Postcard Press Picks
Book Club: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
Every now and then, I stumble upon a book that captures me from the start and has me glued to the very end—the kind of book that you can’t put down. Recently, this happened with a novel that was not only beautifully written but also so enlightening that it kept me thinking long after I turned the last page. I wanted to recommend it to everyone, and immediately thought it was perfect for Postcard Press and the type of culturally-enriching content we inspire to share. But one warning: it will pique your wanderlust—my desire to return to China has never been stronger.
Though fiction, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is a well-researched and gorgeously told story steeped in reality and culture. Lisa See is no stranger to the Chinese and Chinese-American experiences. Growing up in Southern California with a large Chinese-American family, she has a first-hand understanding and knowledge that is poetically woven into this work. Tales of the Chinese experience are a common thread in many of her books (such as the moving Shanghai Girls and its sequel, Dreams of Joy, which I would also recommend). But for The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, See takes her research and experience and creates a story that surrounds the reader and enriches their understanding of Chinese cultures.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane explores the life of Li-yan, who as a young girl lives in a remote, Yunnan mountain village with the Ahka people, a Chinese ethnic-minority group. When the book begins, you may think you are being taken back in time, to an era long gone. It’s a captivating and tragic look into the culture of this village. But you soon learn this is actually a contemporary story, set from the late 1980s up until 2016. In this day, it’s hard to picture being so cut off from modern conveniences—electricity, indoor plumbing, internet, and advanced medical care to name a few—but that’s not so unusual for many. Living largely autonomously, the Ahka are guided by the spiritual beliefs they’ve practiced for thousands of years with very little outside influence.
The village is populated by tea growers, working day to day to sell their product and continue living their way of life—as archaic as it may seem to the reader. Very few leave, but after Li-yan becomes pregnant out-of-wedlock and is forced to carry a child in secret only to give her up for adoption, she finds her way out.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is a story of East meets West told through two narratives: the main character Li-yan and her arduous and harrowing journey from village girl to businesswoman forever searching for the daughter she gave up, and, later, the journey of that daughter, Haley. After being adopted by an America couple from Los Angeles, Haley grows up torn between two worlds. Her life and family in LA, for which she is grateful but tired of the stereotypes thrust upon her, and her internal struggle to better know who she is and from where she comes.
The common thread connecting them both: Pu’er tea. Pu’er has a central role in the storytelling, affecting the characters in monumental ways. It’s important for Li-yan, whose knowledge of the product and understanding of how it’s made propels her into the outside world; the Ahka people, whose thousands of years’ experience crafting the perfect product is what brings the outside world to them; and Haley, who still has a tea cake, given to her as a baby by Li-yan, that can be traced back to her ancestral village.
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is a powerful and moving novel in which the reader is immersed in this little know part of China and a culture previously hidden from the world. It’s an intriguing look into the tea trade and the benefits and destruction it can bring. And it’s an exploration of the lives many lead, straddling two cultures and struggling to find one’s identity.
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Have you read any books that have broadened your knowledge of another culture or inspired your wanderlust? Let us know about them in the comments!
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