By Jamie Mast
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, Scribner, 2017. $27, 364 pages
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See, focuses on the life of a Chinese girl from a remote tea village. Li-yan is part of a small minority group in the remote Chinese mountains called the Akha. The Akha’s entire way of life is centered on their spiritual rituals and the tea seasons. Trouble starts with the rumbling of a jeep as a stranger enters into their town. This stranger marks the start of integration of the modern era into their small remote town. Li-yan becomes pregnant in wedlock which is highly frowned on in the Akha society. She gives birth to what the village considers a “human-reject.” She is faced with the cruel rules of her culture and starts to question these ancient beliefs. Instead of killing her daughter Li-yan places her in an orphanage in hopes of reuniting with her one day. As Li-yan comes into herself, she leaves her small village behind for an education, business, and city life going against the life she has always known. Hayley, her daughter, is raised in California by loving adoptive parents. Despite her privileged childhood, Haley wonders about her origins, and across the ocean, Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. Over the course of the years each search for each other through the tea cakes that connect them together.
What Lisa See might be expressing in her book is the difficulty of going against one’s beliefs and the how a mother’s devotion to find her child is endless. The book follows the life of the mother, Li-yan, as she tries to figure out her new life in the modern world and find her daughter who has been adopted overseas. See demonstrates this inner turmoil of breaking traditions through her main character Li-yan. “Something in my blood makes me long to leave it [her lifestyle] behind for a new and different location…” Li-yan thinks to herself as she observes her small village. Li-yan knows she is different from everyone else and doesn’t know if she can personally face that. See keeps the main focus on Li-yan telling the story in first person narrative, letting the reader in on her every thought. The reader follows Li-yan as she searches for her daughter with that endless hope that one day they might just meet even though years have passed. In one chapter Li-yan recalls how she spends hours on the internet searching the websites for some news of her daughter.“Still, once a week, I go to the tour websites and examine the photos of white parents or single white mothers traveling with their Chinese daughters… Would Yan-yeh look like me? Like San-pa? Like my a-ma? Or his a-ma?” Li-yan’s strong spirit and endless hope pulls at the heart.
The majority of the novel is from the viewpoint of Li-yan and the troubles she faces. However, as the story progresses See provides the omnipotent readers with inserts, documents, and artifacts from the life of Hayley, Li-yan’s daughter. These inserts range from a spelling list or class note to a discussion with a therapy group. See’s use of these inserts let the reader know about Hayley’s life in simple yet powerful ways. In an insert labeled “Hayley’s fifth-grade spelling words,” Hayley writes the sentence, “Youth in Asia is different from euthanasia.” Hayley knows that she is different and that there was a good chance she could have been dead. This realization is examined more in-depth later on in the insert labeled “Dr. Arnold Rosen’s Group Therapy for Chinese Adoptees,” as many of the girls confess they had nightmares about euthanasia. Each of these inserts play an important role in showing Hayley’s struggles, questions, and her own desire to find her mom. It isn’t until the last chapter the readers can see the world from Hayley’s point of view and this I believe makes the last chapter even more powerful.
A complaint that could be made about this novel is the flow of the opening chapters. They start off slow as See introduces the concept of omens and the tea industry. Even still, these opening chapters are important to understanding the motives of Li-yan and the reason she makes the decisions she does. In the first chapter, Li-yan is discussing with her family a dream she had. In the dream, there was a dog, which is a terrifying omen in the Akha culture. “When you hear a dog howl or bark at night, you know he has spotted a spirit and hopefully scared him [evil spirit] away.” Omens, like the howling dog, are a major part of the Akha’s culture and a recurring theme throughout See’s novel. See introduces some of these omens and their meanings to the audience during the first couple of chapters so that they may have a better understanding of the novel in whole. A smart reader will remember these omens that the Akha hold in high regard because they resurface repeatedly throughout the novel. These omens map out the story for the attentive reader, giving them a clue into what might happen next. These omens also lead to a variety of rituals including animal sacrifice to ‘cleanse’ the land and the family from the bad spirits. This information is important to the novel and See does a wonderful job explaining it. The problem of the slow beginning may just lie with my own personal preference.
The Tea Girl on Hummingbird Lane is a young adult novel that covers a variety of topics that may be harder for younger audiences to understand. As mentioned earlier Li-yan gives birth out of wedlock, there is a portrayal of abusive relationships, and a gruesome death by a tiger. Though a few of the spiritual rituals that the Akha perform earlier in the book may be uncomfortable for some readers there is something that can be learned from their culture. The Akha people value community, respect, and honesty; themes that repeat throughout the novel. Li-yan’s journey to find her daughter is a passionate story of courage, traditions, and hope that can be enjoyed by anyone.