Books Reviews

‘Tea Girl’ opens window to a fascinating world in China

From the author Lisa See's official website.

Rome, ITALY – “This should be good” I mumbled to myself sarcastically “I’ve never even hear of the author.” But, still, I was adamant on reading it all. Boy, am I glad I did. 

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, is about a minority tribe in China called the Akha. They live on a mountain called Yunnan, isolated from society. So, they created one of their own, where only three things are important to them. The first two are traditions and spirits. They believe every animate and inanimate object has a spirit, and that not all are good. To purify oneself from the bad spirits, one must perform a ritual. Otherwise, one is cursed for life and there is no way out of it.

The third thing they adore (and what, still to this day, they are known for) is their tea, more specifically, their Pu’er, the rarest of Chinese teas. They wake up before dawn, hike up a mountain and start picking tea leaves until their arms ache. 

Map of Yunnan, China. (Google Maps)

Li-yan, the main character, is a tribe member. At the beginning of the story, she is just a little girl. Her life is engrained in tradition and tea-picking and yet, she feels different.

Like many Akhas, she wonders what is beyond Yunnan mountain. Unlike many Akhas, she does everything she can to reach that other side. She is the first Akha woman to attain a higher education, going against her parents’ wishes – “Who wants a wife who is smarter than her own husband?” – with the intention of persuing her studies elsewhere.

All of that changes one day when she discovers she is pregnant. In Akha culture, girls are cursed and boys aren’t. Li-yan gives birth to a girl. Like many girls her age, she is forced to abandon her nameless baby and then flee from her home. 

So far, the story has been about Li-yan. Now, it is also about her daughter, too. She gets adopted by a couple in Pasadena, who name her Haley. With every chapter, each story develops more and more. Both of these characters live drastically different lives. Even though they barely know each other, they consume each other’s thoughts. 

I found this book to be extremely moving and inspiring. With every hardship in the book, I was growing more in awe of the strength of each character.

Unlike many other books, I found that I compared their lives to mine. Somehow, every difficulty in my life seemed relatively insignificant. I think that is partly because the author backs up her fiction with historical truth, so, the fact that this story could have really happened made it all that more powerful. 

After having read this book, I was up for a challenge: I picked nonreader friend of mine, adamant on making her like the book the way I did. It took a lot of persuading and encouragement.

Two weeks later, I get a text from her: “We have to meet up.”

I hoped it wasn’t bad news. It wasn’t. She just couldn’t put it down.

Maria Rebecchini is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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