As it tends to happen with Lisa See novels, I hear about them around publication and the marketing machinery sucks me in. I want to read it. And I forget to check out her book tour dates because she’s definitely big enough to visit Toronto and Vancouver. And then I’m mad at myself for missing out on the opportunity not to come around for another few years, haha. All this is especially so after reading this latest novel.
This time around, it was an 8 Asians blog post that alerted me to the publication of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, published in March and her first release since 2014. I’ve read all of her books since Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, excluding the two sequels she wrote. I might wonder what it is about her stories but I keep getting drawn back. There were so many people ahead of me requesting the book from the library that I did not get my hands on the book (literally) until June.
If See had continued on a similar track as it seemed from her last two novels, Shanghai Girls (2009) and China Dolls (2014), I might have been able to resist. But See did a hard turn and turned her attention to the Akha ethnic minority who reside in the tea mountains of Yunnan (雲南), a province in southwest China.
But, I wasn’t sure when I started reading Tea Girl. The novel starts with Girl’s family members sharing imagery from their dreams while elders interpret what it means as children’s dreams can foretell events or fortune or misfortune in the future. You know how I feel about that! But the crop that is the family’s livelihood and passion is tea and, well, I love tea and pu’erh has a special place in my personal history – it’s what I started drinking when I started drinking tea at dim sum and while I might order Jasmine or Iron Goddess to suit the taste of my dining companions, I still match eating dim sum food most with “gut-scrubbing” pu’erh!
Immediately, I saw some coincidental resemblance to Claire Cameron’s The Last Neanderthal, which I finished most recently: the family referring to the protagonist as Girl, her people’s relationship with the earth (a very late comparison between the Akha to Cree is interesting), the protagonist becomes pregnant and delivers the child (virtually) alone and then losing her child…
Li-Yan’s story has the typical epic arc to her story familiar from See’s novels from her farmhouse education and surpassing her peers, mad love with a local boy who is a bad husband, a perilous trek through the jungle, arriving in the modern world and climbing the educational and business ladder and finally meeting a good man.
The part missing in Li-Yan’s life is Haley, the daughter she gave up for adoption because she was born out of wedlock and was quickly adopted and grew up in California. The tea cake Li-Yan’s mother wisely tucked into the baby’s swaddling intrigues Haley all her life and her eventual passion for tea as a research area is fostered in her early life by her adoptive parents, an arborist and a biologist. Haley’s life is shown in glimpses every few chapters among Li-Yan’s story and it is the confused and angry adoptee/teen story for the first while but her story became far more interesting with her personal essay for college admission and appeal to a potential thesis advisor, outlining her research questions surrounding tea trees.
As Li-Yan comes to have means and sets up in America and Haley comes of age and seeks her birth parents, it’s nice to see how they find each other through tea and not the Internet.
The more interesting mother-daughter story is that between Li-Yan and her mother. It just clicked for me why, too. The woman known as A-ma is wise and hard-working beyond imagination both as the matriarch of a family of four children and three daughters-in-law and as a midwife and general medical practitioner for the community. Li-Yan, the sole daughter, is encouraged to pursue an education and she runs with it as a means to leave her village. Li-Yan makes a mistake (having a child out of wedlock) and Li-Yan helps her. Li-Yan follows her heart against her family’s wishes and marries someone her culture deems a poor match and when she begs to return, A-ma helps her set up elsewhere. Li-Yan stays away for years while A-ma plods on, tending to a grove of trees that is her dowry and Li-Yan’s much to the family’s amusement as they think the trees are worthless. On that count, A-ma seems like a crazy bat in some ways with her rules that no one but the women could visit the grove but it turns out her trees are the most prized in the end. This is familiar to me as well since my mother is passionate about her business and that keeps her from leaving her adopted hometown. Although they spend years apart, it is touching to me that Li-Yan found her way back and all’s right with the family.