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Book Notes | ‘The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane’

August 18, 2023, at 2pm

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See is mostly set in China, with Southern California also a part of the story. The two main story lines involve one of the ethnic groups in China living in a Pu’er tea growing area, and the plight of a Chinese girl adopted by a family in Southern California and the challenges of being a minority and adopted.  

China is known for its tea and Pu’er tea is especially desired by Chinese and foreigners alike. The novel tells the story of a young woman from the Akha tribe of China’s Yunnan province who becomes a tea entrepreneur, as her daughter grows up in California.

The book explores a facet of Chinese culture that is generally unknown. Li-Yan, the only daughter of a tea-growing family, is a child of the Akha “ethnic minority,” as groups in China who are not of the Han majority are known. The Akha are governed by their beliefs in spirits, cleansing rituals, taboos, and the dictates of village shamans. The Akha, inhabiting rugged, inaccessible terrain, have avoided the full brunt of China’s experiments in social engineering, including the Great Leap Forward, (1958–62) and its resultant famine, the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), and the one child family policy (1980–2016). Li-Yan’s family harvests mostly from wild tea trees as opposed to terraced bushes, and their product is discovered by an outsider and tea connoisseur, Huang, who alters Li-Yan’s destiny. 

The Akha encouraged youthful sexual experimentation, but progeny outside marriage were automatically “rejects.” So, when Li-Yan discovers she is pregnant by her absent fiancé, San-pa, she hides her pregnancy. After the infant is born, Li-Yan journeys on foot to a town where she gives up her child. Over the next 20 years, we follow Li-Yan’s life and its many complex turns. We also read of her child's challenges as a privileged American daughter. Though aware of all she has in her life, the daughter still feels a piece of herself is missing.  

Our book club members were mixed in their reactions to the book. Although it represents exhaustive research on See’s part and is certainly engrossing, the novel’s extensive elucidation of international adoption, tea arcana, and, in particular, Akha lore at times put off some members, particularly the parts of the story dealing with the treatment of “rejects.”

— Kathryn Sedo, UMRA Book Club I member




Book Club I in August

Fri, Aug 18 2023, 2pm

Event to be held via Zoom.

Kathryn Sedo will lead the discussion of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See when the UMRA Book Club meets via Zoom at 2 p.m. on Friday, August 18.

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