The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Please read with a culturally sensitive lens.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is more than just a coming of age book for Li-yan. It is discovery, faith, resilience, perseverance, tragedy, superstition, tradition and so any other themes. Li-yan suffers from losses and is conflicted for much of the book as she struggles to break the mold being the only daughter in her family, and the only person in her village to pursue education beyond a primary level. While Haley spends her childhood and adolescence unsure of her cultural identity and battling with feelings of abandonment by her birth mother.
I am always happy to stumble upon a novel that I can truthfully give 5 stars. This was one of those moments where I saw the title listed on an Instagram post for a tea book club. There is a heavy emphasis on the evolution and fluctuation of the value of Pu'er, a type of tea I have only heard about earlier this year and still have yet to try. Hearing Li-yan's descriptions of her perceived taste gives you the desire to find yourself in a fine tea market just to bargain and buy. I imagine something earthy and well rounded, influenced by centuries of exposure to changing environment.
I felt very immersed in this well researched novel. The reader can easily reap the rewards of See's numerous interviews with adopted Chinese children in North America, and the first hand learning she had with the Akha people (an ethnic minority) on processing tea leaves. I was rooting for Haley to find her birth mother. As I was for Li-yan to find peace, a sense of accomplishment and closure with the decisions she had made as a young mother.
There were many technical things to learn about tea but it was also a story that explored culture and self worth.
When one is primarily shaped by the Western world, it's easy to look superficially at the traditions of others (like these characters from the mountain tribe in Yunnan), and think that their beliefs are not sound nor do they have a scientific basis. Yet it has allowed them to survive and have structure. The only critique I may have about the book is that Li-yan was flexible about adapting and fitting in though it was initially overwhelming for her, and that might have been due to her education. So I had a little disbelief that most of her family gave up many of the strict laws when they realized that they could turn a profit. But money corrupts some. I suppose that wasn't that farfetched.
I genuinely recommend this to Lisa See fans, tea enthusiasts and those who aren't. Even though I started off apprehensive about the tale, I was pleasantly wrapped in the details with each word uttered in audiobook fashion.
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