Stealing time with the Tea Girl


Ferry crossing the Mekong between Luang Prabang and Chompet Laos.

Yesterday I did something I haven’t succeeded at in decades. I read a 370 page book in less than 24 hours, even staying up to midnight without the book thumping me on my head because I drifted off to sleep. Could it be that I haven’t accomplished this feat since Before Kids? Don’t get me wrong – my kids are now grown. But along with kids came a spouse and jobs and a house and pets and volunteering and financial obligations and aging parents. You get it. I was a kid who would read all the time – it was only natural that on the pages of My Music Man I shared my love of libraries, favorite books, and possessing the inherent ability to read through just about anything – even the loud and disturbing Portland Wrestling-like antics mimicked by my brothers.

But now as I perch between book readings of My Music Man, and final beta readings of Beyond the Ripples, I told myself I would simply read. I’m failing a bit, as already I’ve composed two blogs in only a few days. Does anyone else’s brain compose even when you order it to stop? Today, savoring a walk in the soon-to-melt snow, my brain drafted this stream of consciousness, and my compulsiveness compelled me to jot it down.

My trip to West Linn Public Library on Saturday secured a few books, including a title by local author Lidia Yuknavitch that I’ve been meaning to read forever. But the one I chose to start first- and finished in a day – was The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See. I might not have selected it so quickly from the shelf if the cover hadn’t reminded me of a previous work –  Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a book I adored. (Marketing note to self).

CA0221E7-5781-4772-96EA-B326CAEE56A7I’ve been thinking a lot recently, now in my mid-fifties, about how differently we react to books at different ages and stages. A recent reread of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing caught me off guard, with my reactions and interpretations different now than when I was eighteen. Age, attitude and life experience move us in, out and between storylines.

Up until the last few years, my experience with Southeast Asian hill tribes was remote. While it was during my high school years, in 1976, that relief agencies resettled many Hmong families to Oregon, I had no understanding of the mistreatment and discrimination facing ethnic minority hill tribe people. It was only during recent work trips to Thailand, adding a side trip to Luang Prabang Laos last May, that I learned details that help me more effectively digest this newest novel by Lisa See. First, I took a solo day trip, first aboard the short Mekong ferry crossing  (see Ferries: the Willamette to the Mekong), on into and through a nearby small village – big enough to have a school that a few children from distant villages might be lucky to attend. I only learned all this by saying “hello” and subsequently chatting with a man who turned out to be the English-speaking village teacher.  The next evening I volunteered at Big Brother Mouse, where young people stop in to practice their English with tourists choosing to commit an evening to conversation. I spent my time with four young Laotian men who had grown up in a neighboring hill tribe, but whose educational successes and desires had allowed them to advance their schooling. The most conversant of them told me how he and four of his siblings shared a small living space in Luang Prabang to work and learn at the high school and university, and how his parents, sold a cow each year to help them pay expenses.

I was hooked immediately on See’s novel: and my brain was better prepared because of last spring’s trip to imagine the story’s images. Lisa See weaves fact and history expertly, sucking me into the descriptions of the character Li-yan, her remote Chinese mountain village, and the Akha people. One third of the way in I prepared myself for possible disappointment: the book had reached a point I recognized – the author had to decide on a next move, and the risk was big. A biggest turn off for me as a reader is unbelievability. For me there exists a sometimes undefinable line between unbelievable and the opportunistic workings of the universe. When I reached that point of the book, I smiled as I approved of the author’s decision. Although some may say a bit more predictability showed up late in the book, I choose to place it on the spectrum of synchronicity. And although worlds and cultures away, the loss of land and people as they had once been, challenged by economy and technology, weighed in my heart as I pursued the story’s ending, fully awake, upon midnight’s approach.

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