Dear S – I’m sorry I didn’t make it to Beijing this year.
I know I promised. The thing is, I’m in Berlin instead.
‘Berlin’, pronounced in a Chinese accent, sounds
something like Beijing. You must be celebrating
the mid-autumn festival. How I miss my moon cakes!
The leaves are turning. Right near where I live,
in fact, there’s a ginkgo – which I always think of
as the quintessentially Chinese tree. This morning
from the overground commuter train (it’s not
so fast but prettier than yours) I saw an apple tree,
and this reminded me of my last-but-one visit to Beijing.
As I was coming in on the express train from the airport,
on the edge of the metropolis, skyscrapers already within view,
I saw a farmer picking apples from a tree, and loading them
onto his horse-drawn cart. At that moment it seemed I was
in the countryside, far from any city. Somebody, I thought,
should write a poem about it. There again, how can I know
for certain what I saw? Perhaps he was harvesting
a different round red fruit? But I’ll say apples.
Speaking of secrets, Goethe wrote a poem about a ginkgo.
He sent it to his love, pasting two leaves in the margin.
My studies continue. I hope one day to dream in German.
I’m writing this letter in English, and will translate it.
How poor my Chinese is! Forgive my mistakes.
It’s strange to think that in this city of four million
hardly anybody knows how to write its name in Chinese.
There was a time when I didn’t know myself. Now let me see:
the ‘lin’ part is easy; it’s just the ordinary character for ‘forest’
(as in the family name of people called Lin, whose ancestors,
I guess, lived by the forest). Draw the character for ‘tree’, and then
another character for ‘tree’, like this . And as for the ‘ber’,
I had to look it up in the dictionary. Another tree – fancy that!
The ‘ber’ is the tree which in English is called a cypress
(though the cypress is in reality not a common tree in Berlin).
So draw the ‘tree’ yet again, and next to it
a radical which completes the syllable, so: .
Three trees in the name of one city! For Chinese
such as yourself, must be a very wooded place,
a forest, indeed, with little houses and people
lost in the midst of it, or so I imagine you imagine.