How to move your cat to Shanghai, in five-ish easy-ish steps

(originally posted on my chengdu blog!)

So, you’ve gone and moved yourself to Shanghai. You’ve been lured by the home of mainland China’s first Disneyland and its huge city-ness, and the fact that the expat social bubble is a purported 3 degrees of separation, instead of Chengdu’s 1.5 degrees.

In this big, new and exciting city, your only friend is your cat.

Except your cat is still in Chengdu.

Well, shit.

So you ask your friends with native-level Chinese to call the airlines to see how to take a cat on a plane. You also do some online research yourself, and find that airline policies are somewhat unanimous in their requirements for a) a vaccination record, b) a record of health, and c) a regulated cat-carrier.

I can do that, you think. Next weekend is a holiday. You’ll ask a friend to take the cat to the vet and get the papers, and then you’ll go to Chengdu yourself during the holiday. (You still have good friends in greater China, if just not in Shanghai, the optimistic part of your brain reminds you. You’re still a sad, lonely cat lady, the critical side of you maintains.)

Then your boss comes in. He asks if you can swap some days – he anticipates more work next week, during the holiday, and wants to know if you can take some days off this week instead; he doesn’t mind giving you Wednesday through Friday, which you realize is actually an extra day because he’s super understanding and you both know you’ll be making it up in overtime work later.



Yes, you will switch some days around.

So you hop back to your little pink standing desk and you immediately book a round trip to Chengdu. You have someone call the airline with your flight info, so that you can arrange to bring a cat on the plane.

The airline, in that terribly inefficient Chinese way, tells you, well, we can’t know if we’ll have space until the day before. 

So don’t like this last-minute uncertainty, so you troll the Baidu forums and you find a pet relocation service instead. The price they quote is about as much as you’d expect to pay – lower, even.

Okay, you think. I can do this.

You go home. You get dinner with the friend of a friend, and his friends of a friend, and again you find yourself thinking, I can do this. (And you absolutely can, but also when did your alcohol tolerance drop so low? You decide to walk home in the fresh air instead of cabbing, and when you get home you end up packing a little bit drunk. But you definitely remember to pack underwear, so all is well.)

The next morning, your flight to Chengdu is delayed. You’re zen. This is OK.

You get into Chengdu a couple of hours late, and multiple cabs refuse to take you to the apartment because you live too close. It’s OK. You’re still zen. Well, not so much zen as, you get it all out of your system by yelling at cabbies. One of them realizes, after a few rounds of arguing, and in an accusatory tone – 你不是我们四川人! (you’re not one of us Sichuanese!) – and you him Yeah, no duh, in English, because that’s where you are right now. And you get out of the cab.

In a moment of glorious, serendipitous, fuck you, the very next cab finally agrees to take you.


Later that night, you get mouth-burning, intestines-destroying hotpot with a friend. It feels great. Then you go to the writing club you’d been a member of for the past almost-two-years. It’s the last of the old guard’s last meeting, back from when the group began years before you even studied abroad in China, and you’re happy to have made it for this special night. You also feel light, stretched, breathing easier because you’ve finally written something that could be called a full story, even if it’s only five hundred words, for the first time in a few weeks. This is what you were made for, you remember.

But a heavy-eyed fatigue is plucking at your sleeves, because you haven’t had your thyroid medication for over two weeks and that old lethargy is slinking back in.

You don’t let that stop you. You’ve clipped the cat’s nails and glued some Chinese knockoff of SoftPaws onto them, so she can scratch her heart away but not ruin the furniture in your new apartment in Shanghai. After this miraculous feat, nothing can stop you.

So your first full morning in Chengdu, you drag the cat off to the vet clinic to get your papers.

They tell you, we can only do the vaccine here. Then you have to take the vaccine record to the pet hospital, and they’ll give you a health certificate that you can then take to a health control supervisor to give you another certificate.

But you should go to the health control supervisor first, to see what you need from the pet hospital. By the way, the clinic’s vet says, we’re going to date today’s vaccine to last month, because, well, you’re supposed to wait a month after the vaccine before getting this inspection.

“Ah. Got it,” you say; it’s funny how unbothered by this you are.

So you go to the health control supervisor. He says you need to take the cat to the hospital, then go back to him. Once you get the OK from him, the papers expire in 5 days, so plan well.

You understand.

You take a break and drop the cat at home, and go to get lunch with your friends. You ask one of them to call the pet relocation service and figure out what you need to do with them.

We’ll even come pick the cat up, they say after lunch. This seems incredibly convenient, but who are you to look a gift horse in the mouth?

It’s after lunch, while you’re at the pet hospital, when they ask for your address. You’re trying to talk to the hospital-vet, who’s putting your basic information into the system then asking for your payment. You’re simultaneously trying to give your address to the relocation service and arrange times for them to pick the cat up, and also times for the cat’s separate flight to Shanghai (Pudong airport, or Hongqiao airport?)

All this Chinese is taxing your tired brain, but what’s worse is the way the cat meows a deep, warbling, defeated noise and shakes in your arms while they stick a cotton swab up her bum and then also take some blood.

You wrap the cat safely in the carrier and she presses her face against your hand while you wait for the results.

The hospital vet comes back out. He calls you over.

There’s a problem, he says. Your cat’s antibodies aren’t up to count. (Pause, for a Chinese-English dictionary; antibodies?) You may have to take her in for another vaccine.

“Well…” you hedge, realizing what the clinic vet had done. “Well,” you whisper furtively. “Well, she technically just got the vaccine today.”

You feel sheepish. The hospital vet looks resigned and unsurprised. He tells you it doesn’t matter what the other vets wrote, but the cat’s blood shows the vaccine hasn’t started working yet. Come back in twenty days. You’ll have to find another way. It’s clear he’s not going to fudge the records as your “other way”.

You deflate. You try to think of what you can do. You feel disappointed, too–disappointed in yourself. Here is perhaps China’s only by-the-rules straight-laced vet, and all you can do is think, god, this is annoying.

So you message the pet relocation people. It can’t happen tomorrow, you tell them, because the doctor won’t approve a health certificate. You try push your anticipation away and accept the fact that you won’t have your cat for another month. It’s OK. You’re zen.

And then –

Oh, the pet relocation people reply. Oh, you don’t need that, they assure you. We take care of that stuff. We’ll give it to you – and here, they use the ambiguous verb 弄 nong, so you don’t quite know what they’ll be doing in order to get this for you.

You double check with the vet – in hindsight, this was not the best thing to do. The vet reads the conversation, and looks at you. That works, he says with a shrug. The company is going to get “papers” for you.

You feel vaguely ashamed, like you’ve disappointed this hospital vet.

But on the other hand, the cat’s going to Shanghai with you tomorrow.

And really, you’re nothing but wholly happy about that.

The pet relocation people come an hour early, arriving promptly at 8am. You struggle to put pants on. You aren’t wearing a bra. The cat crawls under your bed, squeaking her fear, and you have to crawl after her and physically drag her out.

You feel like you’re stuffing her into the cat carrier like someone trying to stuff a sleeping bag back into its thing–you know it fits, that there should be space, but little parts keep poking out. Like the cat’s head, or her paw, or her tail as she tries to make another break for it.

She whines pitifully. You take deep, calming breaths as she’s taken away.

You spend your day distracting yourself. It’s easy enough to do, as incredibly sunny and warm as it is outside. You get brunch with friends. You get some work done with a friend in Starbucks.

Then you go home, you finish packing, and you eagerly get to the airport.

… Your flight is delayed. (So is your cat’s. You’re on two separate flights.)

On the plane, you spend the whole time chatting with the Chinese man next to you because you can’t sleep. He asks a lot of questions about the American economy, and you know none of the answers. At various points, he tries to convince you you should get Chinese boyfriend and live in China. He’s an okay conversationalist. But he isn’t your cat.

When you get off the plane, you make a break for the baggage inquiry. They don’t know where your cat is. You bounce between baggage inquiries and general information before the phone number you’ve been given finally picks up the call.

The cat is somewhere else entirely: at the cargo hold for Sichuan Airlines.

You wait an hour for a cab.

The cab driver is pissed that you are going literally a five minute drive away–since he’s been waiting five hours to pick someone up–and you argue with each other but he ends up taking you anyway.

He doesn’t know the address, so he puts it into his GPS. Even then, he struggles to find the place, but he tells you, you’re in my cab and it’s my responsibility to take you to your destination (负责到底.) So he drives in circles and asks everyone around you where 300 Suhang Lu is; even though it’s past midnight, everyone around you is active – wearing hard hats, loading giant trucks, unloading large pallets of things in the light rain…

You think, where the fuck am I going to find my cat in the middle of all this industrial shit?

The cab driver pulls up to a gate. A big transport truck rolls out of the drive, and you’re told your cat is somewhere inside this large cargo hold. The driver says he’ll wait for you, but not for long.

So you sprint inside, splashing through puddles to get to the office in the way back of the yard. To the left, separated by tall chain-link fences, is the airport runway: out of the corner of your eye, you see a plane taxiing to somewhere.

You shove your passport at someone in the office; you sign papers without knowing what you’re signing, really.

Then you bring them back out, past a couple of trucks, past a bunch of pallets being unloaded, into a huge gaping space half-filled with cargo.

CAT! you say desperately. I just need my cat.

Then you see her.

She’s curled up in her carrier, which has been wrapped in netting and taped up. She isn’t moving, but she meows piteously when you pick her up.

Thank god the cab hasn’t left yet. You get in with the cat.

For the thirty minute cab ride, there’s an awful combination of pity and empathy (the cat doesn’t meow anymore, just rubs her head against the finger you squeeze in to pet her with), and also the cabbie’s complete disregard for anything resembling a speed limit – well, you want to throw up a little.

And then it’s all over.

The cat is home.

(and you only puked a tiny bit.)

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A 60-year-old cat lady disguised as a 25-year-old digital nomad.

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