Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Embarking on our choral tour in China, I packed Lisa See's tea book: perfect timing to read it. While the Dragon Well Tea Plantation we visited is in Hangzhou, this story is set in Yunnan Province, close to the borders on Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. The tea-growing Akha people who live in the mountains comprise one of China's fifty-five ethnic minorities. Geographically, Yunnan is a Global Biodiversity Hotspot. With only 4% of the nation's land mass, is "home to more than half its mammal and bird species, as well as twenty-five...ethnic minorities" along the Tea Horse Road.

The story opens in a remote Akha village in Yunnan, where rigid social rules, superstition and unbridled passions lead to tragedy. The unfolding tale reveals enormous changes faced by tea growers in recent decades. The action happens in Yunnan, Thailand, California and Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, as we travelled, our Chinese guides told us a bit about China's ethnic minorities. One detail that fascinated me was the fact that unlike the majority Han people, minorities have never had the one-child policy applied to them. On the tour, I was also learning about various Chinese government campaigns -- for instance, against smoking. In the book, I was astonished to read about the campaign "Fifty-five Minorities; One Dream." Until recently, the Akha feared the birth of twins. Yet before the Beijing Olympics, the central government sought out fifty-five sets of twins, one from each minority, and created a spectacle to make the nation proud.

In the rare moments I was able to snatch for reading my novel, I was learning more about the Akha. A tribe with animistic beliefs, they believe that "Everything on earth has a soul, even a single rice kernel." Their rigid adherence to rituals create intense conflict within our protagonist, as well as among villagers, and between her and the many non-Akha she meets along the way. Another fascinating aspect of the book is the wealth of information on tea culture. See's many pages of acknowledgements thank an impressive array of scholars on both these topics. I was astonished to learn that "the Pu'er Tea College...has a GPS system that can locate every tea tree over a thousand years old on Yunnan's twenty-six tea mountains."

Following from the first story line, a related plot moves forward in California. An adopted Chinese daughter grows up enjoying the love and privileged provided by her white parents. Yet she can't get over wondering about her real parents back in China. And she's not alone. Many other Chinese adoptees have arrived in the US; they and their adopting families share similar challenges. The young people feel the combined need and the fear of discovering who they "really" are, and why their birth parents gave them up. Were they among the estimated 30,000 to 60,000 Chinese children illegally trafficked and exported? Can organizations like Roots and Shoots Heritage tours help them come to terms with their dual cultural identities?

On the Chinese side, the book alludes to some of the side effects of the One-child policy that was in effect for many years and prevented an estimated 400,000,000 births. At one point in the story, "there are 30 million more young males seeking mates...than there are prospective brides." In an echo of this idea, our Beijing guide Amy tells us, only half-jokingly, that girls now get to pick and choose husbands with education, money, homes and cars. Speaking of cars: if you live in Beijing, you have to enter a lottery for the privilege of buying one. It used to be held every two months, but now will take place only once a year. This is one of the many initiatives to control the number of vehicles on Chinese roads, and thus alleviate the congestion and air pollution they create.

Before travelling to China, I got an app called WeChat to keep in touch with family, since I knew a lot of the apps we use here would be inaccessible there. Chinese use WeChat for communication, and for all kinds of shopping. You can tap and ride a shared bicycle (and they're everywhere), or buy an ice cream in the Dairy Queen at Shanghai Market. Incidentally, even though I saw several Starbucks outlets in China, I was astonished to learn from Lisa See's book that coffee is now being grown in Yunnan Province. She also mentions the ubiquity of WeChat app, and describes a tasty and simple dish I enjoyed a couple of times while I was there: scrambled eggs with tomatoes.

See's tale of tea and trouble is dramatic, indeed quite harrowing in places, but not ultimately tragic. After Li-yan's  many adventures and misadventures, our Akha protagonist is able to express the universal message "Suffering has brought clarity into my life."

In China, John Crozman and Dean Marshall were our Culture Path musical guides and arrangers. They've brought groups of musicians to China many times, and have long-term relationships with their Chinese counterparts. "They have their own way of doing things here," says John. "And once they decide to do something, it gets done. Every time I come, something else is new."

Finally, I'd like to express my gratitude to Vancouver novelist Janie Chang for introducing me to the work of Lisa See. Without Janie's recommendation, I may not have discovered this wonderful author whose work I've found so educational, especially as I travelled in China. Like Janie's, Lisa See's words cast much light on that enormous and fascinating country that is both incredibly ancient and incredibly modern. I admit I knew relatively little about China until I was granted this unexpected opportunity to visit and learn more.

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