One of my co-workers once said that people can learn a lot of things from reading nonfiction, but it is through fiction that helps them to connect to stuff like certain cultures and circumstances. Did The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See permit me to connect to the Akha people (a Chinese ethnic minority), tea, and Chinese-American adoptees? Let’s find out!
One of my co-workers had once said that people can learn a lot of things from reading nonfiction, but it is through fiction that helps them to connect. Fiction writers, especially the historical and cultural ones, create stories that are based around certain facts, and they allow readers to take a look at how the people involved feel. Lisa See excels at this with her book The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, which includes a Chinese ethnic minority, tea, and Chinese-American adoptees.
For the Akha people, life has been based around ritual, routine, seasons, and farming tea for many generations until a stranger drives into their village looking for a particular tea. As one of the few educated people on her mountain, Li-yan starts questioning the values that the Akha hold so dear. It also does not help that she gets pregnant out of wedlock with a man whom her parents have considered a bad match. Instead of giving her baby over to be killed as tradition would transcribe, she decides to wrap her daughter in a blanket and leave her by an orphanage in a nearby city. While Li-yan comes into herself by leaving her village to obtain a higher education, run a business, and settle in the city, Haley gets adopted by loving parents and lives in California. Haley wonders about her origins, and Li-yan yearns for her lost daughter. Both search for meaning through studying Pu’er tea, which has shaped their family’s destiny for centuries.
A fatal flaw that I have seen in these kinds of books is that author would dive into the facts so much that it starts to sound like a Master’s thesis. For example, The Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers involves a young French girl living in the 17th century who is sent to Canada (New France) as a Fille du roi or a King’s Daughter. There is a pivotal moment in the book, where she is giving birth, and the author decides to talk about the tools used for the labor. This ultimately detracts from the story because unless the facts move the plot forward, NOBODY WANTS TO HEAR ABOUT THEM WHILE A MAJOR EVENT IS OCCURING!
Thankfully, by having the readers learn alongside Li-yan, Lisa See avoids this hole, whether it is about Akha traditions or tea. For instance, Li-yan attends the birthing of her best friend’s sister-in-law because her mother is the Village Midwife and holds a lot of authority despite the Akha’s patriarchal nature. Her mother teaches her about what she uses to ease the labor, what to do when the baby is born, and what to do if the infant is a human reject (twins or looks deficient in any way). It is with the killing of the human reject that Li-yan starts to question the Akha ways. I will admit that there were times that I felt that See held my hand for a bit too long, especially when talking about the intricate tastes of tea during the second half. It slightly got in the way of the plot, but I did not mind it all that much because us readers are learning alongside Li-yan about tea.
Two of the novel’s other strengths are the character Li-yan and the ending. See’s protagonist is so developed that readers can relate to her dreams, choices, and regrets, which makes it all the more urgent for them to root for her happiness. When she decides to build a wall around her heart after she leaves her baby and then her first husband (the one who got her pregnant out of wedlock), readers understand her choice even though it is not a good thing to do. Meanwhile, the finale is one of the best endings that I have read. I will not give out any spoilers, but it ends on a well-deserved ambiguous note. Normally, I am not crazy about abrupt endings because of how unsatisfying they can be, yet this conclusion is so rewarding that having anything else occur after it would have ruined the moment. The best way that I can describe it is like the ending of Shawshank Redemption, where the camera pulls out when Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman reunite outside of prison.
And it just so happened that I listened to the audiobook, which contained a handful of excellent narrators like Ruthie Ann Miles and Kimiko Glenn. Miles, a singer and actress who has won a Tony for her role of Lady Thiang in the most recent Broadway revival of The King and I, voices Li-yan with such honesty that makes learning about the Akha culture and Pu’er tea all the more interesting. This is especially true about her vocal realization of Li-yan’s mother or Ama. Ama is voiced with a stern and conservatist tone, but also with a sense of caring for Li-yan in order to ensure her happiness. Glenn, who is known for playing Brook Soso on Orange is the New Black and Dawn Williams in the Broadway version of Waitress, voices Haley as a little girl to an adult. Glenn has a mousy kind of voice, which allows her to pull off voicing an 8-year-old. But, once Haley is 12 and up, I felt that Glenn’s vocal performance was too juvenile. I had a similar problem with the person narrating Bee in the audiobook for Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Nonetheless, Miles, Glenn, and the rest of the narrators did a wonderful job with bringing the characters to life.
Overall, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is one that I immensely enjoyed. It is clear that See immersed herself into the Akha culture, tea, and the plight of Chinese-American adoptees so much that it would definitely rub off onto readers in a good way. Sure, there are times where she can hold our hands for a bit too long, but like any mother, she knows when to let go. I would definitely recommend this to readers and even encourage them to read her other novels. Because of how good this book is, I am currently reading her latest The Island of Sea Women.
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