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.