Many know me as a tea addict, and my best friend so kindly gifted me a book titled The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See for my birthday. The story starts with a girl named Li-yan growing up in an indigenous Akha village in the high mountains of China. Li-yan falls in love with a boy, who impregnates her. The Akha have very strict rules for babies born out of wedlock, but with the help of her mother, A-ma, Li-yan gives birth to a healthy baby girl whom she names Yan-yeh. Li-yan travels down the mountains and leaves Yan-yeh in an orphanage where Yan-yeh will be safe until her mother’s return. But before their journey down the mountain, A-ma gives her granddaughter a tea cake that is unique to their small part of the forest in the high mountains. That forest is Yan-yeh’s connection to the women in her family and is her inheritance. Before Li-yan can return to the orphanage to reclaim Yan-yeh, the girl is adopted by an American family in California and renamed Haley. (For this blog post, I will refer to Yan-yeh by her original Akha name.)
The book continues the parallel journeys of Li-yan and Yan-yeh. With every page, you are more and more invested and hope that Yan-yeh can unlock the secret of her mysterious tea cake. Yan-yeh travels to China and meets up in a tea shop with a friend and guide she contacted online. She shares her mystery with her friend and catches the attention of the shop owner. Your heart stops when he reaches out his hand toward the tea cake, suggesting that they break it to make tea. For a moment I had a mini-heart attack because this man was not just going to steep tea. This ignorant man was going to destroy Yan-yeh’s only connection to her origin! This was not just a tea cake. This was the key to her past. This tea cake was sacred.
This scene really speaks to me now because it helps me understand the relationship between people of cultures different than my own and plants. To me, plants mean food, shelter, house and yard decorations, fragrance, medicine, and carbon sinks. Yes, several of these things are important, but for the most part I saw plants for their utility. It was not until I read this book that I saw plants, specifically tea trees, and a connection to one’s ancestors. This is incredibly relevant to me today as I try to understand the relationship between the Ojibwe and wild rice from the perspective of scientific ethics. Wild rice is a sacred plant to the Dakota and Ojibwe peoples, who are native to present-day Minnesota and Wisconsin. Wild rice, or manoomin as it is called in Dakota, is a central part of the origin story for the native tribes. The University of Minnesota currently resides on stolen land and has a history of conducting genetics research on wild rice without consulting native tribes. The native peoples probably feel toward us as I did toward the ignorant shop owner who made a move to break Yan-yeh’s tea cake. To conduct any kind of scientific research on wild rice without the complete cooperation of native tribes would be to insult them to the highest degree and endanger the continuation of their culture.