Monday, 26 February 2018

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane - Lisa See


Another one of my December 2017 reads was the audiobook The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (I'll just call it Tea Girl in the future!) by Lisa See. The book is about an Akha minority girl called Li-Yan who has to abandon her baby, which is then adopted to America and raised in Pasadena. It's also about tea, heritage, beliefs, minorities and ancestry.

I'll be the first to admit I had never heard of the Akha people before. I guess it would be naïve to suggest that a country with the sheer size of China wouldn't have ethnic minorities living especially in the rural areas, and the Akha are but one of them. The book does an excellent job describing their ways of living, their beliefs and traditions, and I do feel like I know a lot more now. Li-Yan doesn't even speak the Han majority language (Chinese) at the beginning of the book. Tea Girl also taught me a lot more about, well, tea. Like, a lot. I had never before thought so much about the different qualities of tea, the processes and their value... That was one of the strongest aspects of the book for me. Unfortunately these two of my favourite things I could have just as easily gotten by reading a nonfiction book (insofar as those exist) about these topics. The more fictional aspects of this book I found lacking, to say the least.

Li-Yan was mostly likeable. She was okay. There's not that much to say about her, because she was mostly defined through other people; as a daughter, as a wife, as a mother. Her daughter Haley on the other hand was unbearable. She was given an awful American whiny voice in the audiobook, and she was an ungrateful brat. First she whines about not being able to be in touch with her Chinese heritage, then her parents take her to China(!!!) and she whines about what horrible people they are for doing so(???). Rich people problems, I tell you.

And really, I'm aware Lisa See is American and she's famous for her portrayal of China/America, but I would have enjoyed this book at least 75% more if it wasn't so awfully American. I don't only mean how the story eventually migrates to the US, but also how even before that it feels a lot like rich white people trying to 'go down to the level of less intelligent ethnic minorities', if that makes sense. What I mean is, even the China portion felt somehow talked down to, and as if the characters weren't allowed to be all that smart just because they weren't Western. And of course, we have the white savior trope. 

So, all in all I was divided about this book. Half of it I really enjoyed and half of it I really disliked. I cut it neatly in half and gave it 3/5 for that.

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