This is Mother Love in Lisa See’s “The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane”

This book, with its remarkable story of a mother’s crippling heartache from her ultimate loving sacrifice, was particularly difficult for See to enjoy as it rolled out. Ours was a relationship of intense love and intense frustration that never fully got resolved. Without those precious and horrific feet, the girl would be doomed to a servant’s life or worse. She wanted her daughter to be the best writer possible. It may be present day, but Li-yan is not at all like the Chinese-American girls of China Dolls or Dreams of Joy. At every stop along the tour, she talks about mothers and daughters. To pick up a Lisa See book is to be in good hands. Each of See’s books explores something the reader hasn’t seen before — yes, within the same Chinese culture, but a new aspect, a new time period, told from a different point of view. See said she remembers her mother more than once talking to an editor on the phone, hanging up, and crying from the rejection. Her father left and then a stepfather didn’t last long. What better gift from one established writer to another? These are not the bound-feet, upper-class families of Peony in Love or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. In her mother’s final days when she was too sick to get out of bed, See read aloud the manuscript of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and her mother was able to find discrepancies, make suggestions, remain her daughter’s most astute editor. She didn’t want to write or get married or have children. Impressive. Not easy for a writer far from the established east coast book world and especially difficult as a woman. Carolyn See was the other constant in her life. See spent her childhood hanging out at her great-grandfather’s antique store in Los Angeles’s Chinatown. The way she set her jaw … Anguish. Carolyn See worked hard to get where she was: an award-winning, well-loved, and respected teacher, mentor, and writer. She is also prolific — nine novels in 20 years, plus On Gold Mountain, a 400-page memoir and nonfiction biography of her family, to say nothing of the three Monica Highland novels she collaborated on before writing her first solo book. Her mother, the exceptional writer Carolyn See, struggled in 1960s Los Angeles to gain the recognition she deserved. Luckily, mothers are no longer expected to inflict such literal pain, but the mother-daughter relationship is still too often fraught with demands and disappointments. MAY 13, 2017
LISA SEE IS a confident, lyrical, smart, impeccably researched writer. To run the metaphor into the ground, her books are as different as salted plums and dried squid. With her red hair and pale freckled skin, you’d never pick her out to be even an eighth Chinese, but she is, and the Chinese side of her family embraced her and provided her the stability she needed growing up. And then fate caught up with her. I sat and read this book, thinking about my own mother and wishing she was there, knowing that, wherever Lisa See was at that moment, she was missing her mom too. The Cultural Revolution gave them a school teacher — he was banished there for his liberal leanings — and he, together with the girl’s mother, change the protagonist Li-yan’s life. Except See didn’t want to be a writer. She came from a tiny backward town in Missouri. But throughout, her Chinatown life continued unchanged: lunch at the little noodle shop with her grandmother; playing in the arms of a giant statue of Buddha; learning to wash and cook rice without a measuring cup. Where do we belong? She didn’t begin publishing until See was 12. This is the first Lisa See novel that has come out since her mother’s death. Peony tells us this as her mother and aunt are binding her feet, then forcing her to get up and walk on folded toes until they break and begin to mold into a new “golden lily” shape. “An image of [Mother] gazing out over the mountains before she handed me the knife comes to me. She gave all her work to her daughter to read. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is both unique and a universal story of motherhood. What to do? This is mother love.”
Rereading Lisa See’s novels for this piece and especially the latest forced me to think about my own mother. She wanted to travel the world and spend her whole life living out of a suitcase. She’d seen her mother struggle. In See’s 2007 Peony in Love, the narrator Peony translates the written Chinese character for “mother love” as “two elements: love and pain.” Of course this means the pain of childbirth and the pain of a child leaving home, but love also means the pain a mother must inflict on her child to ensure she has a better life. See said she counted up her and her mother’s book launches that they had celebrated together, and it came to 63 in Los Angeles alone. Money was tight, and See’s family had to move often, forcing her to change schools each time. ¤
Diana Wagman is the author of seven novels, most recently   Extraordinary October, her first for young adults. Twelve days later, she was dead. American as apple pie, but not unlike Li-yan, See’s latest protagonist. She fell in love with the wrong man, got pregnant when she shouldn’t have, and made a choice to sacrifice everything she wanted in her own life. She was See’s first and best reader. Each book might be tasty in a familiar way, but once a bratwurst always a bratwurst; they don’t attempt anything new. And no wonder her books all in some way explore the nature of mothers and daughters. How do we hold on to the best of old traditions while making way for the best of the new? Many writers producing a book every other year seem to be churning them out like so much sausage. Her latest is The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, her 10th book and ninth novel — a wonderful addition to the canon. This book takes us someplace entirely fresh. Many of her readers want to commiserate with her, say how sorry they are about her mom and tell their own stories of “mother love.” The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane was not originally conceived to commemorate Carolyn See, but what a beautiful and fitting memorial it has become. Maybe See was too young to comment on the intricacies of the plot, but she became a wonderful editor looking for repeated words and redundancies and — in a very Chinese way — under the tutelage of her mother, began a lifelong apprenticeship. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane explores these issues and reveals the difficulties inherent in our decisions. She died a long time ago way too young. Sacrifice. I found a version of the Pu-erh tea so important in the book in a tea room in Pasadena, California. Ten days before the final edits were due, Carolyn See was diagnosed with cancer. Post-college, after some time on the road, she woke up one morning in Greece wondering what to do with her life and answered, “I can be a writer.” Within 24 hours, she was home and had her first two paid writing assignments, thanks to her mother who recommended her for each. See makes it clear that modern times have given women more freedom and more choices, but it comes with a different kind of pain. I don’t know if what I had was authentic, but it had an unusual taste, bitter at the start and then mellowing to almost sweetness. No wonder See found her literary home there. Courage. It begins with a remote indigenous hill tribe, the Akha, in present day, still living exactly as it did a hundred years earlier.