The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
by Lisa See
Length: 371 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Scribner Books
Release Date: March 2017
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane offers a snapshot of life among the Akha minority tribe in China. The story opens in the late 1980s, following the lives of Li-yan and her family in Spring Well Village. The Akha community heavily rely on tea production, and work in laborious tasks year after year in order to provide families with the food and necessities required to survive the long months. Each member of the Akha people also rely on spirit work and dream interpretation in order to foster abundance and keep away bad omens. ‘Every story, every dream, every waking minute of our lives is filled with one coincidence after another’ states Li-yan’s mother, using her storied wisdom to work as a powerful midwife. It is through dreams that a young Li-yan foresees a negative omen among her people: a dog standing on a roof. What follows afterward are a series of events that paints Li-yan’s perspectives on taking her mother’s place in the future, while struggling to deal with the reality of set traditions against her true interests in life.
Li-yan’s journey is peppered with the pitfalls and suffering that were largely known among women living in China. She has a relationship with a man that her family doesn’t approve of, and becomes pregnant. While Akha tradition dictates that Li-yan is giving birth to a ‘bad omen’, with the help of her A-ma (mother), she gives birth to a daughter and gives her up for adoption. Li-yan feels crushed upon sending her daughter away, and while her life journey takes some significant turns, she never stops thinking about ‘what could have been’.
Throughout the book, Lisa See beautifully describes the relationship between mothers and daughters. She reveals the strict yet loving bond between Li-yan and her a-ma, as she advises her to move forward with her life despite the pitfalls she already experienced in her young life. ‘You cannot let memories of what happened in the past turn you into someone you wouldn’t recognize’. Li-yan’s mother becomes the guiding light in her story, as she moves on to become a strong business woman with her mother’s blessing.
Simultaneously, we learn about the journey of her daughter with her new family, as the story takes into account her yearning to learn about the roots of her heritage. From her tough beginnings before her adoptive parents came into the picture, through the struggles she faced while learning about her roots, to discovering the life-changing abilities of Pu’er while studying in higher education. Li-yan’s daughter takes the initiative in learning about her origins, and her personal journey takes a surprising turn as a result. Reading this parallel journey between mother and daughter was a refreshing take on the quest in both women discovering their love for one another.
Lisa See always paints a vivid picture of life in different regions in China, taking the reader back in time to experience what the community experienced. In this case, the region is a hidden tribe within Yunnan beginning in the late 80s. Life among the Akha is extremely primitive, even during a time when most people in the modern world live with creature comforts of lights and automobiles. Their cloistered living radically shifts with the arrival of a tea connoisseur, introducing the concept of Pu’er, a raw form of tea extracted from older trees. It is the concept of Pu’er, and learning how to harvest and produce such a sacred nutrient, that shifts the path of Li-yan’s (and her daughter’s) life permanently. Li-yan uses the guidance of her Akha upbringing to foster a deep rooted respect in producing tea, and keeping this same spirit symbolism and dream interpretation to provide a healthy outlook in seeking out her daughter. It is this thread that keeps Li-yan and the other women in her family on a strong path to empowerment and survival.
I purchased The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane very recently, and I was so excited. I always enjoy reading Lisa See’s work, since her writing style infuses me with wisdom as she travels to different regions in China. With a break finally presenting itself in my professional life, I savored this story and was very thankful. Although I’m very late in reading this book, I’m glad to share that it was worth the wait!
Rating: 5/5 Stars