The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane – Lisa See- Book Review

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 that 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 – thank you. This book was the shining gem in the pile of other somewhat bland books I got recommended for my new year. I read it slowly, I let it simmer and now, after a month, it has had time to settle down in the most unbelievable story I’ve ever read.

The story takes us through stories of rural China, of discrete family relations, of tea-picking and tea-making, of what it means to grow up as a woman in a country where that is being looked down upon, of adoption and loss and most importantly of how destiny can shape a life until it becomes unrecognisable from where it started off.

You may say that the entire story started with a lie about a dream. “Girl” decides to invent a dream so that she will have something to say to their spiritual leaders and she invents a story about a dog on a roof.

“We allow dogs to live among us for three reasons,” A-ma says reassuringly, trying to settle the family. “They are essential for sacrifices, they alert us to bad omens, and they are good to eat. What kind was yours?”

From this story we learn the superstitions of her people, their practical approach to meat (dogs are eaten not kept as pets) and that “Girl” found that attention was great when it was positive. It turns a bit bad when she is caught eating a pie with a boy from another village later during the day and her family is forced to pay “damages” for the shame she has brought onto her family – with a sacrifice of chicken – already few in her household.

Until today, I’ve never been a troublemaker. I never cross my legs around adults, I accept my parents’ words as good medicine, and I always cover my mouth to hide my teeth when I smile or laugh. Maybe I colored my dream this morning, but I’m not a thief or a cheater in school. Unfortunately, the oily residue around my mouth shows that at the very least I ate some pancake, even if I didn’t steal it from the Dai woman’s cart.

We get to see the village and its people through this young girl’s eyes. Her love of her family can be felt and the bonds that bind the people are strong. Pregnancies in the village are celebrated by all and the superstitions are whispered over the expecting mother to ensure that the delivery would be smooth and the children healthy.

“We have many taboos. Men must not smoke nor women chew betel nut when they walk through the spirit gate. A pregnant woman, like Deh-ja, must not go visiting to another village or she might miscarry there. A woman must never step over her husband’s leg on his sleeping mat. We’re always careful, and we always try to propitiate our wrongs, but please, our Li-yan did not hope to offend.”

Pregnancy is a gift to the entire village. Even I know how to recognize when a woman has “come to a head,” obvious from her morning sickness. A-ma has taught me to identify if the baby will be a boy or a girl by the way it sleeps in its mother’s womb. If the baby is more on the right side, then it will come out a boy. If it’s more on the left side, it will be a girl. I need to learn these things if I’m going to follow in A-ma’s line by becoming a village midwife one day, as she wishes.

The cultural identity is strong. With a darker skin-tone than the average Chinese and very short in stature, the “Girl”‘s people are a special breed.

Mandarin speakers call us Hani. We are called Aini in the local dialect. But we are neither. We are Akha. When Chairman Mao proclaimed that China was home to fifty-five ethnic minorities, no one had found us yet. When we were discovered, powerful people elsewhere said we would become part of the Hani, because Chairman Mao could not be wrong. Over time another thirty peoples were added to the Hani, including the Juewei, Biyue, Amu, Enu, and so many more.

I loved how they explained their village marriages – their parents agreed, the couples would move together in a newlywed hut where they would stay until they give birth to offspring. Then they will move to a more permanent hut.

Before marriage, though, young women would make complicated hair-dresses and they would sing love songs and dance together with the boys in the village. They would then sneak into the forest to steal love (try on the shoe and see if it fits). If the sex was bad, they never met again. If it was good, they would keep going until the boy would come to ask for her hand or she would become pregnant and then the boy would have to come for her hand otherwise she’d be thrown out of the village with great shame on her family.

“Girl” soon finds love with a school mate of hers – the same boy who got her into trouble with the pie years ago. Her family does not agree of him as their zodiac signs are mis-aligned. But little does she care about what her family wants when her soul has chosen a mate already.

He stares into my eyes. I see all the way to his soul. Whatever he has between his legs has to find what I have between mine. I may not have done this before, but I’ve seen roosters mount the females of their species.

You can’t help but feel happy for “Girl” who has fallen in love. She has a great life in front of her – she can be the first one to go to upper school and maybe university, she can transcend her woman-hood. The only shadow is cast by her family who tell her that he’s not good for her.

“A weak boy grows up to be a weak man.” Second Sister-in-law is brusque. “The whole mountain knows he’s lazy.” Third Sister-in-law, my favorite, mutters to me, “You won’t have anything to eat if you marry that good-for-nothing.” They can say whatever they want, but that doesn’t make it so.

Oh, the pink glasses. He decides to go and work abroad for a year while she can study for her entrance exams. Two things go wrong – she is pregnant – and will be thrown out of the village in great shame if her lover doesn’t come back to marry her – and she abandons her studies. She decides to help with translations for a rich tea sampler who was looking for the best teas to buy and had somehow heard about her village.

Mr. Huang talks about the connections between tea, Daoism, and Buddhism. Oh, how he goes on about hua —a Daoist concept he admires. It means something like transformation, and he applies this to the making of Pu’er in the sense that the astringent qualities of the raw tea are transformed—“metamorphosed,” he enthuses—through fermentation and aging. “You see? Bad into good!” He believes tea can promote longevity, although people in our village don’t live to be ancients. “Tea reminds us to slow down and escape the pressures of modern life,” he says as though he’s forgotten where he is and to whom he’s speaking.

Akha woman traditional wearing dress at Ban Pilai, Chiang Dao, Chiang mai

She takes the money and saves it and as Mr. Huang tries tea after tea after tea grown in the village, he finds that the oldest tea trees produce the best flavour – especially when the tea is aged well and when it’s dried and made into tea cakes. What she doesn’t want to share with Mr. Huang is her family grove of ancient tea trees, with yellow parasitic vines growing all around them – parasites which have healing properties – as she would later find out.

When her time to give birth comes, she goes with her a-ma to the ancient groves and there, at the roots of the ancient trees – she brings into the world a young baby girl. Neither she or her mother have the willpower to kill her. They brought everything they needed – seeds to fill her mouth with until she breathes no more – but taking the life of one of their own blood is hard. They decide to give her up to the nearest orphanage.

It’s a crime in China to abandon your child – as it is to bring to this world more than one (one child policy). That’s why there were so many girls “found” on doorsteps of firestations or children’s homes. As “Girl” takes her baby to leave her in the next city, she finds enough time to bond with her and create a link that will keep them going for a long time.

I eat some rice balls, ration my water, and nurse Yan-yeh again. I tell her everything I can about Akha Law, about her a-ma and a-ba, about the lineage, and what it will mean to become a woman one day. How I will always love her. How I will think of her every breathing minute of my life. I whisper endearments into her face, and she looks up at me in that penetrating way of hers. Her tiny hand grips my forefinger, searing my heart and scarring it forever.

The saddest goodbye and the girl is gone never to be seen again. Heartbroken, “Girl” returns only to be surprised a few months after with the return of her lover who came to ask for her hand. A bit late.. Her family agrees to the marriage but all sister-in-laws give her some pretty self-explanatory advice

She also gives me some last-minute advice, and it’s as traditional as can be. Next come the messages that A-ma actually wants to give me, passed through intermediaries. She pushes First Sister-in-law forward: “Remember that if you want to terminate your marriage, you can always run away, but you can’t come home.” From Second Sister-in-law: “Remember that if you have children, you will need to leave them behind when you run away.” Third Sister-in-law’s message must not be a good one, because she looks embarrassed. She whispers in my ear: “If a gopher does not have his escape route dug and ready ahead of time, then it will be difficult to run away when he needs it.”

She follows her man into the new country (Vietnam) and they cross illegally. Pretty soon she knows just how much money her new husband had earned in their year off. Nothing. They are both living in poverty, selling trinkets to tourists who like to take pictures of their pretty marriage costumes. He comes home and drinks. Takes her money and drinks some more. Doesn’t work. And then – she finds out with horror – he’s addicted to opiates.

Opium and heroin had not caused our poverty and hopelessness. Rather, poverty and hopelessness had brought about an unquenchable desire to forget.

She decides to leave him and run away from him but he catches up with her through the thick jungle and does the only noble thing in his life. He saves her from a tiger by sacrificing himself so that she could escape. She buries him and now widowed, returns to her home town.

(First half of the book was awesome)


Tea, a beverage that had been ignored for decades, has become collectible once again. But even though it’s classified as an antique, it’s still alive . And every sip—through the powerful senses of taste and smell—opens our hearts to remember family, love, and hardships that have been overcome. Our ancestors believed that the best teas could eliminate arrogance, dissipate impatience, and lighten our temperaments. You seem to understand all that, but I believe my colleagues still have much to learn about our beautiful drink. What do you think?”

Second part goes into the nitty gritty tea making, tea selling and tea distribution. Pu’er tea is explained in great detail, different regions are praised for having higher quality tea and some processes are laughed upon for artificially trying to “age” tea. The price of tea skyrockets and her once poor village is feeling an economic boom. They have cars now, TVs, they built bigger mansions. It gets ludicrous to say the least:

“I have tea picked from thousand-year-old trees,” Mr. Lin brags. Mr. Chow goes a step further.

“I have tea picked from a single thousand-year-old tree.” Mr. Kwan can top either of those. “A farmer in Fujian province sold me tea picked by trained monkeys.” A bemused expression spreads across Mr. Huang’s face. He raps on my table with his knuckles, commanding attention.

“But does anyone here have tea picked by the lips of doctor-certified virgins?”

“Girl” is now a woman who lives in the city. She left her village, finished university and learned all there is about trading tea and being a successful woman. The second part of the book is half split into her young girl’s life – after being adopted by Americans, and her own life – refusing to settle down and accept any marriage proposals until a very kind mother connects her to her older son. We see her getting out of her cocoon, learning how to enjoy life, travelling, selling tea. What I found really heartbreaking were the diary entries – from the daughter – her quest to find herself, the mystery of the tea cake she was found with, the troubles with inter-racial adoption and international adoption on top of that.

“The first night your dad and I had you, we piled pillows on the extra double bed in our room to make a protective nest for you. Your dad fell asleep, but I stayed awake all night. I wept when you grabbed my finger and held it tight. Your birth mother gave me the greatest gift of my life—a beautiful, talented, and kind daughter. Every day I take a moment to thank her for that. Your first smile, your first tooth, your first day of preschool, your first everything —I thought of her and thanked her. And she is with you always. Your birth father too. They’re in your tears. They’re in your laugh. They’re in you in ways you’ll never be able to count. And their love is what sent you to me.”

And this book changed from a girl living in the mountains making tea into a lovely story about the good and the bad that can come from an adoption. The adoptive child feels like they’ve been the leftover runt of the litter while in America they are super-precious international adoptees – Asians – who are good at maths and can play the violin. The expectations are huge and the pressure is on.

The book ends on a happy note as mother, daughter and nana meet in an ancient tea grove – all brought together by a young boy the nana healed from Cancer with the sacred tea, while his father, Mr. Huang, was being shown around by “Girl” Li-Yan.

Destiny is a weird thing.

 

5/5

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