The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane: A Global Family Saga

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The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Li-Yan and San-Pa are deeply in love, but their parents disapprove of the match because, according to the Akha Law—an ethnic minority living in the isolated tea mountains of Yunnan Province in southwestern China,—it is inauspicious for a boy born on a Tiger Day to marry a girl born on a Pig Day. Not long after San-pa leaves for nearby Thailand, promising to earn enough money to return and marry Li-Yan, Li-Yan discovers she is pregnant. Although going into the woods to “steal love” before marriage is acceptable to this ancient culture, having a baby out of wedlock is strictly taboo and results in a “human reject.” Rather than kill her newborn daughter, with her mother’s help Li-Yan walks miles down the mountain to the town of Menghai and abandons Yan-yeh on the steps of an orphanage—with a Pu’er tea cake wrapped in her swaddling clothes. When San-pa finally returns, they go together to retrieve their child from the orphanage—only to learn she has been adopted and taken to America. The pain of this separation haunts Li-Yan throughout her life.

So begins Lisa See’s 2017 novel The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane—the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (JMRL)’s 2019 selection for its Same Page Community Read program. Same Page is the local reading program JMRL developed, in partnership with the Virginia Festival of the Book, to replace the previous National Endow-ment for the Humanities (NEH)-funded Big Read. Same Page kicked off at the Crozet Library March 2 and features programs at local libraries throughout March—including the documentary Somewhere Between about Chinese-American adoption at Central Library on Sunday, March 10 at 2 p.m., and a free discussion by author Lisa See at Northside Library on Wednesday, March 20, at 6 p.m. www.jmrl.org/samepage. Nicole Chung will be discussing her memoir of adoption, All You Can Ever Know, at the Crozet Library on Thursday, March 21, at 2 p.m. See, who was raised in Los Angeles as part of an extended Chinese-American family, is also the author of On Gold Mountain (1995), Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005), and Shanghai Girls (2009). Her new book, The Island of Sea Women, will be featured at this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book (March 20-24).   

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is an engrossing coming-of-age story of loss, love, family, and cultural change. The story revolves around the ancient tea trees of China’s Nannuo Mountain, where five ethnic minorities survive by picking and processing tea. We are shocked to learn that as late as 1988—when the novel begins—Li-Yan’s family of five lives in a small, dirt-floored, bamboo hut in the remote Spring Well mountain village with no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no telephone, only a fire pit for heat, and little to no knowledge of the outside world. We learn about traditional Akha culture with its deep-seated superstitions, spirit gates, rigid taboos, ritual cleansings by the village ruma (spirit priest), elaborate headdresses, and swing festivals. Spanning the years 1988 to 2016, Li-Yan’s gripping saga introduces us not only to the sophisticated culture of gourmet Chinese tea—especially Pu’er from ancient tea trees—but also to Chinese history, from the horrors of Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution to the country’s modern rise. We learn the effects of China’s One Child Policy (1979-2015), the opium trade and addiction, and the many claimed health benefits of Pu’er tea. We experience the painful cost of transnational adoption on both the birth and adoptive families as well as the hope of redemption from our mistakes. 

But what on earth is Pu’er tea? “Pu’erh is an ancient healing tea picked from 500+-year-old organic wild tea trees in Yunnan, China… the oldest known tea that traveled along one of the five ‘Tea Horse Roads’ originating in the village of Pu’er, China. [Its] many health benefits … have been touted for thousands of years” (Numi Chocolate Pu-erh tea box from Whole Foods) If you’d like to taste this elixir, it is also served at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar on the downtown mall, and sold on Amazon.

After San-Pa dies during a heart-stopping battle with a tiger in the jungle, Li-Yan moves on to the “outer world” and becomes a global citizen through education at the Pu’er Tea College to become a tea master in her own right, owner of a successful business, and a second, loving marriage. Always searching for her lost daughter, Pu’er tea becomes her connection to her heritage, her past, and ultimately, to Yan-yeh—who has been raised as Haley Davis in California. 

Motherhood, and the enduring strength of the mother-daughter relationship, is only one of the major themes that animate this delightful novel. This bond is reflected in the faithful relationships between Li-Yan and her A-ma, Li-Yan’s friend Ci-teh and her mother Deh-ja, Li-Yan and her lost daughter Yan-yeh, and Haley (Yan-yeh’s American name) and her mother Constance—all of which are characterized by poignant devotion. Li-yan’s odyssey is divided into five sections, interspersed with fictional primary sources that trace Haley’s development—from letters and emails to school reports to transcripts of group therapy sessions to Haley’s senior thesis proposal. Through this device, Haley’s own voice slowly emerges, and See hints at the possibility that Li-Yan and Yan-yeh might eventually be reunited. A constellation of coincidences suggests fate’s role in the events.

The novel also has a strong feminist underpinning, as we watch Li-Yan rebel against her highly controlling culture—which devalues daughters (her parents call her simply “Girl”)—to marry for love, strike out on her own, overcome many obstacles, and succeed on her own merits. Li-Yan’s daughter Yan-yeh/Haley also excels in America, attending Stanford with a double major in biology and earth sciences and—driven by her lifelong curiosity about the tea cake that came with her in infancy—traveling to China to research “the impact of climate change on the sensory and medicinal attributes of [Chinese] tea” for her senior thesis. In the novel’s central irony, Li-Yan’s A-ma’s dowry of a supposedly worthless ancient tea tree grove is given by her A-ba to his only daughter, while her three brothers receive more valuable shares of the family property to cultivate. But after China’s—and eventually, the world’s—discovery of the rare Pu’er tea’s smoothly subtle taste, huigan (returning flavor), and health benefits, Li-Yan’s hidden grove becomes the family’s most valuable asset. 

The Crozet Library Book Group had mixed reactions to the book in their discussion March 4. Nearly 30 old and new members attended and enjoyed a cup of rich Pu’er tea brewed by branch manager Hayley Tompkins. Many greatly enjoyed its well-told story and mystery feel, as we wondered whether and how Li-yan and Yan-yeh/Haley would ever be reunited. These readers appreciated its satisfying ending with all loose ends tied up, as well as the opportunity to learn so much about Akha culture, Chinese history, and tea cultivation. Others disliked the book for some of the same reasons, saying it felt like a sociological study dressed up as fiction, had way too many coincidences to be believable, and that Li-Yan’s second marriage to a very wealthy recycling magnate felt more like a fairy tale or a Hallmark movie than a realistic story. This difference of opinion made for a very lively discussion!

My one criticism might be the book’s title, which sounds too precious for the book’s deeply thoughtful subject matter, with its realistic balance between joy and suffering. Perhaps this title was chosen to sell to book clubs or readers looking for a light, feel-good read—which it is not, although an abrupt but satisfying ending skillfully ties together all the loose ends. Hummingbird Lane, a street in Pasadena, California where Haley/Yan-yeh’s adoptive family resides, has absolutely nothing to do with the main setting and action in China. The Tea Girl of Spring Well Village or The Tea Girl of Nannuo Mountain—both of which refer to the primary protagonist Li-Yan—might have been a more appropriate title. 

Same Page has chosen a real winner with this lovely and highly original novel, which will not disappoint the many library and private book clubs participating in the program. Poetic writing combines with fascinating historical research and a cleverly woven plot to create a book that is at once heart-rending and heart-warming. See creates an exotic, immersive world that we are reluctant to leave at the end of the book. “In drinking the best tea,” key character Sean Wong explains to Haley, “you and I are having a conversation with the wind and the rain that the ancient Daoists had above the mountain clouds. Through the tea liquor, across streams, and under moon shadows, we can understand that the separation between Man and Nature is not real.” 

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