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  • Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China’s Great Urban Migration by Michelle Dammon Loyalka
  • Arianne M. Gaetano (bio)
Michelle Dammon Loyalka. Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China’s Great Urban Migration. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. 264pp. Hardcover $29.95, isbn 978-0-520-26650-6.

In lively and accessible prose, Michelle Dammon Loyalka’s Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Front Lines of China’s Great Urban Migration celebrates the indomitable spirit of China’s underclass—the migrant workers from the countryside who toil in the shadows of high-rise offices and residences of modernizing cities. Though they provide essential goods and services to the more affluent urbanites, migrants are virtually excluded from urban society and are made to feel inferior because of their relative lack of education and wealth. The author, an award-winning journalist, lived in Xian in western China for several years before embarking on this interview-based project in 2007. Her familiarity with the city and its residents is evident in these intimate stories of migrants and their families.

In each of eight chapters, Eating Bitterness profiles a colorful character residing in Gan Jia Zhai, a shantytown or urban village on the edge of burgeoning New Xian, which was home to thirty thousand migrants until it was demolished in the late 2000s to make way for expansion of the adjacent high-tech zone. Each individual has a distinct occupation and background, but they face common challenges and share a resolute attitude of enduring hardship (“eating bitterness”) typical of migrant workers. With each migrant’s story, Loyalka draws attention to a pressing social problem wrought by China’s rapid economic modernization. She forewarns of possible social unrest (p. 4) should the government fail to address adequately the barriers to migrants’ social mobility and assimilation into urban life. [End Page 460]

Chapter 1 is a sympathetic portrait of the hardscrabble lives of a migrant couple in their mid-thirties who work as petty traders. To purchase the freshest produce, they must rise in the early hours of the morning and ride in darkness on their electric pedicab to a wholesale market, where they select the day’s fruits and vegetables. Until long after sunset, the husband and wife stand on their feet, exposed to the elements in their rented stall in a covered market, where they sell their produce to city residents. Their hard work is rarely appreciated by their relatively privileged customers, who accuse the couple of cheating on prices and belittle their knowledge, reinforcing the couples’ own sense of inferiority and exclusion from society.

Loyalka illuminates migrants’ motivations and resourcefulness, and the precariousness of their futures. After her husband, Li Donghua, was injured in a construction accident, Chuan Shuanghai had little choice but to come to Xian to earn cash to pay his medical debts. Without much education or prior work experience, migrants must rely on their brawn and wit to earn wages. Petty retail was an option that involved little investment, just enough to purchase the pedicab and rent a market stall. Once the couple had paid their debts, they continued to labor to support their daughter’s education, an investment that would contribute to her future success. Like many other parents, the vegetable sellers brought their daughter to Xian to take advantage of its superior educational opportunities. The urban school system has better quality instruction and curriculum and sends more students to college. Such advantages far outweigh the costs, which may include charging illicit fees to nonlocal (migrant) students. Yet, placing hopes on their children’s future unduly burdens the young, and the outcome of parental sacrifice is uncertain.

Chapter 2 focuses on an elderly itinerant artisan whose traditional knowledge is endangered as new technology makes his knife-sharpening skills obsolete and his sons decline to learn the craft. The knife sharpener’s rugged appearance reflects the many miseries he has suffered as a self-employed migrant, from curmudgeonly and disloyal customers to unscrupulous city police who must be bribed before he is allowed to ply his trade on street corners. Despite his difficulties, the knife sharpener seems to be a surprisingly jovial fellow who...