The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See made it on to my Must Read List for two reasons. I read and reviewed Lisa See’s most recent novel The Island of Sea Women, a couple of months ago and wanted to read more of her work. Additionally, in 2014 while we were in Northern Laos John and and I travelled close to the Chinese border and the Yunnan province where this novel is set, spending some time in the town of Oudamxay. During that time we encountered the Akha people an ethnic minority originating in Tibet who have migrated through India, Myanmar, China, Northern Laos and Thailand. This novel is about one young Akha woman, Li-yan, and her family and the challenges they face in a rapidly changing world.
The novel is well researched. The description of Li-yan’s time in Northern Thailand, near Chiang Rai, when she relied on money from tourists for food, reminded me a lot of some of the villages I have visited. See’s description of the behaviour of the tourists, which I haven’t included in this particular expert, was equally incisive. She captured much of their less than salubrious behaviours in only a few paragraphs.
The announcement of our guests arrival comes first through our feet—thud, thud, thud. A toothless woman helps her grown son, sick with a disease that comes from the needles, into the privacy of their hut. As the sounds of thrashing and honking reach us, followed by laughter and chatter in languages none of us comprehend, other men sidle wordlessly in to the jungle … once all the the elephants have been tethered and the tourist helped down—with much laughter and cameras snapping—my friends and I approach.
“You want to buy?”
“You want to buy?”
“You want to buy?”
We’ve learned the English words which, all foreigners—no matter where they’re from—understand. (p134).
Of all the indigenous peoples we encountered in Northern Laos, the Akha tribes women were the most persistent of vendors, driven, no doubt, by the need to feed their families. It was very difficult to say no to them. At the time, I found it challenging to figure out how to manage the situation. It’s one thing to decide to support only vetted NGOs. It’s another entirely to say no repeatedly to a woman with a child on her back. And yet, agreeing to buy only resulted in even more requests, some might say demands, from her colleagues.
In The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Li-yan, is born before there is a road to her Akha village, before the centuries old traditions of her people are challenged by the modern way. Nevertheless, despite the misfortune of her gender, Li-yan excels at school, and a bright enough future appears to lie ahead. Until she falls in love with a young man her family considers a bad match for her. When she realises she is pregnant he leaves to forge a better life, or so he says. He promises to return soon. Li-yan hides her pregnancy and waits. Until the very last when, as is the way of things, the baby must come. At great risk to them all A-ma, Li-yan’s mother, the village midwife, helps Li-yan deliver the baby in secrecy. Within hours Li-yan walks across arduous terrain carrying her new born daughter to the nearest town. There, she leaves the infant outside an orphanage, with nothing but her swaddling clothes and a traditional tea cake.
And so their fates are sealed, or are they?
Lisa See takes the reader on a journey through the twists and turns of their respective lives. Li-yan moves to Thailand, then to Yunnan Agricultural College in Kumming, and then, as a result of her second marriage, she spends half her time in California. Development, along with all its opportunities and losses, comes to her village.
Li-yan’s daughter is adopted by an American couple and grows up in California, the tea cake her only link to her mysterious past.
The plot is intriguing, with sufficient tension to keep me turning the page. I cared about these characters and I had to know what happened. What’s more if you love a good cup of tea this novel is for you! Li-yan and her daughter are both experts on the cultivation and brewing of tea.
I’m sure I’ll remember this novel for a long time. And yet, I did have some frustrations.
Initially, the story of Li-yan’s daughter, Hayley, is told through letters from her paediatrician. As a literary device I found those letters jarring. They didn’t ring true to me:
This from Roger Siegle MD to Sheldon Katz MD (p143):
Hayley is very eager to please. The nurses in the unit love to make her laugh, but I’m her favourite. When she touches my nose, I stick out my tongue. She giggles so hard she tips over. her verbal skills are coming along, but I was one of her first ten words. She calls me Da Ta for doctor.
Where I come from letters from paediatricians are usually brief, to the point, and packed with medical terminology. I found those presented in this novel unrealistic, and I almost abandoned the book because of them. I’m glad I didn’t, though.
The other disappointment reflects my reading tastes, my place in the world, and perhaps my politics. Perhaps, it also reflects a changing world order. I was disappointed that the resolution rested on Li-yan’s later marriage to a successful Han Chinese business man, who spent half his time in California. Hayley, too, made good because she was adopted in to American culture. All-in-all, it was a little too “happy-ever-after” for me.
Nevertheless, this was an entertaining, informative, and enjoyable novel.
The Tea Girl of Humming Bird Lane by Lisa See (2017) Scribner.
“No coincidence no story,” my a-ma recites, and that seems to settle everything, as it usually does, after First Brother finishes telling us about the dream he had last night.
Bonus material for those interested: Below is a link to a recent documentary which provides a glimpse into Akha life.
Categories: On Books