Book Review & Blog Tour: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

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First off, I must share the history of my love affair with Lisa See’s novels. Our book club was essentially founded on Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (which still ranks as my #1 favourite!) and was a book club wide hit. From that moment on, anytime a new Lisa See book was released, we cleared the book club’s schedule to read it. Of course, we’re all incredibly anxious to get to The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and now that the book will be released widely, it will be our next month’s choice, with certainty!

So, there was a great ripple of excitement when news broke about a new Lisa See novel coming in 2017. The description for this marked a possible “return” to something similar in style to Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Thank you Simon & Schuster Canada for providing me with an advanced reading copy, I’m sure you heard my squeal of delight from down here to up there!

From this first quotation from the Book of Songs, I knew I was going to be all in for a wonderful reading experience:

When a son is born 
Let him sleep on the bed,
 Clothe him with fine clothes.
 And give him jade to play with. . . . 
When a daughter is born, 
Let her sleep on the ground, 
Wrap her in common wrappings, 
And give her broken tiles 
For playthings.

Was it See’s disdain for the treatment of women and girls simmering throughout as we read of the suffering of women from the crush of tradition, or was it my own filter of disdain used when reading? This second class inferiority and obedience to men was a similar theme throughout Pachinko (which I still need to write about): Women are meant to suffer. And suffer they do. Every ritual is designed to reinforce their inferiority and station below men. Every ritual is designed to reinforce women’s inferiority to men. (Such as, “Remember that a wife must never overstep her husband’s knowledge.“) Yet, despite this,  it is the strength and determination of women that is so richly told in The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (and Pachinko as well).

In The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, we learn about the Akha,  a Chinese ethnic minority group, an indigenous hill tribe who live in small villages in the remote and isolated mountains in China.  (They are compared to the Cree since they believe everything is a spirit – their beliefs, traditions and way of life conform to these rules and beliefs.) These details made for a terrific reading experience and the descriptions of their traditions, features like their spirit gates and headdresses were richly described. It was disheartening at times to read though, due to some of the crippling demands of their traditions and way of life. Li-Yan and her family are Akha tea growers and Li-Yan is one of the only girls, or people in her tribe that have reached a higher level of education. Li-Yan struggles at times adherence to the traditions of the Akha, and begins to question some of their rules and rituals. Her education is a way out of the isolation, but it is still something she struggles in wanting – does she remain with her people, or does she embrace the opportunity to live in the modern world that her education grants her?

Before she can act on these opportunities however, Li-Yan falls in love with a boy that her family strongly (vehemently) disagrees with and becomes pregnant. This boy leaves her before he knows of the pregnancy and Li-Yan is forced to not only keep her pregnancy a secret, but Akha tradition dictates she must rid herself of her baby. Li-Yan cannot go through what those traditions dictate and instead, wraps her daughter and hides a tea cake in her swaddling to identify where she was born, leaving her on the steps at an orphanage in a city outside of her village.

Haley (Yan-Yeh) is Li-Yan’s daughter, adopted by an American couple. The sections of the book written around Haley are written in a different style than Li-Yan’s parts with letters, emails, and interviews. Now, with distance, I can fully appreciate the reason for doing this. Many times while reading, and for certain reading parts about Li-Yan, it was difficult to remember it’s in a modern day setting. Opening in 1988 when Li-Yan is a young girl, she’s therefore in in her teens during the ’90s, 20s when it’s the 2000s, etc. But the Akha live in such isolated conditions and are greatly bound to their traditions, they aren’t even aware of the policies being passed in China, such as the One-Child Policy. Yet Haley’s parts use a wholly different writing style, that with distance you understand why, or perhaps recognize what See was trying to do here in contrasting Li-Yan’s and Haley’s lives.

In the video below, See shares her inspiration for writing The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and describes the research done around the “One Child Policy” in China as well as the adoption of Chinese girls into American families. The position of the Chinese girls being they are “grateful but angry” or “grateful and angry“. Grateful for being adopted, angry at being abandoned.

For Haley, when asked the question of whether she sees herself as Chinese or American, her answer was a fantastic one:

“One hundred percent American and one hundred percent Chinese,” I answered. “I’m not half and half. I’m fully both. I’ll forever wear my Chinese-ness on my face, but these days when I look in the mirror I don’t see how mismatched I am in my birth family or that I don’t feel Chinese enough. I just see me.”

I was fully and emotionally invested in Li-Yan’s life, her sorrows, her adventures, her questioning, her great loss at having to abandon her daughter and her life-long quest to find her. Now, with distance I’ve come to appreciate more of Haley’s story. When reading I didn’t feel it was as prevalent with what I thought were only brief glimpses of her life in America. Now, I appreciate how her connections to her birth were played out – tea, its importance and traditions were always present her school assignments, her research in graduate school and her questions on the origin of the tea cake that Haley has always kept close to her.

Just as in the Snow Flower and the Secret Fan where we learned about foot-binding, and the fan being the object connecting Snow Flower and Lily, here it is tea-making, its importance and a tea cake being the connection between Li-Yan and Haley in The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. Brilliant right?

Although my initial feelings surrounding the progression of Haley’s story left me hitting a plateau when reading with about a 1/4 of the story remaining, it came together in this exceptionally powerful ending. It’s an ending that reinforces the connection between Li-Yan and Haley in a most satisfying and wonderful way. The See we love and adore is back and if you loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, you will love reading The Tea Girl on Hummingbird Lane.

Simon & Schuster Canada has pulled together a blog tour and I hope you’ll check out what my other colleagues have to say about The Tea Girl on Hummingbird Lane. In particular, I want to draw your attention to Lost in a Great Book’s review, posted yesterday. Here, Jenn does this fantastic job discussing Lisa See’s keen writing of female relationships, especially the mother/daugther relationship and their spiritual connection to each other. I thought this wonderful to read about! You can check it out for yourself here: Lost in a Great Book’s Review of Tea Girl on Hummingbird Lane.