Kan Hong Ye (See Red Leaves)

When I began studying Chinese way back in 1990, even though I was a fully functioning and
semi-intelligent adult, since I was starting at the beginning, I had to begin with the basics.  That first semester was spent in long hours learning and practicing how to say things that five year old Chinese kids could do while balancing on the back of a bicycle:  asking and telling my name; counting to one hundred; asking the price of black ink, and shouting TAI GUI-LE (too expensive) in response.  Another thing that any language learner tries to master early on is telling others (who may or may not be interested) about things that we like or do not like to do.  Gotta learn some verbs, you know! I remember one lesson taught us a list of common activities that could be used in response to the question “what do you like to do in your free time?”  The list included the obvious ones like kan shu (read books), kan dianshi (watch TV), and gen pengyou liaotianr (talk with friends).  But there was another phrase in the lesson that was unexpected, and struck I and my classmates as a bit odd:  kan hong ye (look at red leaves).  Look at red leaves?  This is a common pastime for Chinese? I need to throw in a linguistic note here and mention that the Chinese verb kan can be translated as see, watch, and look at.  No separate verbs needed for different objects. So our practice conversations went like this:  Teacher–what do you like to do in your free time? Student–I like to look at red leaves.

Of course what was being described was the popular late October/early November activity of Beijingers, namely trekking to the Western Hills to see the fall colors.  All the trees in the city just turn yellow, but there are some trees in the Western Hills that turn bright red, so going out of the city to see the red leaves is a particular activity.  I tried to go to the Western Hills one year to kan hong ye, but there were so many people I might as well have been on Wangfujing, Beijing’s main pedestrian shopping mall. It was an absolute nightmare. I also don’t remember seeing many red leaves on the trees, which seemed a bit odd.  But as we walked through the park and the nearby village, it became obvious why there were no red leaves actually on the trees.  The local peasants had stripped them off the trees, and put them into little plastic sleeves and were selling them.  Now there’s a smart business model.

I’m in Minnesota now, and have just enjoyed the peak of our fall colors here.  Absolutely stunning.  This weekend I and some friends went hiking in  Afton State Park, along the St. Croix River that separates Minnesota from Wisconsin.  It was a full day of kan hong ye.  Almost too much kan hong ye for a person to process in one day.

Minnesota in October–the perfect place to kan hong ye.


My friend has written another funny article for "That’s Shanghai" titled The China Handicap.   Here’s the hook:

Serious golfers say they love the game "because it offers a great
lesson in the game of life." They claim it teaches patience and improves mental
toughness. Yadda yadda yadda. I thought it was nothing more than an opportunity
to get some fresh air and learn new swear words.In fact, golf is very unlike life, mainly because of the
"handicap," a numerical calculation of one’s playing ability, or in my case, the
lack thereof. A "low handicapper" is a very good golfer, and in a competition
with a "high handicapper" he must spot that less-gifted person a certain number
of strokes on the round. The theory here is that it evens the playing field and
allows golfers of unequal abilities to compete as equals.I don’t get it. Why would unequals think that they could compete?
If you can sink a 40-foot putt on an angled glass surface with a wicked
crosswind, while I cannot get a ball downhill through a one-foot pipe and into a
manhole, well, I conclude you are the "better" golfer and deserve to "win." The
handicap, therefore, is irrational. I blame this on post-modernism, which was
embraced by golfers long before Western universities.Then I got to thinking…the misunderstandings, misinterpretations
and bad decisions I make in China are uncomfortably close to my stunted driving,
chipping and putting prowess. And like my golfing partners, my Chinese friends
shake their heads sadly and just hope I don’t maim someone with an errant
shot.So what if I were allowed a "China Handicap"? Something that makes
me equal and able to compete on a more even basis.

Go here to read the entire article.  It’s worth the effort.

Journey to the West

I had good intentions of blogging my way across the western US last week, but alas, was just too tired at the end of each day of driving.  We made it to California and I now have a bit of time and space to jot out a few thoughts, stories, and photos.

Just outside of Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska we visited the Scott’s Bluff National Monument, which preserves the history of the Oregon Trail, which went through this area.  It was a humbling experience to think of what the pioneers endured on their journeys west.  The Chinese have a phrase called chi ku, which means “to eat bitterness.”  It is often used as an adjective to mean endurance or perseverance, or the ability to bear up under immense suffering.  With 5000 years of history, the Chinese are known as people who can eat bitterness.  It is not a term that is oft
en today used to describe Americans, but a visit to this monument is a reminder that that was not always the case.  Certainly these pioneers who left everything behind and set out across the plains, deserts, and mountains knew how to eat bitterness.

In Southern Utah, we enjoyed drives through the bizarre canyons of Capitol Reef, Bryce, and Zion National Parks. Surprisingly, there’s another amazing spot that is not in any of the national parks, called The Burr Trail, which is to the southwest of Capitol Reef.  I think it’s my new favorite place in the country.  The various rock formationswere endless.  In China, rock formations seem to always have names thatdescribe what someone thinks the rocks resemble. In Guilin there’s a mountain that’s called elephant and horse.  Supposedly it looks like a horse coming out of a cave and an elephant going in.  I think you have to be a bit tipsy to see it.  Anyway, along the Burr Trail was a strange rock formation (photo above).  If it were in China I decided it would be called “The Imperial Chicken Contemplates the Meaning of Life.”

A special treat  was the peak of fall foliage in southern Utah.  This photo was taken along Highway 24, between Torrey and Boulder, Utah.

Our goal had been to drive from Minneapolis to Santa Barbara without taking any freeways.  We almost made it.  We ended up on freeways twice:  between Cheyenne and Laramie, Wyoming; and between Las Vegas, NV and Barstow, CA.  Not bad.  If you’ve got the time and enjoy road trips, take my advice:  GET OFF THE FREEWAYS AND SEE THE COUNTRY!

Nebraska Sunset

We made it from the Cities to Grand Island, Nebraska today.  It was a great drive, although we had a hard time getting out of the starting block.  After picking my sister up at her house at 9, we headed west out of town on highway 169.  At Jordan (about 30 miles from Minneapolis), a voice in my head (or was it my stomach?) told me to pull over at the apple farm to buy some apple donuts.  That’s where I discovered that I didn’t have my billfold with me.  No money, but more importantly, no driver’s license.  Since my sister wasn’t into being the only driver between Minnesota and California, we had no choice but to go back!  The billfold was right where I’d left it–on my bed!  Back on the road.  We passed the infamous apple orchard again at noon, just two hours from when we’d been there before.

We stopped for a late lunch in Windom, where I ended up in one of those “conversations from the twilight zone” that I often find myself having in China, only this time, I had taken up the role of the Chinese person.

As we stopped at the local DQ, I suggested that we make a kitty of money for our food along the journey.  My sister looked at me funny, then said she didn’t think that was a good idea.  I couldn’t fathom why she didn’t immediately see the brilliance of my idea.  I’d done this a few years ago with some friends on a driving trip from Beijing to the ancient Mongol capital of Xanadu in Inner Mongolia (follow the link to read all about it), and it had worked so well.

Finally she spoke up and said that since she is on a diet, she may be ordering less food than I or my mother, so it probably wouldn’t be a fair system.  Since I’m no good with math, I looked at her funny, and seeing that she wasn’t going to go for this plan, said “no problem.”

After we ate, and I was back behind the wheel of the car as we drove through mile after mile of cornfields, I was still trying to figure out what was so odd about that conversation and why we had been talking past each other.  Then it hit me.

In China this system always works because meals eaten out are always communal affairs, with dishes ordered and shared by everyone at the table.  If the bill is divided, it can always be divided up evenly.  No one orders individual meals for themselves.  I don’t get kung pao chicken and you get black pepper beef.  We get them both.  But that’s not the way it is here.  We all get our own individual meals.

Who knew I might have such a cross-cultural insight in the middle of a cornfield?

Our day ended with a gorgeous Nebraska sunset.

Western Road Trip

Last week I flew back to the US and will be on this side of the ocean until New Year’s Eve.  I have some new responsibilities that are easier for me to take care of from here for a few months.  I’ll be based in Minnesota, but will do a fair bit of traveling.  My first trip begins in an hour, when my mother, sister, and I will hop in our rental car and set out for Santa Barbara, California.  We’re giving ourselves five days to get there and we plan to stay off the freeways, taking as many "scenic highways" as we can.  We’re taking the semi-northern route, across Nebraska and southern Wyoming, down into Colorado, across Utah and Nevada, entering California via Death Valley, and on into Santa Barbara.  Should be quite the adventure.  After spending the last 3 years traveling around China so much, I’m really looking forward to this road trip across the West as a good way to reconnect with the US .  I’m sure it will be a cultural experience!  If I find places to get connected along the way, I’ll post some photos and updates.