Cotton, the cat: Student Lucy Wang on their Boston-Beijing odyssey

Cotton, the cat: Student Lucy Wang on their Boston-Beijing odyssey

Why We Wrote This

Lucy Wang’s decision to leave Boston for Beijing because of the pandemic included the tear-jerking consideration of her cat. Her personal voice – in the Monitor’s interactive 21 in ’21 global report – is an intimate view of how the pandemic affects a generation on the cusp of adulthood.

Courtesy of Lucy Wang

A student at Northeastern University, Lucy Wang adopted Cotton, the cat, from a Boston animal shelter. They cuddle here in her Boston apartment before Lucy had to make the tough decision about returning home to Beijing to study remotely – and whether to take Cotton on the arduous trip or leave her behind.


January 22, 2021

Beijing and Seattle

I opened the door of my Boston apartment and saw the big cardboard box. Strange. I wasn’t expecting anything. I dragged it inside.

My fluffy, white cat, Cotton, sniffed at the box delicately with her soft, pink nose, then sneezed and padded off. She curled up on a pillow near my bedroom window, bathing in the sunshine of the May morning.

The box was from my dad, thousands of miles away in Chengdu, China. I opened it and what I saw sent a cold shiver down my spine. I pulled out a full protective suit with a hood, gloves, goggles, and respirator – just like the ones worn by the hospital workers I saw on TV every night, rushing into emergency rooms with patients on gurneys.

For the first time since COVID-19 hit Boston in March, shutting down Northeastern University where I was a junior, I felt scared. The suit was expensive. My dad, who grew up hungry in a poor village and now runs his own investment firm, isn’t one to panic – but he was clearly terribly worried.

The suit, the ambulance sirens wailing down my street, the people crying on TV – it was all starting to feel overwhelming. And staring me in the face was a decision I didn’t want to make: either stay locked down and alone in Boston, the small but gregarious city I adored, where I’d learned to love being independent and imagined my future, or return home to Beijing and my family, and risk losing my U.S. student visa.

Courtesy of Lucy Wang

Lucy Wang kayaks on the Charles River in Boston in 2018 as a Northeastern University student. She misses much about what she considers a gregarious American city – especially guiding friends to Chinese restaurants.

As I sat uneasily with the sterile white suit with blue stripes crumpled in my lap, Cotton sneezed loudly again from the other room. What is up with her? I adopted Cotton from a Boston shelter two years ago, and she had become like my family. Most international students had a roommate. I lived with Cotton.

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The next day, I made an appointment for Cotton at the vet. They examined her; then in June the vet called with news that Cotton was very ill. Without treatment, he told me, she would die slowly in a month or two. I put down the phone, hugged Cotton in my lap, and sobbed. I cried every day for a whole week.

All the while, my parents had been urging me to go back to China. They were understandably worried and wanted me home. Still, I felt torn. Then the idea came to me – maybe I could get treatment for Cotton in China. Just maybe, without my difficulty communicating with the hospital in the United States, I could find someone to cure my cat. I made the decision to take Cotton to Beijing.

Then the real odyssey began. I had to get Cotton the required tests, and wait a month for the results. She needed an identification chip in her neck, and an international health certificate. I bought an expandable carrier, a soft bag for her to ride in on the plane, and an expandable bowl.

Booking a flight was a nightmare. There weren’t many flights to China, and lots of other Chinese students were vying for the tickets – and for the pet tickets too! You had to rush to buy the tickets before they sold out. Finally, I got a flight to Shanghai in August.

Cotton didn’t do well on the flight. It was actually a kind of torture for me. She wasn’t used to planes, so she meowed a lot. I was afraid it would bother people, so I petted her almost the whole 20-hour flight and didn’t sleep for one minute!

After we landed in Shanghai, the government required us to stay quarantined in a hotel for 14 days. After that, we flew to Beijing, where my dad and mom met me at the airport. Although they are divorced and live in different cities, they always come to the airport together to welcome me home. I felt warm inside.

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In the weeks and months since then, my mom and dad have had a chance to get to know Cotton, and they’ve grown very fond of her. They say they can finally understand why I consider her as family, because she is so cute and caring. It’s been the happiest time I’ve had during the pandemic.

As for Cotton, she’s doing well. The vet in Beijing couldn’t find anything wrong with her. She even stopped sneezing. It’s very weird, right? Now, she likes to walk on my computer keyboard while I’m studying late at night, and nap on my iPad. One day soon, we’ll make it back to the U.S. But for right now, Cotton and I are where we should be.

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