03/08/2012 12:16 pm ET Updated May 08, 2012

The Lives of Chinese Migrant Workers: An Interview With Author Michelle Dammon Loyalka

Publisher's Weekly recently praised Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Frontlines of China's Great Urban Migration, the just-published first book by talented freelance writer Michelle Dammon Loyalka, for offering a "thorough and insightful examination of the gritty, arduous side of the Chinese economic miracle." I was fortunate enough to get to read the book prior to publication and was impressed by several things about it: the quality of the writing, the importance of the topic, and the fact that it zeroes in on the experiences of workers not in one of China's coastal boom towns or in Beijing but in much less frequently written about inland metropolis of Xi'an, a rapidly growing city associated in the West mainly with being the home of the Terra Cotta Warriors. I recently had a chance to meet and share a stage with Loyalka in Beijing, on a lively Capital M Literary Festival panel that also included Christina Larson of Foreign Policy and Evan Osnos of the New York (the connecting thread was that we all have pieces in Chinese Characters: Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing China, a forthcoming book that I co-edited with Angilee Shah). Just before that event, though, I put a series of questions to her by email about the thinking that went into Eating Bitterness: her answers appear below:

JW: What was the biggest challenge you faced in research and writing this book?

MDL: A lot of literary nonfiction about China is written in the first person, with the author as a central character of the book. From the beginning of this project I knew I wanted to try to convey how migrants view their own lives and situations rather than how I, as a Westerner, perceive them. But keeping myself out of the story proved to be much more difficult than I'd imagined. In Xi'an, migrants rarely have an opportunity to interact with foreigners, so wherever I went I became the center of attention. Eventually they got used to me hanging around and settled back into their daily routines, but it took quite a bit of time to get to that point.

JW: You've spent a lot of time in Beijing as well as Xi'an, so what stands out for you as something that doesn't get talked about enough that is similar about the two cities--and something that might be overlooked that sets them apart?

MDL: People often have the impression of western China being so remote and rural, but that can be misleading. Xi'an has a population of more than 7 million people. In the U.S. it'd be the third largest metropolitan area in the entire country. Like most Chinese cities, it most certainly has under-developed areas, and the migrant enclave that I write about in Eating Bitterness is definitely an example of that. But now Xi'an also has a well-developed, active urban life just like Beijing or any other big city.

If anything, the biggest difference I've noticed between the two cities is that Xi'an is transforming much faster than Beijing. During the first two decades of China's economic reform places like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou shot ahead, while inland cities like Xi'an moved forward much more slowly. I lived in Xi'an from 1999 to 2004, right at the beginning of the government's push to develop western China, and then again in 2006 and 2007. The rate of change was simply unbelievable -- not just in material terms, but also in terms of social norms and values and behaviors. Even for me, having grown up in the States and knowing the direction all this was heading, it was difficult to deal with such an incredibly rapid transition. In Beijing, I don't get that feeling. Perhaps it was just as frenetic in earlier years, but to me Beijing feels much calmer and more settled than Xi'an ever has.

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 -- maybe not so much as a person (I realize you may have kept in touch with them, some may be friends) but 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.

JW: I know you are gearing up for seeing the book, which is your first one, appear and that you have some book events on your mind, but is there a next project underway or at least the seed of one being nurtured?

MDL: There are several, but at this point they really are just seeds. And at least one of them has nothing to do with China, so I'm a bit torn by that. It's easy to come to China for a week or a month or even a year and think you understand what's going on here. But I think the longer you stay, the more you realize just how complex and nuanced and contradictory today's China really is. After 13 years here I feel like I'm just starting to get a grasp on the China story, so it seems like a real shame to switch topics now. I guess it's a decision I'll need to make soon, but for now I'm just focusing on getting Eating Bitterness out there.

* This interview initially appeared at "The China Beat."