The Problem With Eating Bitterness

As tiger parents, most of us value grit and tenacity in the face of adversity. We appreciate mottos like:

No pain, no gain.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

If it doesn’t hurt, you’re doing it wrong.

The Chinese have a special phrase for this bearing of hardship: 吃苦 (chīkǔ).

It’s a phrase that literally means “to eat bitterness.” And it’s something that the Chinese have turned into an art and a virtue.

The ability to endure and overcome all kinds of trials is regarded as a fundamental part of the Chinese character.

Whereas the American value of comfort often means the avoidance of pain, Chinese culture accepts suffering as a natural part of life.

“All life is full of suffering, pain, and sorrow.” – Buddha

We know how to survive.

We know to how persevere.

We know to how suffer.

But the very virtue that helps us survive tragedy and adversity doesn’t necessarily help us thrive.

The ability to eat bitterness can also threaten to poison us.

It Infects our Bodies

Unlike most Westerners who express depression through psychological symptoms, Chinese people typically manifest it through their bodies. There is even a term coined for this phenomenon: “Chinese somatization.” The Chinese tend to experience their suffering through headaches, insomnia, chronic pain, fatigue, etc. rather than emotional or mental distress.

It’s no wonder that so many of us experience pain in our bodies when we are taught to “eat bitterness.” The very language we use for suffering employs somatic imagery.

We consume and absorb our suffering. We assimilate it into our physical body. We store it in our bellies, our backs, our bones.

But sooner or later our bodies betray our pain.

It Prevents Us From Seeking Relief

A research article about Chinese beliefs and behaviors regarding pain cites several studies that illustrate this cultural value of stoicism. In one study of an ethnically-diverse sample of 480 cancer patients, the Asian Americans were the ones who reported the lowest pain scores. Another study of Taiwanese cancer patients indicates a cultural acceptance of and high tolerance for pain.

But this very ability to withstand intense hardship also prevents many Chinese people from seeking help. We fool ourselves and those around us into thinking we are fine when we are in fact suffering.

Whether physical or psychological, we can’t get timely support if we are not honest about our pain. If we attempt to eat bitterness and resist seeking out relief until the suffering becomes intolerable, we end up experiencing undue agony.

We say to ourselves,

“All marriages are hard.”

“My parents weren’t that bad.”

“I can handle the pain.”

But then we end up divorced, depressed, or diseased.

Many crises might well be avoided if we acknowledge our need for support and ask for help earlier.

It Keeps us Submissive

Since pain and sorrow are an expected part of life, when Chinese people suffer unjustly, they often simply keep their heads down and carry on.

Many Chinese immigrants accept racism and condescension as part and parcel of the immigrant experience.

There’s no use complaining about it. Instead, beat them at their own game.

Outperform, outshine, outlast.

But in doing so, we often end up tolerating injustice and becoming complicit in maintaining oppressive systems.

Eating bitterness may therefore help us overcome personal difficulties, but it doesn’t inspire us to be agents of change for the greater good. It keeps us in a self-seeking, submissive survival mode that prevents us from addressing wrongs and speaking truth to power.

It Erodes Our Compassion

Eating bitterness can be a bit like surviving a hazing. We had to endure humiliation and abuse to make it into the inner circle. Now we expect other pledges to endure the same.

Those who flinch, faint, or falter provoke our derision instead of our compassion.

When we believe all of us just need to suck it up, it’s easy to look down on the “weak.”

Our ability to eat bitterness thus becomes a badge of honor instead of a way to connect and empathize with others who are suffering.

I take pride in the tenacity and resilience of my Chinese heritage.

Eating bitterness has provided sustenance for our survival. It has fueled our ability to persevere. It has sustained our successes and achievements.

But we have to know when to swallow the bitterness down, and when to spit it out.

We must endure pain, but we can also learn to express pain.

We need courage to deal with hardship, but we also need courage to admit our need.

We can celebrate our grit, but also welcome our groans.

Let’s embrace the ways this cultural value empowers us. But let us also reject the ways in which it cuts us off from our bodies, our communities, and our own humanity.

Life has far too many flavors to offer to have us only be left with a bitter taste in our mouths.

Check out some other related blog posts:

The Problem with Respect

The Problem with School




  1. snq

    November 14, 2017 at 10:10 am

    Enjoying reading this! I love hearing your voice through your words.
    I have been thinking so much about the flip side, or the western resistance to/avoidance of pain an how that creates so much relational/emotional/spiritual unhealth and addiction. Here we have a dark obsession with pain, and as young-ish parents we extoll the virtues of grit and tenacity and acceptance of hardship/pain. It was good to be reminded that the flip side is not the solution, either. Thank you!

    1. Iris

      November 14, 2017 at 7:16 pm

      Yeah, there has to be happy and healthy path to dealing with pain that avoids either extremes. Thanks for reading, Seri!

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    January 9, 2018 at 5:01 am

    […] we were taught to eat bitterness and resign ourselves to […]

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