The lives of two characters — Li-yan, who picks tea in China, and Haley, who grows up comfortably in Pasadena, Calif. — are at the core of Lisa See’s new novel, “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane.”
The best-selling Los Angeles author regularly explores the bonds between women, families and culture with a particular focus on the Chinese and Chinese-American experience.
The teen and ‘The Tea Girl’
“The book begins with this line, ‘No coincidence, no story,’ and that certainly plays out thematically in the novel, but it also happened to me as I was writing the book,” See said.
Inspiration for “The Tea Girl” came after See had gone to see a movie with her husband. She saw a Caucasian couple walking with their teenage Chinese-born daughter between them. The girl’s hair swished back and forth as she moved, bringing to mind the flicking tail of the Chinese fox spirit, which can be mischievous and naughty but also can bring love and create families. The author imagined the teen embodying the latter “good” traits of the fox spirit.
“Even though I had been thinking about writing about adoption from China, but also the one child policy, for a really long time, something like 20 years, in that moment it clicked and I had a way into the story,” See said.
The sharing of stories
See spent three years writing and researching “The Tea Girl,” which included a trip to the tea mountains in China and interviews with the Akha people who live there. She learned that the Akha do not believe in the fox spirit, so even though it was the spark for her work, she left it out of the book.
See also contacted young women across the United States who had been adopted from China, asking them about their experiences, and was surprised to receive lengthy letters — some 30 to 50 pages — “where they just completely opened their hearts and shared their experiences with me.” It was obvious to See that she had tapped into something on the minds of many.
“To me, this book is very much about mothers and daughters; there are a lot of mothers and daughters in this book,” See said. “Every single person on Earth somewhere along the line had a mother and maybe you knew her and maybe you didn’t, maybe you got along and maybe you didn’t. There are all kinds of differences.
“It’s a relationship that truly is universal. Twelve days before the book was due my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and she died 10 days later, and so I didn’t realize it in the moment. … I wasn’t really thinking in the moment because a lot was going on, but it was about three months later when I could see, yes, this was another aspect of mother love. You have how a mother looks at her child, you have how a child looks at his or her mother, but there’s also this sense of loss that will at some point happen,” See said.
See is working on her first book not about China nor the Chinese-American experience. It is set in the matrifocal society of Jeju, an island off of the southern tip of Korea, where for the past 1,000 years the women have been free divers, harvesting sea food, while the men have taken care of the house and children. The traditions have been fading, and it is believed that in 15 years there will no longer be any divers, See said. The book is set for release in 2019.