What’s your favorite pastime?

January 9, 2022

What activity do you look forward to in the new year? My answer would be attending a book club discussion with friends, and being transported to another time and place. Have you heard of Chinese pu’erh tea?

“The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane,” written by Lisa See, is about a woman from the Akha tribe of China’s Yunnan province who becomes a tea entrepreneur as her daughter grows up in California.

On her website, the author summarizes her book as “a moving story about tradition, tea farming, and the enduring connection between mothers and daughters.”

In their remote mountain village, Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. For the Akha people, ensconced in ritual and routine, life goes on as it has for generations – until a stranger appears at the village gate in a Jeep, the first automobile any of the villagers has ever seen.

The stranger’s arrival marks the first entrance of the modern world into the lives of the Akha people. Slowly, Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, begins to reject the customs that shaped her early life. When she has a baby out of wedlock – conceived with a man her parents consider a bad match – she rejects the tradition that would compel her to give the child over to be killed, and instead leaves her, wrapped in a blanket with a tea cake tucked in its folds, near an orphanage in a nearby city.

As Li-yan comes into herself, leaving her insular village for an education, a business, and city life, her daughter, Haley, is raised in California by loving adoptive parents. Despite her privileged childhood, Haley wonders about her origins, and across the ocean, Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. Over the course of years, each searches for meaning in the study of Pu’erh, the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for centuries.

We were fascinated to learn about the ethnic minorities in China and the traditions of the Akha people, and shocked to learn that twins were considered a bad omen and murdered at birth.

Before we began our discussion, we brewed pu’erh tea in hot pots in the conference room at the Lewes library. Laura Zeller had purchased postcards of Chinese ancient paintings from Tang Dynasty in a bookstore and gave us all one as a memento.  

As we sipped our tea, several book club members shared their own experiences with adoption. Some adopted children want to know and perhaps meet their birth parents, while others may not. One of our book club members who could not attend later shared her adoption story with us.

“In 1967, unmarried at age 20, I gave birth to a baby girl. This was an era when girls often went away to have babies who were placed for adoption. My newborn had digestive issues and was adopted when she was about 18 months old. I was told my baby was placed with a family who had older siblings, and they lived off the coast of Florida. 

“In March 2019, we met on the 23andMe genetic testing site. Our mother/daughter status was confirmed! We met in person on April 4, 2019. She walked into the hotel lobby and we connected immediately. Ironically, we were dressed in the same colors with very similar hair length.

“I wrote a letter to the biological father, telling him about meeting our intelligent, caring and beautiful daughter. She is the only biological child of each parent. Today we both keep in touch with our daughter and have shared in-person visits with her. What a wonderful gift to all of our lives. Unfortunately, I think many cases do not have happy endings. But I am incredibly grateful we found one another.”

Group member Charlotte McNaughton revealed that she is in six book club groups: AAUW Notable Books, AAUW Diversity, Milton Public Library, Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice, Browseabout Books, and Spilling Tea, which is online only and includes international participants.

Charlotte said, “Each book club has its charms. Through all of them, I learn so much about people and ideas.” In our AAUW diversity book club, we have gotten to know one another through our lively discussions and shared love of reading.

Here’s to finding activities which bring you joy in the new year!


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