With a name like Gipsy Danger, she seemed destined for international travel from the very beginning.
My Shanghainese street cat has now logged more cage time than an MMA fighter, I'm fond of saying.
We've arrived in America.
But it wasn't easy.
Her story began about two years ago, when she wandered past the lobby of the apartment building I lived in. My neighbors, Balvinder and Cissy, were with me on the couches, drinking 3 RMB (50 cent) 750 ml bottles of Qingdao beer. Bal had Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" on repeat and was smoking cigars.
"A kitty!" I exclaimed. I'd had a couple of Qingdaos by this point, so my enthusiasm wasn't unexpected. Cissy followed my pointing finger and drew a quick inhale. "She's lovely," she breathed.
And she was. The kitten was five months old, we found out later, and had the most incredible markings--gray and black tiger stripes and orange marmalade whirled over a white belly and four white paws. At the corner of each eye was a downward cheetah tear stripe that could've made her look pathetic--but her eyes were bright and her body language was confident and curious.
As Cissy and I cooed over the kitten and tried to coax her into the lobby. "That cat is from the street. Probably has fleas and God knows what," Bal said.
Cissy and I zipped to the nearby convenience store and bought a can of mackerel to feed the cat, and a few more beers. The cat sniffed curiously at the fish we'd placed outside the building, but didn't eat it.
"Well, there goes my 7 kuai," I grumbled, but I was smiling.
"I'm talking to myself right now," Bal griped from the couches. The cat followed Cissy and I back inside. She made figure eights around Bal's ankles and meowed, purring.
"This is a helicopter cat!" Bal said. He seemed delighted now that he was receiving the cat's attention.
I picked her up and checked under her fur. "No fleas. Or flea eggs," I reported. My orange tabby back home, Sitka, had had quite a few of both when I'd gotten him five years ago. It'd been an easy fix, but in China? Probably can't pick up a flea collar at the supermarket, I thought.
"Boy or girl?" Cissy asked.
"Hold her upside down and check!" Bal laughed.
We all giggled. "I can't tell, I'm not a vet," I said, "but most calico cats are female. My guess is girl."
We all commented on the silky smoothness of her fur, and how she didn't appear to be starving. Cissy and Bal both asked several people, including the lobby security guard, about the cat. The answer was always the same: "Homeless."
A couple of hours later we'd grown attached, and Cissy asked me if I'd take her home. "I can't take her, I already have a cat at home!" I protested, holding up my hands. "I can't cheat on Sitka!" I'd only been in Shanghai for a couple of months, and I was only planning on staying for a year. But Cissy was Chinese, and her and Bal were committed to staying in Shanghai for the next year or two.
I told Bal about how my sister had captured kittens in her hoodie, and so he did the same--we rode the elevator up to their floor.
The next morning I showed up at their door with cat litter, a plastic basin for a litter box, and some kitten food I'd purchased at Jiadeli, the local supermarket. Cissy was in the pajamas that Bal's mom had made for her, and she looked delightfully Asian in the bright red and pink colors.
"Oh, this cat," she started worriedly. "She's too wild, Bal says. She kept running over us all night, meowing and meowing. Bal says we might put her back on the street."
I remembered how Sitka had been at that age. "She'll outgrow it," I said, as we set up Gipsy's things.
Gipsy wouldn't have survived the winter at her young age, a Chinese vet later revealed. A subtropical city, Shanghai is nowhere near as cold as Spokane, but we did have a couple of freezing cold mornings.
But Gipsy had other challenges ahead of her, most notably, an unstable living situation. Frustrated with China and especially EF, Bal had resigned his position in April and returned to England. At that point, he and Cissy had been married only a couple of months, and she'd decided to return to her hometown of Guangzhou in the south to take care of her ailing mother. Taking Gipsy was not an option--Cissy already had a dog at home, and she'd be busy with her visa application and studying for her IELTS (English language test).
I encouraged Cissy to call the two Shanghai animal shelters we could find, but one never returned her call and the other was full.
Cissy missed Bal terribly. Though we watched Jason Statham movies and went to a pub quiz once a week, I was often working, so Cissy was quite lonely. She also told me she'd started feeding Gipsy people food.
"She likes it. She'll eat anything, even the spicy dishes...But then she vomits." Cissy looked at me, her eyes watery. "I'm trying to get her ready to return to the street."
"What are you talking about?" I demanded. "You know I'm taking that cat."
"What?" she asked, startled.
"Sure, I'll take her," I committed, "and I'll try my best to find her a good home."
When Cissy left at the end of May, she hugged me tightly--something she didn't usually do--with tears in her eyes. "Thank you so much for everything," she said.
I asked around: coworkers, my chiropractor. I posted a cute sign with Gipsy's picture at Avocado Lady, a small local shop patronized by many wealthy ex-pats. I went home to Spokane for three weeks and had a coworker take care of Gipsy. By the time I got back to Shanghai, I was growing quite attached to her.
I started looking into taking her home with me. Oh, the regulations! Oh, the horrors of quarantine! Oh, the horrors of shipping animals in China! I heard about epic quarantines--beloved family pets incarcerated in cages for six months; the pets were never the same afterward. I heard about pets suffocating or freezing to death due to Chinese airline staff failing to pressurize the cargo hold.
I learned that certain airlines would allow in-cabin pets (thank you, United). I learned that Chinese bureaucracy, while a slow nightmare of paperwork and money, can be handled, even if it means waiting in the vet's office for two hours with your cat for that official pet health certificate that cost 1150 RMB (about $200 US). I discovered that China has strange demands--the rabies shot Gipsy had gotten the year before wasn't "official", so she was revaccinated, and micro chipped, on the same day--in spite of my reservations that the microchip wouldn't work in the US.
When Gipsy and I arrived at Pudong International Airport an hour before our check-in time on July 8th, she'd already been in the carrier for an hour.
Going through security, I had to take her out of her carrier (with about 25 curious Chinese passengers behind me, and doors opening up to the rest of the airport on either end) so that they could scan it. What if she runs away? I was sweating and tense by the time we got to our gate, and the sweat really popped when an cute female employee approached me, saying my carrier was too big to fit under the seat.
"Well, what am I supposed to do now?" I said angrily. Why tell me now, after security and everything? It seemed that everything I did in China had some kind of problem, and after two years, I was more than ready to leave.
My rude response should've earned me a smack in the face, but the employee and her coworker called the purser of the plane to come out and speak to me.
"My name is Laura," she said, shaking my hand, "and I have nine cats myself." She smiled at me and eyed the carrier with a sharpness. "Well, the flight isn't fully booked. Let's go for it." (Again, thank you, United.)
And the employees were right. The carrier was about a centimeter too tall to go under the seat, but I shoved and tried. About five minutes after we got settled, a couple of older Chinese ladies wanted to sit together and asked the attendant in Chinese to ask me to move. I rolled my eyes and grumbled, but we ended up sitting in an aisle seat, rather than a window, a blessing on an 11-hour flight, and had an empty seat between us and a quiet Chinese man.
We landed in San Francisco. The Customs guy calmly and carefully looked over her Chinese certificate and took her Ziploc baggie of cat food. "You and I both know what this is," he said kindly, "but Uncle Sam has rules."
"That's okay," I sighed. "She's not eating, anyway."
And she wasn't. No eating, no drinking, no bathroom accidents. I was starting to wonder if Gipsy's body had completely shut down. I was starting to worry, but I couldn't do anything about it. I sweated some more. I'd only slept a couple of hours the night before we left, and maybe dozed an hour on the flight from Shanghai to San Fran. I have no idea if Gipsy slept at all.
Again, we had to take her out so that security could scan her cage. This time we were allowed to wait in a private room with ridiculously high walls. I kept telling Gipsy how much I loved her, what a good cat she was being, and how proud I was of her. My mom had sent a hormone collar from the US with supposedly calming effects, and although Gipsy still seemed nervous, it appeared to be working. When the TSA guy returned, he commented, "By now, most cats are climbing those walls. You've got a nice, mellow cat." I beamed with pride and put her back in her carrier, and she was pretty good about it.
We landed in Denver. And there we waited. And waited.
A computer glitch had grounded some United flights earlier that day, I learned. We'd already planned for a 7 or 8 hour layover, but it got later and later. I'd eaten, but, as the airport's restaurants closed down, I felt hungry again. I peered into Gipsy's cage. She seemed fine, and she hadn't eaten. I drew strength from that. As we waited some more, I curled up around her carrier, draped between two chairs, freezing cold. I'd forgotten my new jacket in San Francisco--my only worry then had been getting us through Customs. The sweat seemed to have frozen on my body. I was tempted to take Gipsy's blanket and use it for myself, but I kept it draped over her carrier--partly to keep her warm and partly to block off any sights that may have frightened her.
Finally we got on the flight. It was full. Gipsy's carrier wouldn't go under the seat. I had to prop my feet on top of it, and my backpack on top of my knees. It's only for a couple of hours. Strangely, I never got reminded or reprimanded about her carrier or my backpack. Lucky. No one bugged us.
We finally, finally landed in Spokane. It was about 1 am. And I could hear jack hammering coming from near the luggage carousel. My sister Laura met us and I could tell she was worried about us and the jack hammering.
"I think Gipsy's kind of in shock, anyway," I said, laughing, loopy from lack of sleep. It hadn't quite sunken in that we'd made it--that we were in America. I unnecessarily reminded my sister that we'd lived next to a construction site for two years. I joked, "It's probably a 'welcome home' sound for her."
It's been over a week now, and Gipsy has met Sitka and Nellie, my sister's cat. She's explored both levels of the house. So much space compared to our tiny 40 square meter studio in Shanghai! Yesterday, she even went outside with the other two cats. She has fallen for Sitka, following him around like a starry eyed teeny bopper. There's been some hissing, and some batting of paws, but no biting or scratching.
My Shanghainese girl is now an American girl--out in the open spaces of the West, enjoying the fresh air and grass under her paws, exploring this New World--just like I'd promised.