Last week, one of my seven-year-old twins came home from school with a beautiful book, Frederick Lipp’s Tea Leaves, which she chose because, in her words, “It’s about tea, and we drink a lot of tea.”* Yes, we do. As it turns out, though, this book has a closer connection to our family: It takes place in Sri Lanka.
I am half Sri Lankan, making my red-headed daughters a quarter. At 7-years-old, they are already tired of explaining where Sri Lanka is on a map to their well-intentioned peers (“It’s that tear drop island under India!”). We haven’t taken them to visit yet, so their knowledge of the country comes mostly from maps, family members’ stories, books, and their imaginations. Tea Leaves helps them imagine what their grandmother’s homeland is like.
The beautifully illustrated story features Shanti, a nine-year-old child from Sri Lanka’s mountainous tea region. She lives on an island, but has never seen the sea. Her mother, a low wage plantation worker** who also hasn’t seen the sea, encourages Shanti to explore her curiosity by asking her uncle to tell her stories about the Indian Ocean. Uncle Nochi, who takes the tea leaves from the mountains to the coast by train, has seen the sea many times.
“Hah,” he replies, “the best stories are the ones you know yourself,” thus encouraging Shanti to see the ocean for herself. The question is whether her family can afford the trip.
This picture book, intended for children ages 6+, couldn’t have come at a better time for my daughters. They recently came home from school asking what race they are. Well, that’s not the easiest question to answer. Racial classifications, based on social construction masquerading as genetics, have always been highly controversial. Most people look at my daughters and assume that they’re white, but their background is much more than their skin color.
I tell my daughters that we’re multi-racial, and then delve into a description of the ethnicities that make us who we are, including Sri Lankan, Irish, and Sioux. None of it is new information to them, but they never really cared much about our background before. Since learning at school about Martin Luther King, Jr., and thus also learning about why he means so much to our history, they are now interested in the question.
Tea Leaves offers my daughters a glimpse into a part of their background. Shanti lives in a different region from where our relatives live, but she is a fictional friend my daughters associate with their heritage. Just as Uncle Nochi says, though, real-life experiences are best. We’ll have to take our daughters to Sri Lanka as soon as possible.
*It’s illustrated by Lester Coloma.
**This book also encourages a discussion about poverty and labor conditions. It made my daughters think about how hard people have to work for our cups of tea.
***Images: My youngest sister took these pictures on her trip to Sri Lanka in December 2011/January 2012. The top picture is from tea country. The bottom picture is the Indian Ocean.