by Lisa See
My Review: Lisa See centers her story around Li-yan, an extremely bright young girl from the Akha minority in China. The Akha people of the remote mountainous tea regions live in almost pure isolation. At the very center of their existence is a deep-seated respect for family and tradition, including ancient customs passed on to each generation and rituals performed by the Nima and Ruma. The very thought of becoming an outcast because of disrespecting those customs is unspeakable, however it is done by some. Li-Yan is a very intelligent girl and is given the opportunity to receive an education beyond normal. Unfortunately for her, she not only gets drawn into a tea making enterprise, but she becomes pregnant and the boy is nowhere to be found. Instead of following the customs, she abandons her child at an orphanage and returns to her village to assist in the tea picking and fermenting of tea. Circumstances arise for Li-Yan to make a better life for herself and her family back in the village and she proceeds. Unfortunately, when she tries to claim her daughter from the orphanage, she finds out that she has been adopted and is now in the United States.
Lisa See presents a storyline that focuses on families, customs, and unfortunately money. When Li-yan wraps an ancient tea cake among her baby’s clothes before abandoning her, she is passing on the very tea that provided work, tradition, respect, and the family ties that bind. As I read this story I experienced happiness and profound sadness. The discussions that the adopted Chinese girls in the US have are quite eye opening. What Li-Yan goes through in her life is so hard to picture, yet easy to believe. There were parts of the story that were a bit slow moving, which is why I only gave it 4 Stars (actually 4.5), but it is an incredible story about a culture that I knew nothing about. I also learned a lot about tea. I drink tea, but never really thought about it. Some people might find some of the facts and the history a bit tedious, but you can easily skim that part and the story still moves nicely. I love her writing, it is almost poetic. I could quote many sections that moved me, but I will leave that to the next reader.Synopsis: Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. There is ritual and routine, and it has been ever thus for generations. Then one day a jeep appears at the village gate—the first automobile any of them have seen—and a stranger arrives.
In this remote Yunnan village, the stranger finds the rare tea he has been seeking and a reticent Akha people. In her biggest seller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, See introduced the Yao people to her readers. Here she shares the customs of another Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, whose world will soon change. Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, translates for the stranger and is among the first to reject the rules that have shaped her existence. When she has a baby outside of wedlock, rather than stand by tradition, she wraps her daughter in a blanket, with a tea cake hidden in her swaddling, and abandons her in the nearest city.
After mother and daughter have gone their separate ways, Li-yan slowly emerges from the security and insularity of her village to encounter modern life while Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl. Despite Haley’s happy home life, she wonders about her origins; and Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. They both search for and find answers in the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for generations.