I love tea… green, black, oolong, rooibos, herbal, and iced. I love tea ceremonies, tea cups, tea pots, tea hats, tea stands, tea gardens, and books about tea. I even had a license plate (until recently) that phonetically spelled out “love my tea.” So, when my book club decided to read Lisa See’s latest novel, “The Tea Girl Of Hummingbird Lane,” I couldn’t wait to begin the project.
The novel focuses on the lives of a Chinese mother and her daughter who gets adopted by an American couple. The mother’s life in China is centered in a remote Yunnan village, where rare tea is produced following ancient traditions. The literary themes focus on the mother/daughter bond, love and loss, and the role culture plays in a changing society. China’s one child policy is examined, along with a focus on one of the fifty ethnic minorities who live in the Chinese countryside.
Having grown tea myself, I was fascinated by the tea picking, drying and manufacturing descriptions. The rare tea in the Yunnan province is Pu-Erh, which has a very distinct bitter/smokey flavor. It’s grown on steep hillsides in muddy, damp conditions, and is aged and transported in cakes. The older the tea tree, and the longer the aging process, generally the higher the quality of the Pu-Erh tea. Our book club decided to meet at Golden Dragon Tea Room in Santa Monica, California to sample their Pu-Erh and to discuss the book.
We sampled a young green Pu-Erh and a bold aged Pu-Erh (which the coffee drinkers preferred.) We even sampled a Pu-Erh that was stored inside individual tangerines to absorb a touch of the citrus flavor. Seeing a prized Pu-Erh cake was a treat. We learned that Pu-Erh cakes have sold for as much as $150,000 each. Pu-Erh tea is known to aid in digestion, help to lower cholesterol, and is considered the “king” of teas. A single helping can be brewed over and over again for as many as 5-10 times.
Following my book club meeting, I attended a lecture by the book’s author, Lisa See, hosted by Literary Affairs at the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. Lisa discussed her research process for the book, which entailed time spent during a tea-picking season in Yunnan Province, China. Her hotel had electricity for only one hour each morning and one hour each evening. She took thirty pages of notes the first day as she heard the stories of the women tea-pickers. Her mother was ill and dying while she was writing this book, and the theme of “mother love” and loss, resonated with her and drove her story. She keeps in touch with several American women who were adopted as young girls from China. Some of them have journeyed back to China in search of their birth mothers (like in her novel) and been successful due to “clues” hidden with them in their blankets when dropped off for adoption.
After tasting seven varieties of Pu-Erh this week, my favorite is one that is available to purchase online. It is twenty years old and still reasonably priced. You can find it here: American Tea Room. Drink Up!