“As A-ma said, every story, every dream, every waking minute of our lives is filled with one fateful coincidence after another.”
Naturally, we do not see these ‘fateful coincidences’ as such until the passage of time reveals all. This is a beautiful and brutal tale about Li-yan and how her cultural values shape her life. As an Akha, her family are tea-collectors but that isn’t scratching the surface of how their traditions lift and destroy Li-yan’s future. The Akha, also known as Hani by the Chinese government are a recognized minority. In many ways they are cut off from the modern world and their traditions remain untainted by the outside world. But the modern world is much like water, it will find a way in. As an American peering into the superstitions and traditions, they certainly seem backwards and unconscionable in the cruelty of their rules. That a child born without a father should die, that twins are an evil omen and meet the same fate… well… it’s easy to look into another culture and see horror. Introduced to her first in childhood, Li-yan acts much as any little girl would- shamed by behaviors that are second nature to so many of us. Early on she is meant to learn how to be a midwife, but there are traditions that she cannot stomach. She shows such promise with her education, and this line alone speaks volumes about how many outsiders feel as spectator to the Akha’s way of life. “I’ve lived many years among you,” he says, “and I can tell you this. Your people have no regard for education. You would rather let your children gather food, hunt, and nap than study. You boast of the Akha having one mind, but that mind is shy, closed and suspicious. In this way, you ethnic minorities are all alike.” Hence, Li-yan is chosen to bring honor to the village and inspire other children with her gifted mind. But fate is like the wind and changes direction without warning, blowing us at it’s whims. Li-yan’s choices with her heart leave her with a child, but she cannot do as she ‘must’. There will be a great divide, she too will face the decision to reject her child, to kill it. Will she?
It is easy to disparage another culture, don’t be put off, there is wisdom and beautiful ceremony within the Akha. As with everything in life, there is good and bad. The traditions that damn her also become her salvation in the tea industry. Her future alters much as does that of her tribe, becoming slowly modernized after she has left. The novel is shockingly disturbing one moment and tenderly beautiful the next. Rather than just a story of love and loss it is rich in culture, history, superstitions, family and the longings of one young girl into adulthood. How does a tea cake hold the answers to an adopted girl’s life? How does one piece of seemingly useless, haunted land tie a generation of women together? Lisa See has written a gorgeous tale and given us a window into the life of a tribe that most of us have never heard of. I was stunned, disgusted, delighted, and sad. This novel is everything a story should be. Regardless of our ethnicity, human beings long for the same things. We all want to be the captain of our own fate, we hunger to break away from ties that strangle us and live our life from the heart of our longings. There will always be obstructions, sometimes it means betraying traditions and family to meet our purpose. Sometimes we are the shadow in our life, choosing poorly in love and other matters, but we (much as Li-yan learns) can change our path. We don’t have to remain damned for our choices. Out of our mistakes, a life can spring forward. In time, we see and experience many deaths and rebirths (including our own) shedding skins, meeting fate with the ability to master what seemed to be our doom.
As another story is intertwined, that of a adoptee of Chinese heritage with only a tea cake as a clue to her origins, the reader witnesses how culture is effected. It’s human nature to hunger for the answers to your beginnings, as if we must understand the past, our ancestors to find our bearings in life. When the Western World adopts from outside of their own culture, it is often a transgression against the birth parents, a decision they didn’t even have a chance to agree to. This happens not just in China, but the world over. What is gained? What is the cost to the child and their birth family? Lisa See has written a rich, engrossing tale overflowing with traditions many of us would otherwise have never known about. A story that leaves us asking ourselves many questions. I want to explore many things about this novel, unfortunately I’d have to risk giving away spoilers. I imagine a book club could spend hours dissecting all of it, exposing the emotional distress some ‘traditions’ caused them to feel.
What looks like doom in the morning, can be happiness laying it’s tracks. I am much reminded of the Parable of the Chinese farmer. Look it up, it pertains to all of us. “We shall see.” You never know what anything will lead to. It’s easy to be hasty and see doom and gloom as much as we see something golden and miss the cracks in it. As for Li-yan and her fate,” we shall see”….
Publication Date: March 17, 2017