Eat Bitter (吃苦)- How well can you do it?

fist tight

In Mandarin Chinese, there is a maxim “Eat bitter” or “Eating bitterness”. The pin yin romanization is Chī Kǔ. Basically this phrase refers to enduring hardship, or enduring something that is less than pleasant or desirable in either good humor or acceptance. People who “eat bitter” will continue on with life despite difficulties. They should stay focused on challenges, and persist. To Chinese, being able to effectively “eat bitter” is a type of virtue, and mostly expected.

I remember when I first learned the maxim “eat bitter” at university I immediately understood what that meant. As a person with a mental illness, prone to depression, anxiety, and mixed episodes I had felt forced to tolerate all kinds of pain, fear and frustration from as young as 14 years old. Even when I was supposedly stable, life brought rough challenges that pushed me to the limit. “Eating bitterness” is obviously something everyone (with illness or not) has to do at some points in their life, but looking back I felt I had more than my share of it.

In America, the idea of “eating bitterness” is not nearly as strongly practiced as in Asia. Many Americans feel free to complain, cry, and act out when in misery or distress, especially in front of people they feel closest to or even people they have nothing to lose from. But in cases where you can be punished, shamed or disrespected, “eating bitterness” is indeed also expected in many countries at times.

Sometime people (in some cases a parent or parents) can be intolerant of their children’s distress calls. Instead of supporting their child, they react with punishment or disregard. Spouses are also known to react in similar ways. Unless the distressed person has someone to turn to the negative painful feelings can build up.

I think “eating bitterness” must be some kind of special talent that some people develop. Putting hardships behind them and not internalizing them excessively. Though I have been able to do that to a certain degree, I’ve had frustrations and other types of pain build and build without an immediate release. No, sometimes I couldn’t just let something disappear from within,  or “roll off my shoulder”. Often times when anger built up too much it would build so much that it would burst out in the form of tirades, emotional explosions. Or it would slowly trigger severe mental strife or mood episodes. Other times it would feel like two fists tightening inside my stomach, pushing and rolling around. I’d feel it physically, as well as psychologically in terribly negative ways.

eat hot peppers

My guess is that people who are very talented at “eating bitterness” tolerate the bitter in a sense like how people tolerate the heat of hot chili peppers. The longer and more frequently you eat them, the less the agony experienced. They grow immune or accustomed to the pain, until the pain is not so obvious. Yes, I’ve had that effect, too, but not always.

Have you mastered ways of tolerating “bitter” in your life? If so, how?






18 thoughts on “Eat Bitter (吃苦)- How well can you do it?

  1. PurpleOwl May 8, 2017 / 3:35 pm

    Interesting read, I have never heard of this concept before but it makes a lot of sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • updownflight May 8, 2017 / 4:04 pm

      Thank you, PurpleOwl. Yes, I found it interesting to learn about Chinese culture. “Saving face” is also important in their society. “Saving face” means retaining respect or avoiding humiliation.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. lexiejungling May 8, 2017 / 3:47 pm

    I just try to let the bitter things not get to me because they will only tend to make me a bitter person. I don’t want to waste time dwelling on something bitter or something that isn’t going to affect me in a postive way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • updownflight May 8, 2017 / 4:05 pm

      Thanks for commenting on this, lexiejungling. May I ask how you manage to not let things get to you? It is so difficult for me to let things go sometimes.

      Liked by 1 person

      • lexiejungling May 8, 2017 / 4:11 pm

        Well I like this quote that says, “Don’t let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.” I think this goes for a lot of things in life and I like to think about all of the things that are going right in my life that overpower this one thing that is going wrong. I don’t want to let things come in and take away my happiness because it’s MY happiness.

        Liked by 1 person

      • updownflight May 8, 2017 / 4:51 pm

        Thank you for sharing that, lexiejungling. I’ll have to practice that strategy.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Jolene May 8, 2017 / 10:05 pm

    Such poignant points made! And this is coming from a Chinese who supposedly is meant to know all about “eating bitter”… Yes, it is considered a great virtue, which spawned the concept of “bitterness before sweetness”. I think the point of “endurance” is a significant one to make, the issue being that we then mistake endurance for lifelong self-sacrifice and realise too late that we have only been living and yet had no life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • updownflight May 8, 2017 / 10:15 pm

      Jolene, thank you for commenting on this. I appreciate hearing from a Chinese person who can expand on this. I’m glad that my discussion was accurate enough and my points were well enough on target. I must admit that my interpretation of “eating bitter” stem partly from my own experiences and interpretations from Chinese literature. I believe a Chinese professor of mine explained it, as well, but I confess that was over 25 years ago.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jolene May 8, 2017 / 10:21 pm

        You are absolutely on point. Your professional must have been very influential for you to have remembered it 25 years on. Of course, the ability for us to absorb concepts becomes all the greater when we have experienced them first-hand. It’s admirable that you have gained so much from it and willing to share with us al. Your post highlights the great value in cross cultural pollination, as there is much to learn from western cultures to ensure we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

        Liked by 1 person

      • updownflight May 8, 2017 / 11:09 pm

        And there is much to learn from eastern cultures, as well. I developed a fascination and respect for Asian cultures early on. I was lucky that I could study Chinese as early as my junior year in high school. Then I continued with language studies and Asian studies at university.

        Thank you for all of your kind words.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. nosaintaugustine May 8, 2017 / 11:16 pm

    Thank you for this interesting post. In my experience, people do not want to hear my troubles. I learned to deal with it all on my own and with therapists, who taught me great coping skills. People can relate to a cold or cancer but I had a long illness that was uncommon and I got zero support. I “ate bitter” for a long time and now I am tough as nails! I learned to magnify the positive, even if most of the day is pain. Writing my poetry blog helps me work through these issues and hopefully help others dealing with their own. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • updownflight May 8, 2017 / 11:28 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing, nosaintaugustine. I can relate to much of what your wrote. No one in my family (other than my husband) wants to hear ANYTHING negative. Basically when I’m ill (with my bipolar disorder) my dad and siblings and I are incommunicado. I know friends don’t want to hear about my strife too many time, either. It can be lonely, except for as you said, with a therapist or doctor. I’m lucky my husband listens, and I participate in online support groups, too. I do write about my woes occasionally, here, but I also try to balance it with other stuff.

      You say you learned to magnify the positive? Yes, I do that, too, with myself and in front of others. I guess I feel like if I don’t try to “fake it till I make it” it will all be sadness and misery.

      Know that I’m not doing that bad now. I hope you’re OK, too. If not, let’s keep writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • nosaintaugustine May 8, 2017 / 11:41 pm

        Luckily I am feeling much better physically but all my friends were “party” people and I am too tired to party! so I am a bit lonely but luckily I love my down time and I never get bored. I am sure new friends will come who share my interests, like other writers. I am just so happy to be feeling much better and be able to let others know they are not alone! Everyone is valuable and unique. It sounds like you are taking good care of yourself which is great. Keep blogging!

        Liked by 1 person

      • updownflight May 9, 2017 / 12:40 pm

        I’m so glad to read that you are feeling much better. Parties are fun, but I agree I’m not up for them all of the time.


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