Apparently 2017 was the year of the Chinese adoption books

Looking at Little Fires Everywhere, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, and The Leavers.

I always thought I had an understanding about adoption. Never questioned much, just accepted everything I was grateful for. After reading Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, and The Leavers by Lisa Ko, I’ve started thinking about it again.

It hasn’t been easy, or particularly fun (I should probably talk to a professional about this, but blogging will suffice in the meantime.) I set out with the goal to compare the three, and while reading them back-to-back-to-back started to weigh on me, it’s been enlightening too. Reading them together put into words a lot of the feelings I didn’t realize I even felt. By the end, finishing with Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, I had a new clarity on the topic. But I never felt like any one of them told a complete story of adoption. Here, let me explain each one a little better.
(Warning, spoilers ahead.)

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng

I love Celeste Ng. I was psyched when she announced her second novel and that a Chinese adoption would be a central storyline. But I don’t actually consider Little Fires Everywhere an “adoption story” specifically. It’s a central plot point for all of the characters, but it’s not the central focus of the story. The story, by the way, is about a small Ohio suburb in the late 90s and focuses on two families: the Richardsons, the epitome of suburban excellence, and the Warrens, the artsy-hippie mother and daughter who shake things up. That’s putting everything very broadly for the sake of brevity; you really need to read the book to understand all of the inner character nuances, family ties, and deep look at the human condition that makes LFE such a powerful book.

The adoption part comes in a little unconventionally. A Chinese woman, recently immigrated to the U.S., has a newborn girl and no support to help raise her. Struggling with finances, the stress of being a new mother alone, and postpartum depression, she leaves the baby on the steps of the fire house (I had no idea this was a real thing and not just a euphemism.)

A rich white couple in the town adopt the little girl after having trouble conceiving on their own. The birth mother hears about them and a custody battle begins on who the baby should stay with: adoptive parents or birth mother. During the custody battle a Chinese American lawyer argues for the birth mother, and really starts to question what it would mean for a Chinese American girl to be raised by a white couple in a very bland suburb. And while there’s no doubt that the adoptive parents would be great parents, there’s this quote:

“But would there be something — something — missing from her life if she were to grow up with them?”

When you’re adopted, of course there’s something missing. Especially when you’re a trans-racial adoptee. Your whole life is just one big question mark from day one. But this vague question put into concrete words that distant emptiness that’s always been there. No matter how many language classes I take, or history I learn, or clubs I join, or food I eat, there’s something that’s just missing. I’m never in on the joke. And there’s no way to fix it, it just is. I don’t think it’s something bad, or a “downside to adoption,” or something to be sad about, it’s a fact of my life.

And then there’s a page of inner dialogue from the adoptive mother that makes me choke up every time. The mother recalls the early days when they brought the baby home and all of the painstaking care — and love — it requies to be a new mom. From pureeing baby food, fighting a fever, feeding her medicine, and knowing her daughter “in pitch dark by one cry of her voice — no, one touch of her hand. No, one breath of her smell.”

Celeste Ng did the best job writing from both mother’s perspectives. I’ve heard too many different takes of adoptive parents being “saviors,” or “not real parents,” or some other such nonsense. In adoption stories, especially literary fiction, it’s easy to focus the story on the bio mom and write off everything afterwards (including the kid! You’ll see in a second.) I’m tired of stories that only look at it from the biological side, which, in my view is a cop out. Family is complicated, the struggles of parenthood I can only imagine, and every adoption is different. Celeste Ng is perhaps one of the best writers who understands what that actually means and can tell it in the best way.

(By the way — the custody battle rules in favor of the adoptive parents, and it’s bittersweet for all. Until the birth mom kidnaps the baby and flies back to China with her. What a twist, m’I’right?)

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng:

  • Book as an overall read: 5/5
  • I Want A Greater Understanding Of Adoption: 2/5

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Lisa See

This was my least favorite of the three. It’s written beautifully, sure, but plot-wise and As A Chinese Adoptee I couldn’t get behind it. I’m sure others will disagree, but by the middle of the book it felt like an obligation to see it through and hope, really hope, it didn’t end in the most predictable way possible. Spoiler alert: it ended in the most predictable way possible.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane centers on the life of a girl who grows up in the mountain village province Yunnan in Southern China. Li-Yan’s life revolves around Akha traditions and farming tea. It’s full of hardships. Like, Asian drama-level hardships. This book is an Asian drama. It’s incredibly well researched and full of beautiful detail on the people, culture, and scenery. I learned a lot about the Akha people and tea. Oh, my God. I learned so much about tea. Anyways, Li-Yan ends up having a baby and is unable to care for her in the village, so she takes her daughter to the nearest city and leaves her at the orphanage with only a packet of the family’s rarest tea (tea girl, you get it?) Then she returns home a changed person and plot ensues.

I won’t get into all of the plot Li-Yan faces over the years. I would focus on what happened to the daughter, Haley, and her life as an adoptee in Southern California (living on Hummingbird Lane), but Lisa See did not do that. We don’t see Haley again until almost a third of the way in. Most of the book focuses on Li-Yan and her life, and that’s fair. But oh wait. Aren’t we supposed to be reading about the life of The Girl Of Hummingbird Lane? Where did she go?

To group therapy, apparently. Haley struggles a lot in school, and her parents find a counseling group for Chinese adoptees to talk and share experiences. Ah, finally, the adoption stuff I’ve been waiting for. Oh, it’s only a few pages long. Okay.

I’m probably being a little harsh on the book, but when I kept seeing it touted over and over again as the literary fiction book on Chinese adoption, I was hyped. Then I was disappointed. Adoption is a major plot point, not the plot. To me, See didn’t spend nearly enough time on Haley’s life and perspective. The group counseling scenes said some memorable stuff that I resonated with — Haley mentioned something about being grateful but angry, which is me af — but it also felt like quotes from a Chinese adoptee focus group. I wish Lisa See would have spent half the time explaining the life of an adoptee as she did the nuances of tea.

Also, I hated the ending. As the final climax in the ending chapters got more and more inevitable, I just felt rising dread. It all fell into a pattern, like when you see the final pieces of a puzzle and just plug them in where they’re supposed to go, mystery gone. Like I said earlier, I think focusing on the bio mom is a cop out and too-perfectly-coincidental reunions between mother and child just enrage me (in fiction. In real life it’s amazing.) That might say more about my own underlying insecurities with adoption, but I’m just going to keep saying it’s a cop out. It’s a cliché and frankly, completely unrealistic.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Lisa See

  • Book as an overall read: 3/5
  • I Want A Greater Understanding Of Adoption: 1/5

The Leavers, Lisa Ko

I read this one last, and it ended up being the toughest one to get through. Maybe because it was the third, but in a lot of ways it was the heaviest of the three. A dual perspective story between the bio mom and adoptive son, it’s also one of the most original adoption stories I’ve heard. The mom, Polly, is a Chinese immigrant to New York City, and shortly after arriving she gives birth to her son Deming. Then, one day, Polly doesn’t come home and Deming is adopted by a suburban white couple who take him upstate New York and rename him Daniel Wilkinson. The book is split into different parts as the lives of both sides are told and revealed.

It was the only book out of the three to really focus on both lives involved in this story. It felt like I finally understood what a complex birth mother could look like. Instead of the romanticized tragic figure, she was a woman who made an incredibly tough choice. Well, in this specific story, kind of. In The Leavers, the mom was technically deported so it wasn’t so much a choice for her. But the same sense of abandonment and guilt kinda applies. Anyways.

It was the last part of the book when it suddenly got harder to keep reading. The mother’s perspective, finally saying why she left and never returned, got too real. The way she described how much she loved Deming, always thought of him, was always haunted by him, got to me a little bit.

“I want you to know that you were wanted.”

However, I think Lisa Ko was a little too harsh on the adoptive parents. They weren’t villains — they were really good parents to Daniel and he loved them as his family — but they definitely had the aura of “benevolent savior” around them. I’m sure for some families that’s true, and it’s a fascinating approach to adoption, but in this book I just read it as more pro-bio mom bias. There was a lot about how Daniel acted, reacted, and felt towards the Wilkinsons that I think should have been explored a bit more.

I really felt like I connected with Daniel/ Deming. He’s 21, directionless, lost in a big city, and constantly trying to figure out why he never feels fulfilled. Even though I don’t identify with all aspects of his story, he’s an adoptee and that feeling of constant searching for something is also a part of me. He keeps thinking that some other thing out there will give him the answers or the definite sense of Place Where I Belong, but in the end he realizes that he’ll always be somewhere in the in between.

(And can I just say how I’m so cynically entertained that Lisa Ko managed to write an adoptee story and a child-of-immigrants story. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in conversations or heard stories about what it’s like to be the child of immigrants and just felt so utterly out of place. I get that’s the usual background for a majority of the AAPI community, who I love and fight for every day, but damn. Talk imposter syndrome. And Lisa Ko managed to do both in one book? Wow. Anyways.)

Overall, I enjoyed The Leavers. I don’t know what I was looking for in it, but I found something to hold onto. I think I’m in the same place as Daniel in a lot of ways: I too went back to China, connected with my roots, better understood my family, and am now living contently with where I am in life — at least for now.

The Leavers, Lisa Ko

  • Book as an overall read: 5/5
  • I Want A Greater Understanding Of Adoption: 4/5

Phew, ok, thanks for sticking with me in that three-part saga.

I liked all three books and they each shed new light and perspective on adoption. Through telling different sides of the topic, I could piece together one whole understanding of it. All three hit on the big issues — abandonment, loss of self, unanswerable questions, family and parenthood — and gave neatly packaged answers. But that’s what bothered me the most about them: they had answers and happy endings. When in reality, adoption is so much emptier than that. At the end of this journey, I’m glad it got me thinking more about my own story, and ways I can finally explore it.

Because now I have a newfound understanding of how important it is for adoptees to start telling our own stories. In books, like the one from Nicole Chung I am anxiously waiting for, through music like Dan aka Dan, or in movies like Sam Futerman’s Twinsters. These are all people whose work I love, but also, they’re all Korean adoptees. So if 2017 was the year of Chinese adoptee books, let’s see if 2018 is the year of Chinese adoptees doing our own stuff.

“The college-aged counselors, also adoptees, talked with such bare emotion that he felt embarrassed for them.” 

— Daniel/ Deming from The Leavers talking about an adoptee camp he went to, while also personally attacking me.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng is available now: and
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See is available now: and
The Leavers by Lisa Ko is available now: and

Published by

Lily Rugo

Bookseller, writer, creator.

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