Lisa See is the author of the new novel The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. Her other books include the bestselling Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, China Dolls, and Dreams of Joy. She lives in Los Angeles.
Q: Your new novel focuses on the Akha minority in China. Why did you choose to look at Akha culture in this book, and how did you research it?
A: Yunnan is home to 26 of China’s 55 ethnic minorities, so when I decided to write about Pu’er tea, which comes from Yunnan, I knew I’d need to focus on one of them.
I did a lot of research here and had narrowed down to three or four ethnic minorities before I went to China. I remember being particularly interested in the Dai people, in part because they have their own written language and are one of the largest minorities in Yunnan.
That said, I always go on research trips with an open mind and heart, because I never know what I’m going to find or discover.
There came a day when I met Ah-bu, an Akha minority woman. (The Akha don’t have family names.) She was young—about 30 years old—but she loved to collect stories told by her elders.
For two days, she recounted story after story. Her own life was interesting too. After spending an hour with her, I knew I wanted to write about the Akha, and all the Dai research went right out the window.
For the rest of the trip, I tried to find people who either were Akha or had studied the Akha. Then, when I got home, I did additional research about the Akha. I was particularly excited to find the work of a scholar who spent his life among the Akha in Myanmar, Thailand, and Yunnan.
As you know, the Akha have their own language, celebrate their own new year, and have many traditions that are completely unique to them. It’s an animistic culture, which has been described as being similar to the Cree here in the United States.
Some aspects of the culture can seem quite cruel or backward—their belief about the birth of twins, for example—but I tried to put those in the context of their lives and experiences rather than condemn them with my American mores.
Q: The book also looks at the history of tea, and the tea industry. Why was that something you wanted to explore, and was there anything that surprised you as you looked into it?
A: Tea is the second most popular drink in the world, and China is the birthplace of tea. We may not be the world’s biggest tea drinkers, but tea certainly plays a big role in American history.
While I’m a tea drinker myself, I was completely surprised—and fascinated—when I learned about Pu’er tea. Here is a tea that ferments and becomes more valuable over time—a lot like wine.
The single biggest surprise—and one of the things that convinced me to write about Pu’er—was when a single cake of Pu’er, weighing just under a pound, sold at international auction a few years ago for $150,000.
That amazed me. I haven’t tasted a tea that expensive, but I’ve been lucky enough to try one that was valued at about $1,000 for a tiny one-ounce cup of liquid. (Luckily, the grower in China brewed me a taste and I didn’t have to pay for it.)
I’m now a huge fan of Pu’er, but my palate has a long way to go. With wine, I can tell the difference between a $2 and $20 bottle. I probably could tell the difference between a $20 and $100 bottle too. But beyond that? The same goes for tea.
Q: Another theme running through the book is adoption. What were your reasons for looking at that issue, and how did you come up with the structure of the book, which focuses mostly on Li-yan but also includes sections about her daughter, Haley?
A: I was first inspired to write The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane when I was walking to a movie theater with my husband. Ahead of us was an older white couple with their adopted teenage Chinese daughter walking between them.
Her hair was in a ponytail and it was swinging back and forth like a fox’s tail. I had this thought, She’s like a fox spirit in that family. In Chinese culture, the fox spirit can be naughty and mischievous, but she can also bring great blessings. That girl had clearly brought happiness to her adoptive parents, turning the three of them into a family.
I know many families who’ve adopted daughters from China, so I knew quite a bit about the experience, and, over the years, I’ve taken great interest in the One Child policy, especially what it reveals about the value of women and girls in China.
There’s a bit about those topics in the novel, but my main focus was, what is it like for those girls who’ve now grown up? I interviewed young women between 18 and 22 years old who’d been adopted.
These are, by and large, very lucky young women, who’ve grown up very much loved, received wonderful educations, and have benefited from all the privileges that come with being raised as an American.
And yet many of them are emotionally conflicted or troubled to the point where they have their own label: the “grateful but angry adoptee.” They are supposed to be grateful for their new and better American lives—and they are—but they’re also angry because their birth parents gave them up.
Personally, I came to look at it a little differently. I saw them more as grateful but sad. This was summed up for me by one young woman who told me, and I’m paraphrasing here, “I’m the most precious person in my adopted family, but in my birth family I wasn’t precious enough for my parents to keep me as their one child.”
Li-yan is the main character in the novel—an Akha, who gives birth to a “human reject” (a baby out of wedlock), and then abandons her near an orphanage.
I was able to follow Li-yan through her own eyes for the entire story, but Haley, her daughter, was too young to speak for herself.
For much of the novel, she’s seen through other’s people’s eyes: the report by a woman at the orphanage, letters from doctors about her health, e-mails between her adoptive mother and adoptive grandmother.
Haley finally learns to write, but she’s still just a little kid, which means that she writes a birthday card to her mom, passes notes in class, writes a class report on the Boston Tea Party, and things of that sort.
My favorite chapter in the novel is a transcript of a group therapy session for teenage girls adopted from China. (Much of that chapter comes from the interviews I did, and I can’t tell you how thankful I am to those young women who were so open and willing to share their lives with me.)
At the end of the novel, Haley finally speaks fully for herself and you see the world entirely through her eyes. I love that we’ve watched her grow up.
Q: How did you come up with the book's title, and what does it signify for you?
A: I’ve never been very good at titles. In fact, a few of my books have been given titles, which I love, by other people. I guess I’m not a sound-bite type of person.
But this book was different. I was on vacation and I woke up one morning with The Something-Something of Hummingbird Lane floating in my head.
But what would that something be? For about two seconds, the title was going to be The Fox Spirit of Hummingbird Lane. That, I think, would have turned into a very different book.
Once I had The Tea Girl, everything fell into place, because it worked on different levels for me as a writer, but also, potentially, for readers, because the tea girl in question wouldn’t be the one they might expect.
The fact that the title came so easily felt like a sign of some sort, and certainly, as a writer, it was a title I could go back to again and again whenever I felt stymied or stuck.
Even with its multiple levels, the title always reminded me of the girl and her family I saw that day on the way to the movies, the ties between mothers and daughters, and the deep-heart story I wanted to tell.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: The next novel takes place on the island of Jeju in South Korea. Jeju is home to the haenyeo—women who free dive for up to two minutes on a single breath.
The island has a matrifocal society, meaning that the culture is centered around women. It’s the women who earn money and provide for their families, while the men take care of the children and do the housework. It used to be that haenyeo retired at age 50. Now the youngest ones are 50!
This is extremely dangerous work. The women go down 60 feet (again on a single breath) to harvest sea urchin, octopus, and abalone. I was on Jeju last spring and I got to interview several haenyeo who were in their 80s and 90s. The novel explores the bonds of friendship and how historic events affect people and those they love.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Not that I can think of. You always ask the most thoughtful questions.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Lisa See, please click here.