Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 11.11.11
I woke up on my last day in Beijing with a killer headache and a problem. My bloodshot eyes rolled at sight of two ginger kittens asleep on my bed. What had I done? A brown mess, clearly deposited hours earlier, lay stiff on the blanket above my feet. Though five years have passed, I still feel awful about hastily stuffing it under the hotel’s television cabinet.
My train was leaving for Inner Mongolia in six hours time, so I had to find homes for the kittens before then. Trains to the capital city of Hohot were infrequent and I was itching to move on, but I couldn’t abandon the kittens 12 hours after buying them. I groaned and lit up a Chinese cigarette. It tasted like sawdust but its politically and medically incorrect brand name, “Double Happiness” amused me. I prayed I’d find someone who would look at the kittens and see double happiness.
After a month of travelling alone in China, which had involved days on end of not uttering a single word in English in tourist-dry towns (a valuable experience in hindsight), it was wonderful to make some great friends at the backpackers, though a violent stomach upset had forced me to move out of the dormitory. The six of us spent 10 errant days together in Beijing, hippy-hugging park trees, fighting kung fu clumsily, trying on ridiculous wigs and hairstyles, setting fire to the local liquor with cigarette lighters and plotting an unauthorised overnight stay at the Great Wall of China (before deciding on the more conventional experience of walking 10 kilometres along its oldest part). It was some consolation that most of our “gang” were moving on that day, albeit in different directions. Happily, we’re all still friends and meet up whenever we happen to be in the same city.
We’d gone out for Korean and all night disco dancing the day before we parted. Although several dishes on the busy restaurant’s menu offered dog, we didn’t eat it. I wouldn’t ever. Although I’d seen many pets in China that were clearly adored – mostly pedigree cats and dogs, I felt for China’s utterly less fortunate furry friends. A few late nights earlier, while wobbling my way home through the atmospheric traditional alleys known as hutongs (most of which were subsequently destroyed for Beijing’s pre-Olympic makeover) I recoiled at the sight of a large cooked dog on a metal try. Two butchers were hammering out its teeth on the sidewalk. I looked over my shoulder in disbelief and felt like retching, then nearly tripped over another motionless dog lying on the pavement. A dark pool of blood trickled slowly into the drain.
When we left the Korean restaurant and crossed a massive intersection, I saw a man in a drab suit standing next to a pair of kittens in a fish tank. They were tiny, covered in excrement and with terrified eyes, clawed desperately at the glass walls. I thought back to the times when I saw something distressing but was powerless to act. Using mostly sign language, I asked the man how much he wanted for the two kittens. My friends were in hysterics.
Naturally, I misunderstood the figure quoted. I handed over double (around US$30) but he laughed and handed back the yuan. I carried the terrified kittens back to the guesthouse in a shoebox and released them in the authentically Chinese courtyard (replete with a squirrel in a cage). Within a couple of minutes, the kittens were eating salami and other treats retrieved from the backpacks of random travellers. I later snuck the pair into my hotel by wrapping a jacket around the shoebox and talking loudly enough to my friend Phil to drown out any meowing.
My heart melted as the kittens licked themselves clean within minutes. When the fluffy pair started frolicking on the floor, I fell in love then and there and decided to spend the rest of my last night in. But my travel buddies came to the hotel to convince me I was mad, so I drew the curtains and left the ginger angels to their own devices.
But now was the time to face the music by making good on my irresponsible purchase the night before.
My attempts to find homes for the kittens resembled a very serious game of charades. After inquiries at my former backpackers resulted in the negative, I moved onto the friendly shop owner opposite. She knew a handful of English words, but they were mostly the items she sold. I’d studied Mandarin during my first two years of high school, but I couldn’t remember any of it, let alone the phrase for, “Would you like to adopt two kittens?”
So I meowed and held up two fingers, then pointed at the shopkeeper and gestured towards my hotel. In China, holding up the pinkie finger means you want to go to the toilet, so I wasn’t certain how she would interpret two fingers. Yet somehow, she seemed to understand. The young woman beamed and nodded, then called a friend to come and mind the shop. On the way to my hotel we stopped at the laundromat where her mother (or so I assumed) worked, (presumably) to ask for adoption permission. The shopkeeper seemed even more excited when we left – I couldn’t believe my luck.
I didn’t bother hiding the kittens from the hotel owners because I figured they were about to leave. I brought them into the courtyard to present them to their new owner. But I saw her expression was one of mild horror. She took a few steps backwards and almost bumped into the hotel owner as he came around the corner. To my surprise and delight, it was now he who wore the smile. As the woman left the premises with an apologetic wave, he opened his arms and I handed him the kittens.
Having been freed from the shackles of pet ownership, I was ready to board the train for Inner Mongolia. I packed up my gear and left my large backpack at the hotel before heading out to eat my last Beijing meal and call home. By the time I’d checked out, the kittens were lapping up milk from porcelain saucers as the hotel owner’s daughter gently stroked them.
I told my parents how close I’d come to a kitten fiasco. My mother laughed and said, “Typical you.” She often used the expression – both for me and others, “A leopard can’t change it spots.” And you know what? She’s right. It took a lot longer than usual to write this piece, as I was interrupted a thousand times by the two puppies temporarily lodging in my study. I’ve been looking for homes for two weeks.