Li-yan and Haley live very different lives. Although both are of the Akha people, they are a generation apart: Li-yan is Haley’s mother, although they have been separated since Haley was a few days old. Haley grows up in the Los Angeles area in an upper middle class home; Li-yan grew up without plumbing or electricity. All that connects them is a cake of pu-erh tea that Li-yan left with Haley at the orphanage, and has, miraculously, stayed with her.
Li-yan starts her life in the Akha people, a small group living in the mountains between Thailand and Laos and the Yunnan district of China. Even in 1995 their lives are almost Stone Age; they have no modern conveniences, still wear traditional dress, have their medical problems dealt with by a wise woman, and abide by traditional Akha laws and superstitions. Pretty much their only contact with the 20th century is when they sell the tea that they pick from their small allotments. Li-yan’s life seems to be set: as the daughter of the wise woman/midwife, she will step up to that job when her time comes.
Three things change Li-yan’s life forever. She is very good with languages and is sent on to college, where she first encounters a flush toilet. She has the misfortune of falling in love with the wrong man; she was born on a Pig Day, while San-pa is born on a Tiger Day. They are mismatched and cannot wed- but they secretly have a child together. And one day a jeep comes rattling into the village bearing a man who wants to buy their tea directly rather than going through the middleman. He knows they have special teas, from special, old trees, that will be worth a fortune on the open market. All these things combine to end up making Li-yan a woman of both China and America.
Lisa See has dealt with Chinese women coming to terms with being in America in ‘China Dolls’; in that book, it was WW 2. ‘Tea Girl’ deals with it in 1995 to the present day. The children adopted by white Americans (almost always girls) face different challenges growing up than the Chinese who arrived as adults in earlier years- easier in a lot of ways, but not knowing why they were given up and what kind of linage they might have.
The plotting is so complex in this book it can be hard to keep track of, but it all comes together in the end perfectly. The descriptions of life in the forest village bring the place to life. Li-yan is a very complex character and the others are pretty vivid, too, especially Li-yan’s mother. Five stars out of five- not surprising for a book by Lisa See!
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