Author and Illustrator: Lisa See
“In their remote mountain village, Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. For the Akha people, ensconced in ritual and routine, life goes on as it has for generations—until a stranger appears at the village gate in a jeep, the first automobile any of the villagers has ever seen.
The stranger’s arrival marks the first entrance of the modern world in the lives of the Akha people. Slowly, Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, begins to reject the customs that shaped her early life. When she has a baby out of wedlock—conceived with a man her parents consider a poor choice—she rejects the tradition that would compel her to give the child over to be killed, and instead leaves her, wrapped in a blanket with a tea cake tucked in its folds, near an orphanage in a nearby city.
As Li-yan comes into herself, leaving her insular village for an education, a business, and city life, her daughter, Haley, is raised in California by loving adoptive parents. Despite her privileged childhood, Haley wonders about her origins. Across the ocean Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. Over the course of years, each searches for meaning in the study of Pu’er, the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for centuries.
A powerful story about circumstances, culture, and distance, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane paints an unforgettable portrait of a little known region and its people and celebrates the bond of family.” — Goodreads Summary
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane begins in the mountains of Yunnan province in the late 1980s and follows a tea farming family with a young daughter named Li-Yan. This family belongs to one of China’s 55 minority groups, the Akha people, which sheds light on a culture lesser known than the Han majority of China. See’s vivid depictions of the landscape easily paints a picture for readers of the terraced patties, ancient spirit gate, and remote village of the Akha people.
A passage that stood out to me took place shortly after the delivery of the twins, when Li-Yan’s mother brings her to a mysterious place, high in the mountains. See writes, “Everthing turns ghostly gray. The path narrows and then narrows some more. We’ve thoroughly entered the terrain of the spirits. I’m glad I’m with A-ma, because she’ll always protect me and make sure I find my way home. I can’t bear to think about what might happen if we were to get separated. With that, a frightening thought enters my mind (p. 41).” These thoughts in young Li-Yan’s mind foreshadow the future separation between her and her daughter and allow readers to begin imagining this kind of trauma. This passage is also significant because A-ma is the one who gives Yan-Yeh, Li-Yan’s child, a distinct tea cake which allows Yan-Yeh to eventually find home.
The place A-ma takes Li-Yan to is a secret tea tree grove. A-ma says, “‘This place is for the women in our bloodline alone. You to me to my mother to . . . ‘ Her voice trails off. She glides her hand down the mother tree’s bumpy trunk (p. 47).” The introduction to this land right after the delivery of the twins foreshadows the delivery of Li-Yan’s baby in these mountains, and A-ma’s explanation of this place being for the women of the family hints to the idea that this land will bring together mother and daughter and missing generations.
When Li-Yan is a teenager, she falls in love and becomes pregnant while unmarried. The baby’s father does not return to the village before Li-Yan’s pregnancy comes to full term, and she is forced to give birth in secrecy. Li-Yan and A-ma go to the secret land in the mountains to deliver the baby, which according to Akha law must be killed.
Li-Yan collapses beneath the mother tree and symbolically gives birth under the protection of the mother-tree, the oldest in the grove. When the baby comes into the world, Li-Yan decides that she can’t bear to kill the child and instead delivers her to the orphanage in the closest city. Li-Yan’s family has a tradition of burying each family member’s placenta under an ancestor shrine, but they cannot bring the placenta of Li-Yan’s baby home. Instead A-ma buries it under the mother tree, already symbolizing Yan-Yeh (Haley)’s distance from the rest of the family.
Through Li-Yan’s character, Lisa See complicates birth mothers and paints an image of a woman who is neither a villainous, irresponsible mother nor a brave, selfless woman who “chose a better life for her baby.” Li-Yan is a victim of time, circumstance, and culture. Li-Yan gives emotion and depth to birth mothers who are so often forgotten in adoption literature.
As she looks down to her new born baby, Li-Yan thinks to herself, “How can this bundle of flesh be so precious to me already (p. 98)?” In the time they have together before Li-Yan must take her baby to the orphanage, she says, “I tell her everything I can about Akha Law, about her a-ma and a-ba, about the lineage, and what it will mean to become a woman one day. How I will always love her. How I will think of her every breathing minute of my life. I whisper endearments into her face, and she looks up at me in that penetrating way of hers. Her tiny hand grips my forefinger, searing my heart and scarring it forever (p. 105).”
After watching her baby find safety at the Menghai Social Welfare Institute, Li-Yan finds her way back to her village. She eventually marries Yan-Yeh’s father and says, “I’m happy, but a part of me — that hard stone I carry within me at all times — reminds me of our daughter. Why couldn’t things have happened differently?” (p. 117) Readers watch Li-Yan’s life journey as she travels to Thailand and back to China again but is consistently reminded of the grief of her daughter in America. Li-Yan cries, “She’s so far away now, it’s as if she’s dead. That knowledge — sharp as a knife — twists in my heart, doubling, tripling, the pain I had when I abandoned her.” (p. 121)
Li-Yan finds people to confide in throughout her life who are “united by sorrow (p. 136).” She describes her grief as a “huge hole. Everything flows around that hole.” She forces herself to move forward but can never move on (p. 190). Readers witness Li-Yan’s continuous longing for her daughter when she says, “I secretly hope that one day a tourist family will arrive with an Akha child in the wife’s arms. Yan-yeh would be almost a year old now (p. 135).” Later, when Li-Yan visits California, where she knows her daughter now lives, she sees an older white couple with a little Asian girl between them and wonders if it could be her Yan-Yeh (p. 240). These were really relatable passages, because I often wondered things like this when I lived in China or would try to find similarities in the features of passersby. When Li-Yan visits the orphanage years after her daughter’s adoption, she is shown a folder which “contains a photograph – showing an infant a few days old with her head wrapped in an indigo cap decorated with silver charms – a footprint in red ink, and a single sheet of paper, which outlines the basics of Yan-yeh’s arrival at the institute (p. 266).” Li-Yan solemnly reflects that these few items are the only tangible proof of her daughter’s existence. I have often thought that I, myself, am the only tangible proof of my birth parents existence. I had never imagined birth mothers hoping for adoptive family tourists, looking for clues in little children, or also lacking tangible reminders of their children adopted overseas. These small examples of a birth mother’s grief have given me new ways to relate to my birth mother, an intimate stranger.
Lastly, I appreciate the way Lisa See ties Li-Yan and Yan-Yeh’s stories together through a common loss of family, culture, and home — both impacted by Westernization. When Li-Yan returns from Thailand without her late husband, her family knows she cannot remain with them, so they urge her to go to school in the city. The city challenges Li-Yan’s knowledge of the world and tradition. She confronts modernity and the constant feeling that she doesn’t belong because she is too “tu” (earthy). Li-Yan reflects, “I feel the blessings of my culture feeding me strength. I gave birth to a daughter and lost her. I married a man I loved and lost him — in so many ways. I may be separated from my family, my village, and my mountain, but in my heart I’m connected to them more than ever (p. 154).” Li-Yan’s inability to return home mirrors Haley’s (Yan-Yeh) inability to find home. Li-Yan and Haley’s shared love of tea is what brings both of them back to the mountain and to each other. The ending of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane provides the kind of closure that allows the reader to put down the book with a warm feeling of comfort.
Stylistically, it bothers me that Lisa See turned Li-Yan’s interesting narrative of becoming an educated, self-made businesswoman while carrying the grief and longing for her child into a Cinderella or Pride and Prejudice-esque story, when she marries her second husband, an extremely wealthy businessman who can buy mansions around the world without blinking an eye. While it changes Li-Yan’s humble, simple life into a more exciting, international adventure, I feel that this turn in the storyline dishonors real life birthmothers in China, who will not have their lives altered in these ways.
For a book titled, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, very little of the book is about the tea girl of Hummingbird Lane. The title refers to the street that Haley (Yan-Yeh), the adoptee, grew up on in the United States; however, this book is really Li-Yan’s story as she journeys to find romance, grieve the loss of multiple family members, and become a successful business woman. There is nothing wrong with this being a birth mother story, but I wish the title of the book would have better illustrated the main subject.
Because of the misleading title, I was disappointed to read more than 250 pages without really knowing anything about Li-Yan’s daughter who was adopted to the U.S. Haley’s story is told through a selection of curated documents interspersed throughout Li-Yan’s narrative until the very last chapter, which is told from Haley’s perspective. On Lisa See’s website she provides a list of book club discussion questions. She asks, “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?” Readers first learn of Haley through a letter from an adoption agency, a chummy note between two doctors, emails from Haley’s adoptive mother to her grandmother, a therapist’s session notes, and school assignments. While this is an interesting way to introduce us to a character, it also reflects a pervasive problem in the adoption community of adoptees’ stories being told by others and not through their own words/perspectives. Even the school assignments, supposedly written by Haley, were selected by someone else and don’t give the reader the same type of emotional depth, attention, or connection to her as would possible if she had the power to tell her story. If the author had been an adoptee who knew of this issue within the adoptee community, I doubt that See would have chosen this method of writing about Haley and perpetuated this power dynamic for adoptees.
Some of the adoptee anecdotes are realistic — like Haley feeling that she couldn’t talk about her adoption to protect her mother’s feelings, confusion over how to complete family tree assignments for school, trying to make immigration and American history fit into the adoptee family context, and fear that her adoptive parents might send her back to China — but the few passages that discussed Haley for the most part left me underwhelmed or shaking my head.
Haley’s parents, Constance and Dan, are depicted as kind, intelligent, and loving parents, but what stands out to me is the ways in which they center their feelings over Haley’s. This pattern emerges even before Haley is in their arms. A note from a doctor suggests that the “parents chose adoption from China to minimize the risk of birth parents showing up and asking for their daughter back (p. 127).” This is a somewhat common reason some people favor international adoption to domestic but prioritizes parental desires over what would be best for adoptees.
A series of emails from Constance to her mother also offer insight into the type of adoptive parents Haley has received. Her mother employs racial stereotypes when she claims that she thought Haley was advanced, but “she wasn’t nearly as prepared as the other Chinese kids (p. 160)” and gloats that after spending weekends and vacations working together, she is now the best in her grade at math. In these emails, Constance also details a conversation where Haley refers to her first mother as her mother, and Constance cries, “My mother? I’m her mother. Oh, Mom, it hurt so much (p. 162).” Adoptive parents need not be threatened by the fact that adoptees have two sets of parents, and both sets can be real. This, of course, would be hard for Constance to grapple with since she specifically didn’t want birth mother involvement. Constance also centers her feelings of inadequacy when Haley writes a school project about immigration and declares herself her family’s first immigrant. Constance feels that this assertion means that Haley doesn’t see herself as a part of the family and creates such a big scene about this that Haley secretly “never forgot the repercussions of the second-grade episode. She didn’t want to hurt her parents again (p. 304),” so she learns not to talk about these topics. I remember having a similar immigration epiphany when I was in elementary school, and it had nothing to do with not belonging in my adoptive family, but rather how history is taught in this country.
Haley’s parents also repeatedly tell her “that parents here and the baby girls they adopt have happy endings and the holes in all their hearts are filled with love.” Haley continues to question, “But what happens to the birth parents? I think about that when I can’t sleep. Were my birth parents left with holes in their hearts or did they just forget about me (p. 278)?” As readers learn from following Li-Yan’s life and efforts to find her daughter, the hole in Li-Yan’s heart never closed. But the notion that the holes in the adoptive parents’ and adoptees’ hearts close and “have happy endings” is very simplistic. Adoption begins with significant loss, and those wounds don’t heal even with an infinite amount of love. If Haley’s parents impress upon her that the hole in her heart should be closed, that is the message she’ll try to convey to her parents, closing off difficult conversations of ongoing loss. Readers can see that Haley’s hole in her heart didn’t close by her fascination with tea and hopefulness in root searching.
The therapy session transcript is the first time that readers can truly get a sense of who Haley is and her thought process (still told through the interpretation of someone else), but the therapy scene was beyond cringeworthy to read. See makes several errors on these pages. First, the therapist notes say that “emphasis was added to show moods and affect of participants.” Therapist notes should be as objective as possible and not made more flamboyant to add a dramatic flair. The therapist begins the session by telling the Chinese adoptees, ranging from 12 to 17 years of age, that some he had known for years while others, like Haley, for just a short amount of time. This information is confidential and would not have been revealed in a session. The age spread, too, is something I find problematic about the session. Twelve-year-olds and seventeen-year-olds are in very different places developmentally and have different concerns. Simply because these girls were all adopted doesn’t mean that they would be working on the same adoption-related issues. A child or adolescent psychologist would have known this and not clumped these girls together in a session. The older teens address the younger ones with a lot of hostility in the beginning and are quite lippy to Dr. Rosen, too. This also is inaccurate of the early stages of a therapy group. Group formation typically begins with a forming stage, where participants are cordial and getting a feel for one another. The direct challenges exhibited in the therapy transcript don’t typically occur until the second stage of groups – storming. Personally, from my work as a group facilitator of two different teen adoptee groups, the vocalness of these girls seems unrealistic, especially in a therapy session, where their parents might be forcing their participation. Lastly, Dr. Rosen summarizes too much at the end, telling the girls what he thinks rather than letting them do the self-reflection. He doesn’t provide the girls with any homework or items to think about before the next session. If I was paying $100+ per session, Dr. Rosen certainly would not have my endorsement.
More than just the structure of the therapy session, the content is wildly off. Some adoptive mothers in a book club discussion I participated in recently thought that the girls came off as jaded. I didn’t read the characters that way. My issue with this scene was that the topics discussed don’t typically come to mind until college or post-college age for many adoptees. The girls in the therapy session discuss feeling objectified by their parents (Lisa See objectifies adoptees by calling adoptees “gifts” in an interview), racial dynamics of problematic family members, privilege, their desire to have biological children, who will be their only biological connection in the world, as well as social pressures and other fears. I’m glad that Lisa See interviewed some Chinese adoptees (including one of my good friends from graduate school) in the writing of this book to learn about common themes for adoptees, and I understand why, for liability reasons, she didn’t interview children. However, the strange mishmash of pre-teen lingo combined with more sophisticated topics of young adults caused a lot of cognitive dissonance for me in reading this scene. This is just one of the dangers of writers telling the stories of an identity they don’t truly understand themselves. Obvious areas of misunderstanding like this made Haley’s parts difficult for me to be excited about reading.
At the end of the therapy session, Dr. Rosen asks the girls, “Does the phrase grateful-but-angry have resonance for anyone? You can be grateful you have your mom and dad, because they love you and they’ve given you good lives with all kinds of privilege. . . But, often, adoption is about loss: loss of your original family, loss of culture and nationality, and of course, loss of a way of life that might have been. This is where the angry part comes in. Just today you’ve shared lots of variations on anger and why you might be angry. My profession narrows it down to this: anger that your birth parents abandoned you. So the label is grateful-but-angry, but in our private sessions you’ve heard me talk about anger in a different way. Haley, do you remember what I said (p. 285)?” Dr. Rosen has Haley go on to explain that anger is often a cover for sadness, “really bad sadness.” These concluding remarks bother me for a number of reasons. I feel that Dr. Rosen is explaining far too much to the girls and putting an emotion (anger) on them. Dr. Rosen also should have never called on Haley to elaborate on something from their private sessions. These conversations should be confidential and for Haley to decide if she wants to share. Additionally, Dr. Rosen’s suggesting that the adoptees’ anger is truly sadness is unhelpful when there is so much to be justifiably angry about with adoption. While there is certainly sadness that accompanies adoption, these girls are perfectly entitled to feel anger toward their racist relatives, for a country that made this family planning policy, and for a number of the issues discussed. Dr. Rosen’s use of this term grateful-but-angry makes me feel like Lisa See learned in her interviews that grateful and angry are important words to the adoptee community but didn’t fully understand their meaning, the burden of gratitude, or how they are used as labels to pit adoptees against each other. (I wrote about “angry adoptees” here and gratitude here.)
In the video interview below, it is clear that Dr. Rosen’s beliefs are actually a reflection of Lisa See’s. After interviewing many Chinese adoptees, she says this “grateful-but-angry” theme emerged, which she personally interprets to be sadness. See is a fiction writer, not a qualitative researcher or a licensed psychologist like “Dr. Rosen,” and in my opinion does not have the ability to assign new meaning to the feelings adoptees identified. In the clip below, she addresses adoptees directly and says this sadness comes from the idea that “for your parents’ one child, they didn’t want you.” She continues, “To your parents here, you are the most precious person, but to your birth parents, you were the least precious.” These hurtful words are disproven by her own character, Li Yan, who spends her whole life thinking about and trying to find her daughter. In reality, they are refuted by countless narratives of birth parents who were coerced into giving up children, stories of extended family members as the relinquishers, and by China’s history and culture where families felt they needed to have a son and “wants” did not come into the equation. That Lisa See could make these statements proves she does not have enough adoption knowledge to write on this topic.
The next time readers hear Haley’s voice is through an AP English assignment in high school. The students are told to write a short story that could be used as a college admission essay. I found Haley’s essay to be extremely out of character from the thoughtful and insightful pre-teen in the therapy session. With a total lack of empathy, Haley writes, “Her English was pretty pathetic (p. 306),” when describing a Chinese woman in her story. In other parts, she uses colloquialisms like the word “bazillion,” incomplete sentences, and nonsensical metaphors written in second person perspective (p. 306). I understand that using a drastically different voice is supposed to create a stark contrast between narrators, but the writing style change was heavy-handed for that goal. Haley wrote at an unrealistically bad quality for a 17 or 18-year-old AP English student and someone who readers are supposed to believe is an advanced researcher getting offers from competitive graduate programs around the country just a few years later.
While the writing style of this section was annoying to say the least, the story itself was actually poignant. Haley writes about the experience of going on a homeland tour of China with her parents and initiating a search for her birth parents. She describes the comfort of walking into a sea of Chinese faces. The line, “Let’s put up a flyer . . . like for a lost dog (p. 310)” was unnecessary. In Haley’s story, her mother describes her efforts to learn about Chinese culture before her arrival and the early moments after her adoption. The mother in the story says, “Not a day has gone by when I haven’t wondered if I hurt you more than helped you by wresting you away from your homeland and your culture. Even when you were a baby, I wondered when you would start to resent me for that. Maybe even hate me.” But the critical reflection in that statement is erased when she continues, “From the first moment I saw you all the way to today and for as long as I live, I know that you are the daughter who was meant for me (p. 315).” International adoption is an extremely unnatural practice and is not “meant to be.” The story of searching ends in disappointment and with love and is clearly a pouring out of intimate thoughts and conversations Haley has had with her family. When grading, her teacher writes, “you completely ignored my admonition not to write about the immigrant experience (p. 315).” I don’t actually believe that a teacher would write these words after reading such a personal essay from a student just to prove a point, and it shouldn’t be the teacher’s place to tell students what to write. They have to tell the story that’s theirs to tell.
In college, Haley runs into Sean, a tea expert, at a conference who offers to take her to China with him on a tea-tasting tour that will assist her with her honors thesis research. She eagerly agrees despite warnings from her academic advisor and her parents’ question, “Are you really going to China was some Chinese guy we’ve never met (p. 345)?” While all ends well for Haley on this trip, it could have just as easily not. Fiction writing allows for more flexibility, but I think most would consider it an extremely poor decision for a 20-year-old woman to go to a foreign country with a near stranger. Even though Haley is emotionally motivated, this rash decision also seems out of character for her, and her parents seem surprisingly accepting of it.
Haley and Sean have many discussions during their trip across China. In one conversation she explains that she feels “one hundred percent American and one hundred percent Chinese. . . Im not half and half. I’m fully both. I’ll forever wear my Chinese-ness on my face, but these days when I look in the mirror I don’t see how mismatched I am in my birth family [confident this is a typo meant to be adoptive family] or that I don’t feel Chinese enough. I just see me (p. 358).” In response, Sean tells her, “You’re a new kind of global citizen.” He says, “you can be a bridge between two cultures and two countries.” This is an overly ideal sentiment. When I was younger, adults would tell me this, and I remember being confused because rather than having both cultures open to me, it felt like I wasn’t fully in either. Adoptees, for the most part, do not have the language skills or cultural immersion in their original culture to truly fit in or act as a bridge.
Sean concludes this conversation with the bold statement, “The power of international Chinese adoptees all around the world could be a force to be reckoned with!” I truly believe this, and this is why, to an extent, I do the work that I do. If Lisa See believes this, I think she should have used her privilege and her well-established platform to mentor a young adult Chinese adoptee in writing this story or co-authoring it with them and allowed adoptees to be a real part of the story, not just a brief line in the acknowledgements.
When describing the circumstances for Chinese adoptions, See makes a factually incorrect statement. The character Haley writes, “Most babies abandoned in China were left with a special gift from their birth mothers (p. 304).” This is untrue, and while it is a small piece of the book, it caught my attention as an adoptee. I worry that asserting something like this as if it is a fact could leave young adoptee readers, who are actually in the majority and weren’t left a note or unique item, feeling confused or a compounded sense of unworthiness.
My last criticism is not specific to this book, rather to this author. Lisa See’s great-great-grandfather came to the U.S. from China to work on the transcontinental railroad in the late 1800s. This great-great-grandfather makes her just 6% Chinese, yet Lisa See has made her entire career out of being a Chinese woman. While I am not in the business of telling someone who is or is not Chinese, I do know that there is something uncomfortable that doesn’t sit quite right about it. The content of all of See’s books are Chinese women (with the exception of her latest book about Korean women), and she proudly claims she is influenced by Chinese culture in how she decorates her house, plants her garden, chooses her meals, and uses medicine. If See did not have that one great-great-grandfather, this would undoubtedly be fetishism. Chinese people call white folks who are obsessed with Chinese culture 鸡蛋人 “jidan ren” or an “egg person” (white on the outside, yellow on the inside) — kind of the opposite of the proverbial “twinkie” for Asians.
See’s hyper-focus on her small percentage of Chinese ancestry also reflects the perceived blankness of whiteness in this country. Why isn’t she claiming any of the other parts of her heritage? She gets to selectively choose when she wants to be Asian — she receives all of the benefits of Chinese culture, and in my opinion exploits Chinese culture through her books and theme-night suggestions for her book clubs, without paying the full price of being an Asian woman and can easily escape any Asian identification when convenient (i.e. COVID-19 racism). On her website, she says, “when I go to other Chinese communities or to China, people see me as an outsider. When I go into the larger white community here in the U.S., people look at me and talk to me as though I belong, but inside I often feel very foreign. I don’t like their bigotry and racism.” See doesn’t have to claim Chineseness to condemn racism and bigotry. White people can be white and simultaneously not like white racism and bigotry. See focuses solely on her Chineseness, but I would be interested in knowing if See acknowledges her white privilege and proximity to whiteness. Moreoever, I wonder, what does it mean for one of the most popular Chinese American writers who is featured in the Museum of Chinese Americans to be an extremely white-passing person with strawberry blonde hair and freckles when there are so many talented Asian authors who truly experience racism and the things she writes about and cannot achieve such an acclaimed status?
Read this book if you want to think of birth mothers reimagined, strong female characters, a fantastical rags to riches “Cinderella” story, or a beautiful portrayal of scenery and a lesser known culture, not if you are an adoptee looking to identify with Haley, the Chinese adoptee character in the story. While Lisa See tried to do her research, her identity as a non-adopted person shows clearly in the adoptee parts of this book. The use of common adoption tropes and clunky, developmentally-off dialogue made the adoptee passages difficult for me to read or even get excited about until the last chapter. I personally believe the book would have benefited from being completely Li-Yan’s story.
For readers outside of the adoption community, this book might shed light on some of the trauma and grief faced by birth mothers and (somewhat less) adoptees and plant a seed that might make people more receptive to a less rose-tinted perspective on adoption. For those in the adoption community, I would suggest that young adult adoptees and adoptive parents who want to read this book do so with cautious desire. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane certainly paints birth mothers in a different light and could open dialogue about the reader’s birth parents. However, this book must be treated as a work of fiction and discussed with a critical eye. If you are planning to host an adoption themed book club, I urge you to read literature written by adoptees foremost.
*Adoptee book club list soon to come!