In their remote mountain village, Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. For the Akha people, ensconced in ritual and routine, life goes on as it has for generations—until a stranger appears at the village gate in a jeep, the first automobile any of the villagers has ever seen.
The stranger’s arrival marks the first entrance of the modern world in the lives of the Akha people. Slowly, Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, begins to reject the customs that shaped her early life. When she has a baby out of wedlock—conceived with a man her parents consider a poor choice—she rejects the tradition that would compel her to give the child over to be killed, and instead leaves her, wrapped in a blanket with a tea cake tucked in its folds, near an orphanage in a nearby city.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is my favourite Lisa See book since Snow Flower and the Secret Fan as she once again focuses on some of China’s most remote areas. While the book is set in the Eighties, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was set in ancient times as we learn how the Akha customs, traditions and superstitions have governed them for hundreds of years. When the Communists gained control of China, no one knew the Akha existed and when they were eventually found they were classed with the Han people although their language and customs are completely different. As she narrates, Li Yan explains how her people believe they are descended from the Tibetans with whom they have more in common than the neighbouring Chinese regions.
The level of detail is quite astonishing and while nothing much seems to happen, See manages to hold our interest throughout and I fell in love with the Akha people so much so I had to go online to see the wonderful headdresses they wear. Not all the customs are pleasant though and the primitive medical techniques will leave your stomach churning. Since Li Yan is expected to become the village midwife, she is forced to attend a birth which turns out to be a traumatic event as the mother unexpectedly delivers twins. Twins are seen as an evil omen in the village as only animals breed litters so the babies are taking out to the woods and killed by the father to preserve the balance in the village. After that, the poor mother and father are forced to leave the village to fend for themselves as they are forever tainted. The poor mother bled a lot during the birth and I sincerely hope the techniques employed to stem the flow of blood, including rubbing an egg over her stomach and packing her nether regions with mud, won’t be appearing in local hospitals any time soon.
Surprisingly enough, the views on sex are very lenient as young people are encouraged to indulge frequently before marriage, although children born out of wedlock are still forbidden. When you think about the reaction to multiple births, it comes as a surprise the Akha don’t approve of the one child policy adopted by China and ignore it. When the tea industry booms in China, the way of life in the village changes dramatically along with the inevitable struggle to maintain the old ways while meeting new demands. Of course the focus is primarily on tea production and the quest for the purest and most perfect blends. After reading this, you will be mystified as to why tea is most readily associated with Britain because the consumption in China has nothing on us.
Naturally the heart of the story is centred around Li Yan as we watch her grow from a young girl into a successful business woman. Li Yan has a much more external outlook which is why she yearns for a life beyond the confines of the village and she is also savvy enough to achieve her aims by persuading her father how useful learning Mandarin would be to the whole village. However, as strong as Li Yan seems, she isn’t immune to basic human feelings and when she falls in love with the wrong boy, it has drastic consequences. When Li Yan falls pregnant, everything she has worked so hard to achieve is suddenly undone and shame prevents her from seeking her mother’s help. When Li Yan’s mother learns her secret, the two of them plot to conceal the birth and Li Yan makes the decision to give her daughter away so she doesn’t suffer the same fate as the twins.
Once Li Yan marries, she attempts to reclaim her daughter but learns the child has been adopted by Americans and is out of her reach. A despondent Li Yan has to rebuild her life as her marriage proves to be as disastrous as her father predicted and she becomes a leading expert on tea. As Li Yan’s business thrives, her daughter’s story is indirectly interwoven throughout the remaining chapters through letters, emails, essays and even therapist transcriptions. I have to admit I wasn’t really a fan of how Haley’s story was revealed as it seemed like a wealth of material was packed into such a short format and there was so much scope for another novel in there.
Haley’s adoption by white Americans reveals a whole set of problems worth exploring further and I hope we get that story some day, if not through Haley, then another character. The glimpses of the damage done to children raised away from their cultural heritage and the alienation they feel is quite heartbreaking and one I’d never really considered properly. Lisa See’s book are always so thought-provoking and they stay with you for a long time after reading.