Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Eating Bitterness

Saoziying, the alleyway neighborhood adjacent to the apartment complex we called home for a year, is a fascinating mix of cheap restaurants, convenience stores, seamstresses, vegetable stands, and public spaces for old and young to enjoy.

Although special to us, Saoziying is just one of thousands upon thousands of such spaces in the China of today. China, you see, has no suburbs to speak of, at least not in the leafy, brick rambler sense that is so common in the United States. Instead, Chinese cities are dotted with little alleyway neighborhoods, surrounded by modern high rises and wide highways. It is these alleyways where the new China and old China come together.

Saoziying, and alleyways everywhere, are populated in no small part by migrant workers. There is Hui Min and her family from Inner Mongolia, operating a small, delicious restaurant. There is Pan Ting's mother, living in and cleaning the public toilet, while her kids go to school back home in far away Anhui Province. There are all of those young people, living sometimes with no running water, yet walking out to the bus stop to travel to work down in Zhongguancun, the so-called Silicon Valley of China.
But don't take our word for it. Michelle Dammon Loyalka has written a fascinating account of a place that comes right out of our Saoziying lives. In Eating Bitterness, Dammon Loyalka chronicles the lives of some of the people who live and work in an alleyway neighborhood in Xi'an, the home of the Terra Cotta Warriors. It's a nice read that captures a wide range of alleyway experiences, all the way up to the impending destruction that always seems to be lurking in such neighborhoods, which have neither the permanence of the countryside nor the manifest destiny of the mega-city.

The river of constant change is something that always catches our attention when we head back to Saoziying after an absence of nearly a year. Last year, the mala tang place fell to a new new village gate. Will Hui Min and her family still be there, cooking up our favorite dishes? Will Pan Ting's mother still be calling the bathroom building home? Or will the entire alleyway neighborhood be slotted for destruction, to make way for a new road or residential complex?

These are exactly the kinds of opportunities and uncertainties that Dammon Loyalka does such a good job documenting. So be sure to check out the book...And stay tuned for updates this summer from the Balla family, as we make our way back yet again to Saoziying, in search of good food, great people, and a glimpse into life at the margins of modern China.



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