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‘The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane’ explores adoption and identity

Cover art for
Cover art for "The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane" by Lisa See.
Courtesy of Simon and Schuster.

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China's Yunnan province is home to some of the world's oldest and most precious tea — pu'er.

And Yunnan is where "The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane" begins, when a young woman named Li-yan gives birth to a baby girl in the mountains, and knows she can't keep her. 

Her child, Haley, is adopted by a white couple living a world away in Pasadena, California. But before they give Haley away, her mother gives the child a family heirloom. A very old cake of tea.

"The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane" is a story about family, tradition and identity, explored over the span of decades and across continents.

Author Lisa See stopped by "Take Two" to talk about the new book. 

Author Lisa See
Author Lisa See
Patricia Williams

Together but worlds apart

With "The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane," I was really telling two parallel stories. One is about Li-yan, an Akha woman who lives in Yunnan. She she's telling her story in the first person.

For her daughter, Haley, who's adopted by a family here in California, at first you can't hear her voice. She's just a baby. And so I do use these devices to tell her story until she's ready to start speaking for herself. There are emails between her adoptive mother and her adoptive grandmother. And it isn't until she's about seven or eight years old that you start to hear Haley in her own voice.

I thought it would be interesting to tell their two stories simultaneously, side-by-side so that you would see the effect that this separation has brought about for both of them. 

Tea as a metaphor

Tea serves several purposes in the novel. I use tea, in a sense, to show the growth of China from being a very poor country — and certainly, up in the tea mountains of Yunnan, that was very poor until very, very recently.

But for the two characters, it serves a much more personal purpose. When Haley is born, Li-yan's mother helps to wrap, and protects her neck, by putting a special but very old cake of this pu'er tea behind her neck to help support her. And so the only thing that tells her anything about her past is this mysterious tea cake. 

As seen through a changing city 

I chose Pasadena, California, for Haley to grow up in because I am from Los Angeles but I have this great affinity for Pasadena. My great-great-grandfather had a store here that sold Chinese antiques.

But for me, there was one other element. Just in my lifetime, I've seen how Pasadena — but also really, the San Gabriel Valley — has changed from being predominantly white to having this large influx of people from China, or Chinese-American families. And to be able to explore that, I thought would be really interesting. It became a way to explore a different aspect of the Chinese-American experience.

And so, here she is: a child adopted into a white family, but she's Chinese. And she's going to a school where there are other kids. Some of them Chinese-American. Others who may have just recently come from China. I could explore all of that.

A struggle for identity

I found young women who had been adopted from China who would have a little bit more perspective than a five-year-old or a nine-year-old. And I sent them questions.

Two things really struck me about them. The first is that many of them struggle with issues of identity. And they grow up wondering, "What am I? Am I American? Am I Chinese? Am I Chinese-American? Or am I something else?" And so that struggle for identity, or what is their identity, is very key to their experience.

The other thing is that party because of that struggle, they have a label called the "grateful-but-angry" adoptee. I came to think of it a little differently. That is wasn't the "grateful-but-angry" adoptee, but the "grateful-but-sad" adoptee. This was really summed up for me by one young woman who said, "I know I'm the most precious person in my family" — and of course, she is.

The families who've adopted from China, they've struggled. They went through a lot before they decided that they would go to China to adopt. For the most part, those families are pretty well off, those kids get pretty wonderful educations, so, they are lucky. So, she said," I know I'm the most precious person in my family. But I wasn't precious enough for my birth parents to keep me as their one child."

*Quotes edited for clarity

To hear Lisa See discuss "The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane" in her own words, click on the blue media player above.