in 2000, the Chinese government launched the go-west program, a move to boost the less developed western regions of China, and Xi'an was its focal point. But living in Xi'an's high-tech zone was so different from life in the village that she felt dazed.

"Day to day, week to week, things were changing so quickly. You didn't know what to expect. It made me think, if I grew up in America and I know the direction all this was heading, how about if you were a migrant and you came from the countryside? And you come into a city that is so radically different, and it is rapidly changing. I felt, it was difficult for them psychologically," Loyalka says.

When people in the West hear of migrant workers, an image of factory workers usually come into mind. They in fact make up of only one-third of all migrant workers. To dispel the general misconception that all migrant workers are factory workers, Loyalka says she intentionally left them out of her book.

In her portrayal of a mix of people doing different things that are "indispensable to China's development", she interviewed a vegetable vendor couple, an itinerant knife sharpener, a free-spirited recycler, a cash-strapped mother, and a convenience store owner who became rich.

Loyalka wants to show the "other side of the story" that people in the West know nothing about.

"A lot of times when you read about migrant workers in the West, especially the factory workers, there's this perception that they are being treated unfairly, they are victims, and they are very kelian (pitiful). But that's not my experience with these migrant workers. It's not how they view their own reality," Loyalka says.

"In spite of their difficulties, they tend to be pretty upbeat. They don't see themselves as being kelian. They are full of life and enterprising."

What Loyalka finds remarkable is the ability of these migrant workers to continuously remold themselves to meet the changing needs of the Chinese economy. She met people who have gone from selling eggs to fruits, from shining shoes to opening a shop, all in the course of a year or two. In one of her stories, a couple went out of work when the neighborhood market, where they had been selling vegetables for a decade, unexpectedly closed down. Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, the couple was optimistic that they would either find another place to sell vegetables or do something else.

"How could you keep changing in such a short period of time? To them it's very usual. They just look at the situation and sort of change and transform themselves accordingly," Loyalka says.

The spirit that these migrant workers have - of moving ahead - is the key to China's success, Loyalka says.

"They just keep moving forward no matter what difficulties they have. They just plough ahead. That emerges as the theme of my book."

In 2004, she went back to the United States to pursue a master's degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, where she won an Overseas Press Club scholarship for an essay that funded her writing for Eating Bitterness for a year.

The title of the book, Eating Bitterness, is a Chinese phrase that means to endure hardships, persevere and keep moving ahead. Because these people are willing and able to "eat bitterness", the country continues to advance, even as the West remains embroiled in financial turmoil, the author says in her book.

The West often portrays China as a currency manipulator, and views it as an economic competitor. Loyalka says she wants people to see another side to it.

"People see how fast China is developing. There's so much focus on trade issues and currency issues with China. I really want to bring the human side to that," Loyalka says.

"I want to show that side of how hard people are working, how much they are sacrificing, and what's underlying this rapid transformation in China. Otherwise you see these boomtowns and the glamorous side. You don't think about the real people involved."

"Eating bitterness" is not restricted to the Chinese but it is a human quality seen throughout history. It is the ability to triumph in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The author says it is similar to the early immigrants who came to America from other countries. And because of their hard work and sacrifices, the country was able to advance very quickly.

For the most part, the migrant workers live in very small spaces (an average of 8 square meters per person), work more than 12 hours a day, and are underpaid. But the author sees it as a choice people make at this point of China's development.

"They have a one-track mind of working hard and making money. They tend to want to save as much money as possible. The saving rate in China is 30 percent, but these migrant workers want to save as close to 100 percent as possible. So they chose to live like that," Loyalka says.

"What I observed is that the migrants don't allow themselves to think beyond their daily lives. They are thinking of giving their kids a better life and good education. They said, 'I don't want my kids to be like me - tired and doing physical work.' They don't think beyond that."

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