The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
Published March 21, 2017
Lisa See is an author who has been on my TBR for a long time, but this is the first book of hers I’ve read and it did not disappoint. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane tells the story of Li-yan, an Akha ethnic minority girl in Yunnan, China and her family, who align their lives around the farming of tea. When a stranger arrives seeking a rare tea, Li-yan, as the most educated girl in her village, is tasked with translating for the stranger, whose arrival marks the entrance of the modern world into the lives of the Akha. Li-yan begins to reject the superstitions and rules that have shaped her existence, and when she gives birth to a daughter while unwed, she brings her child to an orphanage in a neighbouring city and abandons her, rather than submit to the tradition that would compel her to give the child over to be killed. While Li-yan’s intelligence and education enables her to move into the modern world, she never forgets about the daughter she gave up. Meanwhile in California, her daughter Haley is raised by loving American parents in a privileged home, but wonders about her origins.
See’s grasp on the setting and the rich historical and cultural detail she provides is deeply immersive and I learned a great deal about the Akha, an ethnic group I knew absolutely nothing about, as well as about the process of farming, brewing, and selling tea. In fact, I was so fascinated by the description of the rise in value of Pu’er and its potential health benefits, that when I was in a tea shop this weekend I bought a sample of Pu’er tea to try!
Admittedly at times the immersive quality of the setting and culture was difficult for me to encounter because it clashed so wholly with my western sensibilities. It helps that even Li-yan, raised within this culture, is upset by the killing of healthy twin babies, in one of the novel’s most shocking scenes. As Li-yan’s midwife mother explains, “only animals, demons, and spirits give birth to litters. If a sow gives birth to one piglet, then both must be killed at once. If a dog gives birth to one puppy, then they too must be killed immediately.” This explanation may help to understand why the Akha believe what they do, but it is still difficult to accept. Other examples are less drastic, but the idea of whether or not two people are a good match for a relationship being decided by their day of birth, is still hard to accept.
See writes beautifully, with prose that makes you feel like you were there. She provides enough detail to paint a picture and is informative without the writing and historical context ever feeling dull. Although I can see why other readers might not enjoy her choice to include awkward terms, like “doing the intercourse”, which I assume is a close translation of words the Akha’s language would actually use, this decision didn’t affect my reading experience and it’s infrequent enough that I enjoyed the terms as a marker of authenticity.
Undoubtedly my favourite things about this book was Li-yan. She is one of the most engaging protagonists I’ve encountered in a long time. Compassionate towards others, even when they wrong her, strong in her ability to get through hardship, and intelligent. Li-yan sees education as her way forward and as a means to escape the life that has been planned for her, to follow in the footsteps of her midwife mother. She is a character I cared about deeply. Her successes in business and in life brought me joy, and more than anything I wanted her to be happy. On the other hand, I felt the stab of betrayal from her former friend and, later in the book, the hole in her otherwise idyllic life left by her abandoned daughter.
I wish See had spent more time on Li-yan’s daughter Haley and her story, because I found it really interesting to read about her experience in the group therapy she undergoes for Chinese adoptees. Haley describes herself as ‘grateful but angry’, grateful to be adopted into a privileged home with parents who love her, but angry at being abandoned by her birth parents. I loved both the unique methods of presenting Haley’s experiences, through letters, essays, and even a transcript of a therapy session, See uses and the sentiments that are expressed by Haley and other Chinese adoptees of not fitting in, of being subject to stereotypes, and of the conflict they each have with their origins.
I raced through this book, not wanting to put it down. Usually I enjoy a good bittersweet ending, or even a sad ending, but with The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane I was desperately afraid that after all the trials of Li-yan’s early life she would not get her happy ending. This feeling intensified when she seemed to be in a happy relationship mid-way through the book and I feared there was too much of the book left for the author to not introduce additional drama. I also worried that the reunion with Haley might not occur. Ultimately though, he story is brought to a gratifying end.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is a very moving tale of love, sacrifice, and hard work, that features a protagonist you will root for and interesting glimpses at a little known ethnic minority and the process of making and selling tea. I would highly recommend it and I look forward to reading more of Lisa See’s work in the future.