Lisa See strikes again with a novel not only full of authentic characters but also rich with culture and history. Fused across three generations and two continents, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane explores the boundaries of deeply ingrained traditions and what happens when they’re broken.
The story begins with a detailed account of a grueling, hot day picking tea leaves with Li-yan, her mother A-ma and the rest of the Akha community high in the Yunnan mountains.
It took a few chapters for the story to really grab my attention, but soon enough, See’s vivid descriptions of the village and Li-yan’s complex inner thoughts had me hooked. I immersed myself in the world of the Akha — one completely foreign to my own — and learned more in these 394 pages than I have in any academic textbook.
See depicts the Akha people and the foggy tea groves with immense detail — I felt like I was right there with Li-yan and her best friend Ci-teh as they gossiped their way through the fields. Her descriptions of pu-erh were even more articulate, leading to my still-strong desire to taste the earthy, rich Chinese tea that these characters built their lives around.
While most chapters focus on Li-yan and the tumultuous journey that is her life, the story occasionally jumps across the world to the United States, where the upbringing and background of Chinese-born, California-raised Haley is slowly uncovered.
Though fictional, the story contains truth in its descriptions of the communities and cultures in rural China, as well as its representation of what it means to be adopted, especially into a family whose ethnic background does not match your own.
Attached from the rest of the country, Li-yan’s village is centered around distinctive traditions, beliefs and taboos — from their worship of various spirits and a supreme God to their adherence to village shamans and unique cleansing rituals.
Young Li-yan was taught blind obedience to Akha laws and traditions but begins to question her culture when a woman in the village gives birth to twins. Twins are considered human rejects in Akha culture, so the infants are killed, the parents are exiled and Li-yan is left confused and yearning for something different than the ideals with which she grew up.
She voices her worries to Ci-teh and her mother, but they are both wholly devoted to Akha Law and denounce Li-yan’s opinions without a second thought.
Li-yan’s struggle to identify with her culture sets a series of silent rebellions in motion, and her abhorrence toward Akha taboos comes to fruition when she accidentally becomes pregnant out of wedlock and gives birth in secret.
She fears her mother will remain committed to the Akha law that states the child must be killed, but A-ma puts motherhood above all else and helps Li-yan deliver a healthy baby and drop her at an orphanage.
Though I won’t reveal any specifics in an attempt to avoid spoilers, Li-yan’s life thereafter is full of countless envy-evoking highs and seemingly insurmountable lows, and she learns more about love and loss before her 30s than most do in their entire lives.
Years after the birth of her child and thousands of miles away from her home village, Li-yan ventures to Pasadena, California, and attempts to fit in with the uber-wealthy Chinese Han-majority family into which she has married.
Almost in tandem with Li-yan, Haley begins to struggle with feelings of being out of place. Entering high school, she is seen as “not white enough” for her white friends and “not Chinese enough” for the Han majority. Though her parents shower her with nothing but affection, Haley longs to learn about her culture and history.
From the sole artifacts Haley clings onto from her birth family to the few traditions and ideas Li-yan can’t shake, See paints a powerful picture of what it means to love deeply, lose traumatically and grow exponentially.
The theme of identity and belonging is prevalent throughout the story as Li-yan must find her place time and time again throughout the story, and Haley is just learning who she is and where she feels most at home.
The enduring strength of the mother-daughter relationship is also a recurring theme in the story, and See articulates it perfectly. Li-yan’s mother, no matter how disappointed or angry, never fails to put her daughter’s life first, and A-ma’s never-flinching support for her daughter gave rise to the immense amount of gratitude I have for my own mother.
Li-yan’s story is full of surprises, and I can’t even put into words how much I urge you to push through the first few chapters and uncover the brilliance that is The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. I give this book 5 out of 5 stars.