Author: Lisa See
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: July 2017
Where do I start with The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane? There was so much going on in this book – the plot was so layered and there were so many interesting themes underlying the story, but somehow it all worked and was immensely compelling. (disclaimer: there may be a few spoilers in here, but I think most of what I talk about is covered in the synopsis, which is pretty detailed)
Goodreads has been selling this book to me hard all year with their advertising, but for some reason I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it. I read Dragon Springs Road earlier this year, which I liked but didn’t love. It’s probably unfair to compare the two books, just because they happen in China, but I found the pacing slow in Dragon Springs Road and I expected The Tea Girl to have a similar pacing, but I found this one so much more compelling. I don’t know a whole lot about Chinese culture, so I appreciated both novels and learned a lot, but there was a lot more going on in See’s novel.
Starting with the narrator, I absolutely loved Li-yan. She had such ambition, despite the constant belittlement from her family and the refrain that she was unimportant because she was a girl. Li-yan was born into the Ahka culture, which like many cultures, values boys far beyond girls. The Akha are a very tight knit people and view the village more as a collective than group of individuals. They believe everything has a spirit and they have many customs to protect against bad spirits and encourage good spirits. They believe it is everyone’s job to bring more children into the community and everyone always hopes for the birth of healthy sons.
I appreciated See’s writing because in the beginning the Ahka seemed so backwards to me and some of their practices were extremely horrifying. But throughout the course of the novel See was able to make me really appreciate their way of life and they did progress to abandon some of their more troubling customs (namely the killing of “human rejects”).
But I loved Li-yan because despite being told she was worth nothing, she had such ambition to pursue a better life through education and a desire to be someone. She convinces the village and her father to allow her to pursue her education and becomes the first educated person in the village. She faces so many struggles, but she always persevered and made choices (some of which were very tough) on what she felt was best for herself. Some readers might condemn her for giving up her child, but I didn’t fault her. She really would have had no life if she had decided to keep Yan-yeh. In many cases she was forced into some of her decisions, but I especially loved her decision to leave San-pa. I fully expected her to stick things out no matter how toxic things became, but when she finally recognized what was going on, she made a decision for herself to leave, even though she risked being sold or killed if she was caught.
She made so many wrong choices and at times really disappointed me, but I could sympathize with her decisions and forgive her for them. I was sad when she got distracted from her studies and ignored the advice of her family about San-pa, but she was so young and blinded by love, which I think we’ve all been at the young age of 16. She punished herself for so long after her failed marriage though and I was glad to see her find the strength to love again.
I thought her relationship with her mother was beautiful. In the beginning I didn’t like A-ma because she was so harsh with Li-Yan, but she really grew on me and it was wonderful to watch their relationship grow and to see the softness in A-ma after the birth of Yan-yeh. I really enjoyed all the mother/daughter relationships in this book and the relationships between all of the women.
I didn’t enjoy the format of Hayley’s story as much (I think I would have preferred 1st person POV), but I learned a lot from her experience as well. I’ve thought about the challenges immigrants face in moving to America/Canada, but I haven’t put much thought into what it must be like to have parents that don’t look like you and to have so many stereotypes forced upon you. You always expect that your parents would be people that you could relate to and take advice from, but when your lived experience is so different from theirs, it must be so difficult not to have that shared experience and reassurance from your parents.
It was also interesting to learn a little bit about the one-child policy. I can’t imagine what that must have been like for Chinese mothers and it’s upsetting to see girls so little valued in a culture. It was interesting to read about Li-yan’s experience giving up her daughter and I’d love to learn more from other perspectives of women who’ve had to make decisions to give up their daughters.
And of course there was the tea. I didn’t think I could find tea so fascinating! I had no idea there was so much history behind tea and I’d never heard of Pu’er tea, so it was interesting to learn about how tea production changed Yunnan province, world tea markets, and became such a phenomenon. What I really liked about this book is that it started in the 90’s. I couldn’t believe there were villages in China that were so remote and unconnected to the world within my lifetime. It was fascinating to see how they evolved and changed as the modern world came to them in search of tea. It gave me a whole new appreciation for tea!
There is so much going on in this novel, but it all worked and was immensely compelling. It was a beautiful novel about the struggles women face, the relationship between mothers and daughters, and the ways in which we change and adapt to the world around us. Would definitely recommend!