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The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See – Mothers, Daughters and Tea

30th March, 2017

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

The story of mothers and daughters who are bound by an unbroken bond of tea.

In Brief

Li Yan belongs to the Akha tribe and is one of the few educated girls on the mountain. When she has a baby out of wedlock, she abandons the baby in an orphanage in the nearest city. Later she ventures out into the world beyond the mountains because  of her education while Haley, her daughter, is adopted by an American couple and grows up in a privileged household in California. Both the mother and the daughter search for one another and find their answers in tea which has been an integral part of their family’s ancestry.

Review

Like any other reader, I had a mental picture of the protagonist when I started reading the book. I did not know much, just that Li Yan is from the mountains of China. As I read more, I realised how wrong I was in my mental picture – Li Yan belongs to the Akha tribe who are dark skinned and have a long ancestral history with the neighbouring countries of China and so looks very different from your typical Chinese person. I was so glad this book brought to light my ignorance because this helped me connect with Haley’s problems of not fitting in America because she does not ‘look Chinese’.

The novel is a whole new world alive with the Akha traditions and customs. There are dreams that are interpreted, elaborate headdress weaving which would determine how efficient a girl is, village traditions, marriage ceremonies, killing of twins and children born out of wedlock because they are a curse and so on. See puts a good contrast on the beliefs that might seem backward for a person who does not belong to the tribe by writing about their progressive views such as sex before marriage with several partners being an accepted custom. The novel also shows how with the advent of education and exposure, the tribesmen do away with a few traditions and adopt a more modern way of life. There is a small commentary on the changes that the cultural revolution of China brought about on the lives of the hill tribes. Li Yan truly understands the value of education and reaps the full benefit of the opportunities presented before her.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

The story’s main focus is on motherhood. Li Yan has a special relationship with her mother. Though her mother, the medicine lady of the village, is strict about the Akha traditions of childbirth, she helps Li Yan to transport the baby to a safe place rather than kill it at birth, in spite of this action being against her beliefs and culture. Li Yan longs for her daughter throughout the novel, even after she embarks on a happy married life.

One major problem I had with the book was about Haley. I could not connect with Haley’s narratives. I found this part dragging and often unnecessary. Haley’s thoughts does shed light on the discrimination she faces even in her American-Chinese community as she is dark skinned and her questions on her ancestry. There was an interesting exchange of emails between Haley and her prospective research guide where they talk about whether it is the work that prompted them to look out for each other or the ethnicity. But many portions in Haley’s POV were either over exaggerated and boring or extremely short to grip the reader’s mind.

Lisa See has captured the atmosphere of the story brilliantly well. The is the flutter of first love, a failed marriage, and a quest to find the baby born out of wedlock in Li Yan’s life. The plot is engaging and so is the writing. I loved the ending of the novel. Everything comes to a perfect circle and leaves you smiling when you close the book.

Final Verdict :

I loved how insightful the book was about the traditions and customs of the ethnic minority tribe, Akha. There are informative and extremely interesting passages on tea making techniques . If you are a tea lover you must definitely pick this book and preferably read it with a cup of steaming of tea by your side.

Title : The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
Author : Lisa See
Publisher : Scribner
Published : 2016
Language : English
Pages : 320
Rating : 4.5/5

Much thanks to Scribner for a copy of the book. All opinions are my own.

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The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
This Post Has 27 Comments
  1. You’ve totally made me feel like reading this book. I adore Asian lit (as I’m sure you know) but the dark skinned aspect is really intriguing. I think I’ll put up with the draggy portions for the rest of it.

    1. I really enjoyed the book. It is a fast read and I was fascinated to read so much about the traditions and customs that I knew nothing about. Also about tea leaf plucking, drying, selling etc. It was a very insightful read. You can always skim through the Haley parts when you read the book. Or maybe you won’t find it boring and it is just my personal opinion.

  2. The stuff about Akha sounds absolutely fascinating and I’d love to read about that, and keep being tempted by this book. But the other strand – well, maybe it’s just me, but I think the whole US immigrant experience has been done far too often recently. While I realise it’s important obviously to the real immigrants, frankly as a reader all the stories are pretty much the same old thing. It’s that side of it that has put me off going for this one so far…

    1. Yes, I did notice a rise in the number of books with the recent theme. Perhaps authors who are based in say US/Canada/Europe find it as a handy topic to connect to the non immigrant readers. SO both the immigrants and the non-immigrants feel happy.

      In this book, the majority of the story is set in China. But yes, there is an immigrant experience in Haley’s POV and also when Li Yan moves to America with her family.

  3. I’ve been hesitant about this book because my history with Lisa See books has been up and down. I loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but then was disappointed with some of her others. At four and a half stars, I guess I’d better give The Tea Girl a closer look. Thanks for the great review!

    1. This was my first Lisa See novel and I am pleased with this one. I found the cultural aspects of the Akha tribe and the tea leaf making process very insightful. However Haley’s POV was pretty boring. But the rest of the novel made up for it.

  4. I’ve read two of her books (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love) and I liked them, but I don’t feel compelled to rush for another either. Maybe I just need to give her another try! The tea angle does interest me (although I drink both tea and coffee), as I’ve read another book about the plantation production of it (very colonial, not very satisfying from that perspective) and found it was fascinating (the actual work involved, not the system of exploitation).

    1. This was my first Lisa See and I totally see what you mean. When I posted about the book on Instagram, I received similar comments about how readers liked her books but don’t feel the sudden urge to pick them up. I will look forward to your review if you will read the book in the future.

  5. This sounds like a totally immersive cultural experience. I am really wanting to diversify my reading more this year and well.. you did mention tea lovers 😉 I believe Snow Flower is on my TBR. I may have to look into this tough.

  6. Ahh I am a massive tea lover!! (and now I really need a cup!) I don’t know anything about this culture and I have to say I’m intrigued. Sounds like a really good book, even if Haley’s parts dragged more. Great review 🙂

  7. I just love the diversity of your reading. Fascinating.
    (You know one can tell a lot about someone by browsing his/her bookshelves)
    I have a question for you (as one reader with only one – not very good – english bookstore in town, for 20 million people):
    Where on earth do you find your books? Particularly with such… flamboyant variety.
    Be good.
    Brian

    1. Thank you Brian. I enjoy reading different kind of books. I rely on online book sellers (mostly Amazon) and second hand book stores for a majority of my buys. I visit an actual ‘new-book’ bookstore three or so times a year. These days my book buying has significantly reduced because I get the new releases as review copies kindly sent by the publishers and I have a good enough stack of classics and modern classics, some new and some second hand, to last me several years.

  8. Great review! I really loved this book. I totally agree about the parts with Haley dragging a bit. When those sections first started, I was afraid that Lisa See was going to devote the same amount of time on that plotline, and was glad when she did not. I loved the ending so, so much! Glad you liked the book 🙂

  9. Ahhhh this book sounds so amazing! I’ve seen the cover around (stunning by the way) but I never stopped to read what it was actually about. AND I definitely didn’t realize this was the same author that wrote Shanghi Girls and Dreams of Joy… both of which I own, but have yet to read still. I believe this is the first review I’ve seen for this book…

    I really love learning about different cultures and customs, and it sounds like this book is full of both. I had never heard of the Akha before, but now I am very curious indeed.

    Sorry Haley’s side of the story was lacking… It can be so frustrating when you don’t enjoy one of the storylines… at least it doesn’t sound like the author dedicated too much of the book to Haley’s side of things.

    Lovely review! I am adding this one to the TBR for sure 🙂

    1. Thank you Amanda. I hope you will love the book. I really enjoyed reading about the superstitions and the way of life of the Akha tribe. And yes, I am glad Haley’s part was less in size compared to Li-Yan’s. Hope you will enjoy the read when you pick it up.

  10. This sounds like an excellent book! I’ve never heard of the Akha tribe, so I hope to gain a little insight about them when I read this book. I’ve heard great things about Lisa See’s books so I’ll definitely have to add this to the other books I have (by See) on my TBR. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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