A thrilling new novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa See explores the lives of a Chinese mother and her daughter who has been adopted by an American couple.
Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. There is ritual and routine, and it has been ever thus for generations. Then one day a jeep appears at the village gate—the first automobile any of them have seen—and a stranger arrives.
In this remote Yunnan village, the stranger finds the rare tea he has been seeking and a reticent Akha people. In her biggest seller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, See introduced the Yao people to her readers. Here she shares the customs of another Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, whose world will soon change. Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, translates for the stranger and is among the first to reject the rules that have shaped her existence. When she has a baby outside of wedlock, rather than stand by tradition, she wraps her daughter in a blanket, with a tea cake hidden in her swaddling, and abandons her in the nearest city.
After mother and daughter have gone their separate ways, Li-yan slowly emerges from the security and insularity of her village to encounter modern life while Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl. Despite Haley’s happy home life, she wonders about her origins; and Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. They both search for and find answers in the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for generations.
A powerful story about a family, separated by circumstances, culture, and distance, Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane paints an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and celebrates the bond that connects mothers and daughters.
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About the Author
Hometown:Los Angeles, California
Date of Birth:February 18, 1955
Place of Birth:Paris, France
Education:B.A., Loyola Marymount University, 1979
Read an Excerpt
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
“No coincidence, no story,” my a-ma recites, and that seems to settle everything, as it usually does, after First Brother finishes telling us about the dream he had last night. I don’t know how many times my mother has used this praising aphorism during the ten years I’ve been on this earth. I also feel as though I’ve heard versions of First Brother’s dream many times. A poor farmer carries freshly picked turnips to the market town to barter for salt. He takes a misstep and tumbles down a cliff. This could have ended in a “terrible death” far from home—the worst thing that can happen to an Akha person—but instead he lands in the camp of a wealthy salt seller. The salt seller brews tea, the two men start talking, and . . . The coincidence could have been anything: the salt seller will now marry the farmer’s daughter or the farmer’s fall protected him from being washed away in a flood. This time, the farmer was able to trade with the salt seller without having to walk all the way to the market town.
It was a good dream with no bad omens, which pleases everyone seated on the floor around the fire pit. As A-ma said, every story, every dream, every waking minute of our lives is filled with one fateful coincidence after another. People and animals and leaves and fire and rain—we whirl around each other like handfuls of dried rice kernels being tossed into the sky. A single kernel cannot change its direction. It cannot choose to fly to the right or to the left nor can it choose where it lands—balanced on a rock, and therefore salvageable, or bouncing off that same rock into the mud, becoming instantly useless and valueless. Where they alight is fate, and nothing—no thing anyway—can change their destinies.
Second Brother is next in line to tell his dream. It is ordinary. Third Brother recites his dream, which is worse than dull.
A-ba nudges me with his elbow. “Girl, tell us a dream you had last night.”
“My dream?” The request surprises me, because neither of my parents has asked this of me before. I’m just a girl. Unimportant, as I’ve been told many times. Why A-ba has chosen this day to single me out, I don’t know, but I hope to be worthy of the attention. “I was walking back to the village after picking tea. It was already dark. I could see smoke rising from household fires. The smell of the food should have made me hungry.” (I’m always hungry.) “But my stomach, eyes, arms, and legs were all happy to know I was where I was supposed to be. Our ancestral home.” I watch my family’s faces. I want to be honest, but I can’t alarm anyone with the truth.
“What else did you see?” A-ma asks. In our village, power and importance go in this order: the headman; the ruma—the spirit priest—who keeps harmony between spirits and humans; and the nima—the shaman—who has the ability to go into a trance, visit the trees God planted in the spirit world to represent each soul on earth, and then determine which incantations can be used to heal or enhance vitality. These men are followed next by all grandfathers, fathers, and males of any age. My mother is ranked first among women not only in our village but on the entire mountain. She is a midwife and so much more, treating men, women, and children as they pass through their lives. She’s also known for her ability to interpret dreams. The silver balls that decorate her headdress tremble, catching the firelight, as she waits for my response. The others bend their heads over their bowls, nervous for me.
I force myself to speak. “I dreamed of a dog.”
Everyone prickles at this revelation.
“We allow dogs to live among us for three reasons,” A-ma says reassuringly, trying to settle the family. “They are essential for sacrifices, they alert us to bad omens, and they are good to eat. What kind was yours?”
I hesitate once again. The dog in my dream stood on our roof, alert, his snout pointed upward, his tail erect. To me, he looked as though he were guarding our village, and seeing him made me feel confident that I would make it home safely. But the Akha people believe . . .
A-ma gives me a stern look. “Dogs are not human, but they live in the human world. They are not of the spirit world, but they have the gift of seeing spirits. When you hear a dog howl or bark in the night, you know he has spotted a spirit and hopefully scared him away. Now answer me, Girl,” she says, pushing her silver bracelets up her wrist. “What kind was yours?”
“The whole family was sitting outside when the dog began to bark,” I say, when I know perfectly well that dreaming of a dog on the roof means that he hasn’t done his job and that a spirit has sneaked past the protection of the village’s spirit gate and is now roaming among us. “He frightened off an evil spirit. A-poe-mi-yeh rewarded him by giving everyone in our family a chicken to eat—”
“Our supreme god gave every man and woman his or her own chicken?” First Brother scoffs.
“And all the children too! Every single person had a whole chicken—”
“That’s impossible! Meaningless! A fabrication!” First Brother looks at A-ba indignantly. “Make her stop—”
“So far I like her dream,” A-ba says. “Go on, Girl.”
The more pressure I feel to continue my story, the easier it becomes to lie. “I saw birds in a nest. The babies had just broken through their shells. The a-ma bird tapped each one gently with her beak. Tap, tap, tap.”
A moment passes as my parents and brothers ponder this addition. As A-ma searches my face, I try to keep my expression as still as a bowl of soy milk left out overnight. Finally, she nods approvingly.
“Counting her babies. New lives. A protecting mother.” She smiles. “All is good.”
A-ba stands up, signaling that breakfast is done. I’m not sure what’s more troublesome—that A-ma can’t see everything inside my head as I always thought she could or that I’ve gotten away with my fabrications. I feel pretty terrible until I remind myself that I prevented my family from the worry my dream would have caused them. I lift my bowl to my lips and slurp down the last of my broth. A few bitter mountain leaves slip into my mouth along with the fiery liquid. Chili flakes burn their way to my stomach. For as long as that heat lasts, I’ll feel full.
When we leave the house, stars still glitter above our heads. I carry a small basket on my back. My other family members have large baskets slung over their shoulders. Together we walk along the dirt lane that divides Spring Well Village, which has about forty households and nestles in one of the many saddles on Nannuo Mountain. Most of the homes are sheltered by old tea trees. The tea terraces and gardens where we work, however, are outside the village.
We join our neighbors, who live four houses away from us. The youngest daughter, Ci-teh, is my age. I could find my friend anywhere, because her cap is the most decorated of any girl’s in Spring Well. In addition to tea, her family grows pumpkins, cabbages, sugarcane, and cotton. They also cultivate opium, which they sell to the spirit priest to use in ceremonies and to A-ma to use as a medicine for those suffering from the agony of broken bones, the torment of the wasting disease, or the mental anguish that comes from losing a loved one. The extra money Ci-teh’s family earns means they can sacrifice more and larger animals for offerings, which in turn means that the customary shared cuts of meat that are given to everyone in the village are more and larger too. Ci-teh’s family’s wealth also means that her cap is decorated with lots of silver charms. Apart from these differences, Ci-teh and I are like sisters—maybe closer than sisters, because we spend so much time side by side.
As we continue toward our work, we leave the last house behind and proceed a little farther until we reach the spirit gate. Carved figures of a woman and a man are mounted on the posts. The woman has huge breasts. The man has a penis that is as thick as timber bamboo, longer than my entire height, and sticking straight out. Whittled birds of prey and vicious dogs hang from the crossbeam. Be warned. If someone doesn’t pass through the gate properly—touching it perhaps—then something terrible can happen, like a death. We must all be mindful of the gate.
We begin to climb. Ci-teh and I chatter, catching up as though many weeks have passed instead of one night.
“I worked on my embroidery before bed,” Ci-teh confides.
“I fell asleep before my a-ba had his pipe,” I tell her.
“Hot water or tea with breakfast?”
I don’t want to tell her any of that. We have a long way to go and the only other way to make the time pass quickly is through games and challenges.
“How many different parasites can you spot on the trees before we get to that boulder?” I hoot.
Nine, and I win.
“How are you doing with your weaving?” Ci-teh asks, knowing I haven’t shown a talent for it.
“So boring!” I holler, and the men look back at me disapprovingly. “Let’s see how many jumps it will take from this rock to that one way up there.”
Seven, and I win again.
“Last night, Deh-ja”—that would be Ci-teh’s sister-in-law—“said she wants to have a son.”
“There’s nothing new with that one.” I point to a little rise. “Bet I can beat you to the top.”
My feet know this route well, and I hop from rock to rock and jump over exposed roots. In places, the dirt is powdery between my toes. In other spots, pebbles poke at the soft underparts of my arches. Since it’s still dark, I sense more than see the old tea, camphor, ginkgo, and cassia trees, as well as stands of bamboo, towering around me.
I win again, which nettles Ci-teh. But that happens between sisters too. Ci-teh and I are close, but we compete against each other . . . constantly. I won our games today; she reminded me she’s better at embroidery and weaving. Our teacher says I could prove I’m smart if I worked a little harder; he would never say that about Ci-teh.
“See you at the tea collection center,” I say when Ci-teh follows her a-ma onto another path. I linger—watching them scramble up a steep stretch of mountain, their empty baskets bouncing on their backs—and then I skip ahead to catch up to A-ma.
After a half hour of walking, the black of night begins to fade and the sky turns pale. Clouds catch tints of pink and lavender. Then everything brightens when the sun crests the mountain. The cicadas waken and begin to trill. And still we climb. My a-ba and brothers maintain distance ahead of us so they can have their man talk. A-ma is as strong as any man, but she takes her time, looking about for herbs and mushrooms she can use in her potions. First Sister-in-law has stayed home with the children too young to pick tea and too big to be carried by their mothers, but my second and third sisters-in-law accompany us with their babies tied to their bosoms as they too forage, searching the moist forest floor for anything we might take home to put in our dinner soup.
We reach First Brother’s tea terraces at last. I move slowly between the tightly packed rows of bushes, scanning the outermost branches for the bud and two, maybe three, leaves that begin to unfurl as the sun’s rays warm them. I gently nip the tiny cluster between my thumbnail and the side of my forefinger above the first joint. My thumbnail is stained and the little pad of flesh callused. I’m already marked as a tea picker.
After two hours, A-ma comes to me. She runs her hands through my leaves, fluffing and inspecting them. “You’re very good, Girl, at finding the choicest bud sets. Maybe too good.” She glances in A-ba’s direction a few terraces away, then leans down and whispers, “Pick a little faster. And you can take some of the older and tougher leaves. We need more leaves, not just ideal bud sets, from each bush.”
I understand. More leaves means more money to be paid by the tea collection center. When my basket is full, I find First Brother, who transfers my pickings into a burlap sack, and the process begins again. We break for a lunch of rice balls rolled in dried moss, and then pick all through the afternoon. I stay close to my mother, who sings to keep us in the rhythm of picking and to remove our minds from the heat and humidity. Finally, A-ba calls, “Enough.” We gather at the spot where First Brother has been consolidating our harvest. The last leaves are packed into burlap sacks. Then each sack is strung with ropes and a flat board. A-ma mounts the smallest one on my back, wraps the ropes over my shoulders, and secures the board on my forehead. All this is to help us carry the weight evenly, but the pull of the ropes on my shoulders and the press of the wood against my forehead are instantly painful.
Once the others have their sacks on their backs and our picking baskets have been bound together for us to retrieve on our way home, we begin the two-hour journey to the tea collection center. We’re all aware we must hurry, but our pace can only be slow. One sure foot after another sure foot. We climb up and over more tea terraces, each one seemingly steeper than the last. And then we’re back in the forest, which has engulfed forsaken tea tree groves and gardens. Vines wrap around the trunks, which have become homes to orchids, mushrooms, and parasites like crab’s claw. How old are the trees? Five hundred years old? A thousand years old? I don’t know the answers. What I do know is that selling leaves from them was abandoned long ago. Only families like ours use the leaves from trees like these for at-home drinking.
By the time we reach the tea collection center, I’m so tired I want to cry. We enter through big gates into a courtyard. My vision flits around the open space, looking for Ci-teh’s distinctive cap. We Akha have our own style of dress. So too do the Dai, Lahu, Bulang, and the other tribes who live here with us. Everyone wears their work clothes, but every headdress, scarf, and cap is decorated, according to the traditions of that clan and the individual taste and style of each woman or girl. I don’t spot Ci-teh. Her family must have come and gone already. They might even be home by now, eating their supper.
My stomach calls to me, aggravated yet entranced by the smells coming from the food vendor stalls. The perfume of skewered meat on an open flame fills my head. My mouth waters. One day I’ll get to taste one of those. Maybe. Occasionally, we treat ourselves to scallion pancakes that an old Dai woman sells from a cart just to the left, inside the tea collection center courtyard. The aroma is enticing—not as rich as the grilled meat but cleanly fragrant with the smell of fresh eggs.
A-ma, my sisters-in-law, and I squat in the dirt as my a-ba and brothers take our bags through a set of double doors that lead to the weighing area. On the other side of the courtyard, I spot a boy about my age, lingering by a mountain of burlap bags filled with tea waiting to be transported to the big city of Menghai, where it’ll be processed in a government-run factory. His hair is as black as my own. He too is barefoot. I don’t recognize him from school. But I’m less interested in him as a person than I am in the steaming scallion pancake he holds in his tea-stained fingers. He looks around to make sure no one is watching—obviously missing me—before ducking out of sight behind the burlap mound. I get up, cross the courtyard, and peek around the corner of the wall of tea.
“What are you doing back there?” I ask.
He turns to me and grins. His cheeks are shiny with oil. Before he has a chance to speak, I hear A-ma calling.
“Girl! Girl! Stay near me.”
I scurry back across the courtyard, reaching my mother just as A-ba and my brothers exit the weighing area. They don’t look happy.
“We were too late,” A-ba says. “They already bought their quota for the day.”
I moan inwardly. We’re a family of eight adults and many children. It’s hard to live on what we earn during the ten days a year of prime tea picking, the two secondary picking times of another ten days each, plus what rice and vegetables we grow and what A-ba and my brothers provide through hunting. Now we’ll have to take the leaves home, hope they stay fresh, and then tomorrow morning—early-early—climb back up here and sell them before rotating to Second Brother’s tea garden to do our work for the day.
A-ma sighs. “Another double day tomorrow.”
The sisters-in-law bite their lips. I’m not looking forward to walking here twice tomorrow either. But when my second and third brothers won’t meet their wives’ eyes, I realize even worse news is coming.
“No need,” A-ba reveals. “I sold the leaves at half price.”
That’s only two yuan per kilo. The sound that comes from A-ma is not so much a groan as a whimper. All that work at half price. The two sisters-in-law slump off to a water spout to refill our earthenware jugs. The men drop to their haunches. My sisters-in-law return and give the water to the men. After that, the two women fold themselves down next to A-ma, adjust their babies in their swaddling, and give over their breasts for nursing. This is our rest before the more than two-hour walk downhill to Spring Well.
As the others relax, I wander back across the courtyard to the boy. “Are you going to tell me why you’re hiding back here?” I ask as though no time has passed.
“I’m not hiding,” he answers, although surely he is. “I’m eating my pancake. Do you want a bite?”
More than anything.
I glance over my shoulder to A-ma and the others. I’m not sure what’s wrong with me, but whatever started with my lies at breakfast continues now. I step behind the wall of bags that smell of freshly harvested tea leaves. Once I’m back there, the boy doesn’t seem sure of what should happen next. He doesn’t break off a piece for me nor does he hold it out for me to take. But he offered me a bite, and I’m going to get it. I bend at the waist, sink my teeth into the softness of the pancake, and rip off a mouthful—like I’m a dog snatching a scrap from his master’s hand.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Li-yan,” I answer, my mouth happily full. My given name is used only at school and for ceremonial purposes. In my village, people call me Daughter-of-Sha-li (my a-ba’s daughter) or Daughter-of-So-sa (my a-ma’s daughter). In my family, I am Girl.
“I’m called San-pa,” he says. “I’m from Shelter Shadow Village. My father is Lo-san. My grandfather was Bah-lo. My great-grandfather was Za-bah . . .”
Every Akha boy is trained to Recite the Lineage by naming his male ancestors back fifty generations—with the last syllable of one generation becoming the first syllable of the next generation. I think that’s what’s going to happen, when a woman’s voice—angry—interrupts him. “Here you are, you little thief!”
I turn to see the old Dai woman who runs the pancake stand looming between us and the open courtyard. She grabs the cloth of my tunic. Then, with her other hand, she takes hold of San-pa’s ear. He yowls as she drags us from our lair.
“Sun and Moon, look! Thieves!” Her voice cuts through the clatter of the courtyard. “Where are the parents of these two?”
A-ma looks in our direction and cocks her head in disbelief. Until today, I’ve never been a troublemaker. I never cross my legs around adults, I accept my parents’ words as good medicine, and I always cover my mouth to hide my teeth when I smile or laugh. Maybe I colored my dream this morning, but I’m not a thief or a cheater in school. Unfortunately, the oily residue around my mouth shows that at the very least I ate some pancake, even if I didn’t steal it from the Dai woman’s cart.
A-ma and A-ba cross the courtyard. Seeing the confusion on their faces makes my cheeks burn red. I lower my eyes and focus on their callused feet as they talk to the vendor. Soon two other pairs of feet join us, taking spots on either side of San-pa: his parents.
“What is this all about?” A-ba’s voice is polite and even. He can be gruff at home, but he’s clearly trying to blow away the pancake seller’s anger with his polite Akha ways.
“I’ve had trouble with this one before.” The old woman gives San-pa’s ear a yank. “As a thief, wherever he goes, may he be eaten by a tiger. If he passes by water, may he slip into its depths. When he walks under a tree, may it fall on him.”
These are common, yet potent, curses, because they’re hexing him to suffer a terrible death, but the boy beside me doesn’t seem to care. He doesn’t even cover his mouth to hide his grin.
The Dai woman regards my mother with sympathy. “Now it seems he’s brought your daughter into his ring.”
“Is this so, Girl?” A-ma asks. “Why would you do such a thing?”
I raise my eyes. “I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.”
“Not wrong?” A-ma asks.
“He gave it to me. I didn’t know it was stolen—”
Others crowd around us to see what’s going on.
“Let’s not allow this little girl to be blamed,” the man I understand to be San-pa’s a-ba says. “You’ve been in trouble in this very place before, Boy. Tell everyone the truth.”
“I took it,” San-pa admits, but it doesn’t seem to cause him any pain. He’s so matter-of-fact it’s as though he’s talking about rainfall or how many eggs the chickens laid last night.
“He offered me a bite,” I chime in. “He wanted to share with me—”
But A-ma isn’t interested in my excuses. “Now the world is out of balance for both children,” she announces. “We follow Akha Law—”
“We adhere to Akha Law as well,” San-pa’s father states. “Every Akha on earth has a shared memory of what we can and cannot do—”
“Then we must perform cleansing ceremonies for these two children, our families, and our villages. The only question that remains is, will the ceremony be conducted with the children together or apart?” A-ma asks. A-ba is the head of our family, but A-ma, with her added status as midwife, conducts this negotiation. “The most propitious outcome would be if our two families could do it together.” To strangers like these, her voice must sound as smooth and warm as my a-ba’s during this confrontation—this unpleasantness can be wiped away, and we can all be friends—but I know her very well. What I hear is her disappointment in me and her concern for the situation. “May I ask on which day of the cycle your son was born?”
“San-pa was born on Tiger Day, the ninth day of the cycle,” his mother answers, trying to be helpful.
My family members shift their weight from foot to foot in response to this regrettable information. We Akha follow a twelve-day week, with each day named for a different animal. I was born on Pig Day. The world knows that tigers and pigs should never marry, be friends, or farm together, because tigers like to eat pigs.
A-ma reveals the bad news. “This one was born on Pig Day. Separate purification ceremonies will be best.” She courteously tips her head, causing the balls and coins on her headdress to jingle. Then she puts a hand on my shoulder. “Let us go home.”
“Wait!” It’s the pancake seller. “What about me? Who’s going to pay me?”
San-pa’s father reaches into an indigo satchel tied at his hip, but A-ba says, “A girl has only her reputation. As her father, I will pay the amount owed.” He pulls out a couple of coins from the paltry sum we earned today and drops them into the Dai woman’s hand.
I already felt bad. Now I feel awful. If Ci-teh had been here, I never would have gone behind that wall of tea, met San-pa, taken a bite of the pancake . . .
The Dai woman yanks San-pa’s ear one more time. “Let me see you going but never coming back.” It’s another familiar, but haunting, curse that again hints at a terrible death. Fortunately, she does not say the same words to me. San-pa’s parents begin to drag him away. He looks over his shoulder to give me one last grin. I can’t help it. I smile right back.
That last spark of connection sustains me all the way home. My family is clearly irritated with my actions, and they say nothing to me in a very loud way. We stop only once—to pick up the baskets we left on First Brother’s terraces. We arrive in Spring Well Village well past dark. The houses glow golden with open-hearth fires and oil lamps. When we step into our home, we’re all hungry, and the smell of the steamed rice First Sister-in-law has made is almost painful to inhale. But we still don’t get to eat. First Brother is sent outside to look for a chicken. Second Brother is given the job of pulling the ruma away from his evening pipe. Third Brother brushes a flat stone set into the hard-packed earth outside our door with the palm of his hand. A-ma sorts through her baskets, looking for herbs and roots, while First Sister-in-law stokes the fire. My young nieces and nephews gather around their a-mas’ legs, peeping at me, their eyes wide.
Second Brother returns with the ruma, who wears his ceremonial cloak—which is heavily decorated with feathers, bones, and the tails of small animals—and carries a staff made from a dried stalk of tule root. He is our intermediary between the spirit world—whether inside spirits like our ancestors or outside spirits who bring malaria, steal the breath from newborns, or devour the hearts of beloved grandfathers—and the world of human beings in Spring Well. Tonight he’s here for me.
My family gathers in the open area between the house and the newlywed huts, where my brothers sleep with their wives. First Brother holds the chicken by its legs. Its wings flap miserably, fruitlessly. The village elders—who lead us and care for us—step onto their verandas and descend the stairs. Soon other neighbors emerge from their homes and join us, because I’m not to be alone in my disgrace.
I see the blacksmith and his family, the best hunter and his family, Ci-teh and her parents, and Ci-teh’s brother and his wife—Ci-do and Deh-ja—who sleep in the newlywed hut outside his parents’ house. Ci-do has always been nice to me, and I like Deh-ja. The hair on Ci-do’s face and scalp has grown long and unruly, because men must not shave or cut their hair once their wives are five months into their pregnancies. Our entire village is holding its collective breath—as it does every time a woman is pregnant—until Deh-ja’s baby is born, when it can be determined whether it was a good birth, meaning a perfect baby boy or even a girl, and not a bad birth, marking the arrival of what we call a human reject.
The ruma’s eyes bore into mine. He starts to shake, and the little pieces on his headdress and clothes rattle with him. My teeth chatter, I shiver, and I want to pee.
“A-ma Mata was the mother of humans and spirits,” the ruma says in tones so quiet that we all must lean in to hear him. “A-ma means mother and Mata means together, and once upon a time man and spirits lived together in harmony. A-ma Mata had two breasts in front, where her human children could nurse. She had nine breasts on her back to nourish her spirit children. Humans always worked during the day, and spirits always worked at night. The water buffalo and the tiger, the chicken and the eagle, also lived together. But someone must always destroy paradise.” He points to me with his staff. “What was the result?”
“Humans and spirits, water buffalo and tigers, and chickens and eagles needed to be separated,” I recite nervously.
“Separated. Exactly,” he says. “Since the decision to divide the universe happened during the day, men were first to pick in which realm they wanted to live. They chose the earth with its trees, mountains, fruit, and game. Spirits were given the sky, leaving them angry forever after. To this moment, they have retaliated by causing problems for humankind.”
I’ve heard this story many times, but knowing that he’s telling it on my behalf makes my heart hurt.
“In the wet season,” he goes on, “spirits descend to earth with the rain, bringing with them disease and floods. In spring, as dry season begins, noise is made to encourage malevolent spirits to move on. But they don’t always leave. They’re especially active at night. That is their time, not ours.”
My family and our neighbors listen intently. Here and there, people click their tongues to show disapproval for what I’ve done. I don’t want to look at anyone too closely, because I don’t want to be forced to acknowledge the shame they feel for me. Nevertheless, somehow my eyes find Ci-teh. She looks at me in pity. Nothing will hide the dishonor searing my flesh.
“We worship many gods, but none is greater than A-poe-mi-yeh, whose name means ancestor of great power. He created the world and this soul before me.” The ruma takes a moment to make sure he has everyone’s attention. “We have many taboos. Men must not smoke nor women chew betel nut when they walk through the spirit gate. A pregnant woman, like Deh-ja, must not go visiting to another village or she might miscarry there. A woman must never step over her husband’s leg on his sleeping mat. We’re always careful, and we always try to propitiate our wrongs, but please, our Li-yan did not hope to offend.”
Is he saying nothing bad is going to happen to me?
Then he puts his forefinger under my chin and tilts my face up to him. What A-ma couldn’t see in me, he sees. I know he does. Everything. But what he says to the others is very different.
“She is just a hungry little girl,” he explains. “As the sun always comes up, as the earth is forever under our feet, as the rivers flow down the mountains and the trees grow into the sky, let us together put Li-yan back on the proper Akha path.”
He stamps his staff on the ground three times. He sprinkles water over me and pats my head. He has shown me such mercy and forgiveness that I decide I’ll never be afraid of him again. But when he turns away to perform the rite that will finish my purification, my stomach once again sinks. He takes the chicken from First Brother’s fingers, presses its body to the stone that Third Brother cleaned earlier, and then cuts off its head. My family has so few chickens, which means very few eggs. Now I’m the cause of the loss of food in my family. My sisters-in-law glare at me. But then . . .
A-ma takes the chicken from the ruma and swiftly plucks the feathers from the twitching carcass. Then whack, whack, whack. The chicken pieces are thrown into the pot that dangles over the fire First Sister-in-law has been tending.
Twenty minutes later, A-ma ladles the soup into bowls. The men gather on one side of our family home; the women gather on the other side. We sit on our haunches to receive our bowls. The sounds of greedy slurping, sucking, and chewing are among the happiest I’ve heard in my life, yet frogs, mosquitoes, and night-calling birds alert me to how many sleep hours we’ve already missed. As I gnaw gristle from a bone, little sparks of ideas fly through my head. In my dream last night, the bad omen of seeing a dog on the roof told me I was going to get into trouble. And I did. But right now, in this second, each person in my family, as well as the ruma, has a piece of chicken to eat and rich broth to drink. That’s just like in my dream too. My fake dream . . . The one I lied about . . . But in that dream we each had a whole chicken. Still . . .
No coincidence, no story.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In this stirring coming-of-age novel, a young Chinese woman finds purpose, passion, and the key to a new life in the tea-growing traditions of her ancestors.
High in the Yunnan mountains, Li-yan and her family, members of the Akha ethnic minority, live according to the precise rituals of their people. Then one day, the market economy, in the form of a businessman seeking a rare tea, arrives at their remote village and changes the community forever. As Li-yan’s family adapts to the incursion of the outside world, she falls in love with a boy who her mother believes is an inauspicious match. When she bears his child, instead of hewing to the tradition that would have her kill the little girl, she leaves her baby, wrapped in a blanket with a special tea cake inside, on the steps of a nearby orphanage. Through hard work, education, and an appreciation for Pu’er, her people’s special tea, Li-yan eventually makes a life for herself in the wide world outside her village. Yet, even as she finds a business and a husband that she loves, she never stops thinking about her lost child.
A story of family, identity, and motherhood, Lisa See’s The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is a moving journey through a little-known world.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the significance of the epigraph. The Book of Songs is the oldest extant collection of Chinese poetry, written between the seventh and eleventh centuries B.C. What kind of resonance does it have today?
2. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane begins with the Akha aphorism, “No coincidence, no story.” What are the major coincidences in the story? Are they believable? How important are they in influencing your reaction to the novel as a whole?
3. Perhaps the most shocking moment in the novel comes with the birth of the twins and what happens to them. A-ma explains that “only animals, demons, and spirits give birth to litters. If a sow gives birth to one piglet, then both must be killed at once. If a dog gives birth to one puppy, then they too must be killed immediately” (pages 27–28). The traditions surrounding twins are very harsh, to say the least, but were you able to understand what happens to them within the context of Akha culture? How does this moment change Li-yan’s view of Akha Law, and what are the consequences? Are there any aspects of the Akha culture that you admire?
4. What is Li-yan’s first reaction when she sees her land? Why does A-ma believe the tea garden is so important? Why does A-ma believe that the trees are sacred? What is the significance of the mother tree?
5. San-pa and Li-yan’s relationship ends tragically and causes them both great pain. Is what happens between them fate, or is it bad luck? In your opinion, does their community’s negativity about their union shape the outcome of their marriage? Does his death change your feelings about him?
6. Can the experience Li-yan’s village has with selling Pu’er be thought of as a microcosm for globalization? Why or why not? Are all the changes to the village positive? Given all we hear about China being a global economic superpower, were you surprised that the novel starts in 1988?
7. As a midwife, A-ma occupies a position of relative power on the mountain, although as “first among women” (page 4), she still comes after every man. Can such a traditional role for women be truly empowering? In the context of their society, what are the limits and expanse of A-ma’s power?
8. This novel uses a number of devices to tell Haley’s story, including letters, a transcript of a therapy session, and homework assignments. It isn’t until the final chapter, however, that you hear Haley in her own pure voice and see the world entirely from her point of view. Did this style of storytelling enrich your experience of the narrative? Did it make you more curious about Haley?
9. In the chapter transcribing a group therapy session for Chinese American adoptees that Haley attends, many of the patients have mixed feelings about their adoptive and birth parents. Were you surprised by their anger? Did reading this novel affect your feelings about transnational adoption?
10. The three most significant mother-daughter relationships in the novel are those between A-ma and Li-yan, Constance and Haley, and Li-yan and Haley. The connection between Li-yan and Haley, although arguably the emotional center of the novel, exists despite the absence of a relationship: though the two women think a great deal about each other, they do not meet until the very end of the story. How does this relationship in absence compare to the real-life relationships between A-ma and Li-yan and Constance and Haley?
11. What are the formal and informal ways in which Li-yan is educated? How are they different from the ways other members of her family were educated? What role does Teacher Zhang play in Li-yan’s life and how does it change over the years? How important is education in Haley’s life?
12. Li-yan is much older and more experienced when she meets Jin than she was when she fell in love with San-pa. How are the two men different? What do you think Li-yan learns from her first marriage?
13. Almost everyone in the novel has a secret: Li-yan, A-ma, San-pa, Mr. Huang, Deh-ja, Ci-teh, Teacher Zhang, Mrs. Chang, and Jin. How do those secrets impact each character? How are those secrets revealed and what are the results, particularly for Li-yan and Ci-teh’s relationship? The only person who doesn’t have a secret of major significance is Haley. What does that say about her?
14. When Li-yan returns to her village to confront Ci-teh, the ruma tells the women that Li-yan is still Akha even though she has a new home and lifestyle. How do questions of identity, especially as they relate to Li-yan’s status as an ethnic minority, play into the events of the novel? How does Li-yan’s identity shift? Do her nicknames, especially her American nickname, inform this shift?
15. By the time Li-yan and Haley meet, each has been searching for the other for many years. However, Haley already has a family and an adoptive mother. Is there room for Haley to have two mothers? How do you think Li-yan and Haley will relate to each other—as mother and child, or will their roles be something slightly different? What do you suppose Haley and Li-yan will talk about first?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Sample Pu’er as a group. How does it compare to your experience of other kinds of tea?
2. If you have access to one, visit your local Chinese history or art museum.
3. Consider reading Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which follows a lifelong friendship between two women in nineteenth-century China.
4. To learn more about tea, see videos about the Akha, look at Lisa’s photos from her trip to Yunnan, or learn how to have your own tea-tasting book club, please visit Lisa’s website at www.LisaSee.com.