Book Review: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

As a-ma said, every story, every dream, every waking minute of our lives is filled with one fateful coincidence after another. People and animals and leaves and fire and rain—we whirl around each other like handfuls of dried rice kernels being tossed into the sky. A single kernel cannot change its direction. It cannot choose to fly to the right or to the left nor can it choose where it lands—balanced on a rock, and therefore salvageable, or bouncing off the same rock into the mud, becoming instantly useless and valueless. Where they alight is fate, and nothing—no thing anyway—can change their destinies.

Lisa See expertly transports readers to the remote hills of China, among the tea plants and traditional farming culture and far beyond to the wealth of China’s metropolis and the foreign behaviors and values of America. The story begins with Li-Yan as a young girl, learning the ways of the Akha people, their reverence for the tea that sustains them and of her future work as a midwife. However, during her first time assisting her mother, known to Li-Yan as a-ma, with a birth, Li-Yan witnesses something that shocks her and causes her to questions the foundations of the Akha way. It is through this experience that Li-Yan begins to dream beyond the boundaries of her village and to set her sights on a future as something more than midwifery.

Once our full cycle of ceremonial abstinence ends, life seems to return to normal. The women go back to embroidering, weaving, and doing chores. The men go back to smoking pipe, hunting, and trading stories. But the birth of the twins and what happened to them, although traditional, has transformed me as irreversibly as soaking cloth in a vat of dye. I cannot accept what I witnessed.

When she falls in love with a young man, San-Pa, who also dreams of making his own way in the world, she must struggle to convince her parents to look beyond their superstitions dictating the match and to accept her love for him. Meanwhile, she follows the traditional Akha courting rituals which include experimental intercourse—though forbid unwed pregnancy. San-Pa leaves the village to make something of himself and to prove he is worthy of Li-Yan’s love and it is then that Li-Yan discovers that she is pregnant. She spends her days hiding this from the rest of the village, lest she reveal it and risk their derision and rejection, and waiting for San-Pa’s return.

However, her baby has a different timeline in mind and when it is born, Li-Yan is generously given a choice by her mother, which goes against the Akha tradition: return with the baby to the village to have it disposed of and be shunned or walk for three days to the nearest orphanage—preserving both the child’s life and your reputation. It is through this decision that Li-Yan begins to see how our fate is often determined by our own actions.

Like a rich cup of tea, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is nuanced and detailed. Through Li-Yan and the life she leads, we come to understand the history of rural China, the importance of tea culture and the multifaceted traditions that permeate throughout the world. And, most importantly, we see the myriad influence family has on one another and how that influence takes effect and roots itself within—no matter how far one strays.

The color of the brew is rich and dark with mystery. The first flavor is peppery, but that fades to divine sweetness. The history of my people shimmers in my bones. With every sip, it’s as if I am wordlessly reciting the lineage. I’m at once merged with my ancestors and with those who’ll come after me. I grew up believing that rice was to nourish and tea was to heal. Now I understand that tea is also to connect and to dream.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Scribner Books

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