Meet the Contributors to Chinese Characters: Michelle Dammon Loyalka
Tell me about the first time you went to China.
Back in 1997 I was running a small technical writing company in California when I received an unexpected invitation to work at a language training center in China. I was given two days to make a decision and two weeks to make the cross-Pacific move. I fully expected China to be an intriguing but brief chapter in my life, so I signed a six-month contract, put my business on hold and headed for the southern seaport of Zhuhai. But China proved infinitely more intriguing – and addicting – than I had anticipated and I ended up staying for a total of 14 years.
What was the most interesting thing you learned from working on your chapter for Chinese Characters?
My Chinese Characters chapter is from Eating Bitterness, a book I recently wrote about the lives of China’s rural migrants. The chapter focuses on a migrant named Zhang Erhua who works at a small-time recycling center and sleeps there in a cardboard-lined metal box suspended above a mountain of old newspapers. It’s a dirty, gritty job that he somehow manages to laugh his way through each day.
Having lived in China for so many years, I already knew that migrants typically face some pretty tough conditions when they get to the city. But it was only after spending several weeks with Erhua that I realized just how tough things could be. In workplaces like his there were no safety measures or building codes or environmental protections in play. There were no strictly-enforced labor laws to protect employees and no business protection laws to protect struggling entrepreneurs. Erhua had opened two small businesses in the past, but was forced to close his doors both times as a result of other people’s attempts to cheat the system. As I came to understand what an unregulated, dog-eat-dog (or, to put it in Chinese terms, person-eat-person) type of environment rural migrants must navigate their way through, I came to admire them all the more for having the nerve to embark on this journey in the first place.
Where are you right now and what are you working on?
Last summer I moved back to the States. I’m currently doing promotional events for Eating Bitterness and just beginning a book about the winners and losers in China’s education system.