Kate Swisher: The Cat in the Lemon Dress

This is the seventh in a series of blog posts from Whitties studying on Whitman’s Crossroads: Shanghai, China: Second Language Acquisition in China and the USA program this summer with Professor Lydia McDermott. Kate Swisher ’20 is an English Major.

I have one more day left in Shanghai. It’s hard to believe I will be on a plane heading towards the West Coast so soon! The picture above is of a cat I met at a cat café this week. My post begins with this cat because I relate to it and want to tell you why. In the photo, it is wearing a summery dress with embroidered lemons, yet has a rather tired, grumpy expression on its face. I realize you may not want to hear this random comparison to me and a cat playing dress-up and just want to read about my life-changing study-abroad moment! Well, hold on people. I’m getting there…

The cat café, so cleverly titled “Meow Don’t Care,” was adorable. The woman working there wore pink high heels with puff balls, and served us cat themed desserts and tea! There were about eight dressed cats roaming around us as Lydia freaked out and pet each one. However, I couldn’t get my eyes off the sour-puss in the lemon dress! We sat next to each other and while I’m not a cat person, I loved this kitty. It looked tired, happy, out-of-place, uncomfortable, serene, and confused all at the same time! How was this possible? I nodded my head in agreement with the cat, though it said nothing to me. I wanted to know why I felt such a strong connection to this cat.

The cat cookies the lady in pink served

Emily at “Meow Don’t Care, ” the cat cafe

To understand me at this point, you must hear about the plane ride over here. I never thought I would get to the third week of this trip with a smile on my face and gratitude in my heart. When I was flying over the Pacific Ocean in between time zones having a minor panic attack beside a Chinese woman giving me a strange, slightly frightened look, feelings of growth and joy did not seem possible. I kept telling myself that I’d feel better after I got off the plane, but alas, I puked twice on the bus to the hotel and there was only one plastic bag. Welcome to China!

Fortunately, the first week went well. I learned an incredible amount about second language acquisition and, as you read in the other posts, had the amazing opportunity to teach kids in a local migrant school. I sang my heart out at a KTV bar, ate plenty of tasty dumplings, wandered through unfamiliar streets, and saw an EXTRAORDINARY acrobatic show! The second week was not as easy. Culture shock is real and sneaks up on you when you least expect it.  There is a reason I chose to go to college in the middle of thousands of wheat fields. I’m not a city person. If you haven’t heard, Shanghai is the largest city in China! Whenever I try crossing the street, there is a whole crowd of moped drivers coming at full speed towards me. I’m also not that into shopping and Shanghai is known for its massive malls! Finally, I hate cigarette smoke with a passion, and don’t speak any Chinese. Well, you can’t go anywhere here without smelling cigarette smoke while someone asks you a question in Chinese! The entire second week I felt out of touch with reality and myself. I wandered around in bright, cheery outfits with a lost, slightly deranged look in my sleep-deprived eyes. Though we were spending days doing my favorite activities including learning, teaching, exploring, hiking, and eating tasty Asian food, I was sad. I missed home and my sense of self and place. My overactive imagination did not make me feel better. I had rampant thoughts every minute like: What if our plane crashes on my way home? What if my passport gets lost? What if I get stuck on the metro and never see the light of day again? What if I choke on rice and DIE??? I thought I was going insane.

When I wandered into that cat café in the very beginning of the third week and saw lemon cat sitting in a chair, I felt like crying. The nice lady in pink served us tea as I realized the cat and I were feeling similar emotions. Lemon cat was around new people in a weird place, wearing a uniform that likely did not feel right. Yet, unlike me, lemon cat seemed to find peace and happiness regardless of its discomfort. It looked and walked around occasionally to take in the environment before returning to the chair beside me. After my visit to the cat café, I decided to take in the small joys of everyday life in Shanghai no matter how anxious and strange I felt. On Monday, I enjoyed learning how to wrap sticky rice in leaves for the Dragon Boat Festival, on Tuesday I took in the skyline of Shanghai from a tall TV tower, on Wednesday I walked around the city and talked with my incredible language buddy about education, on Thursday I tried Oolong and Jasmine tea at the tea market, on Friday Hannah and I explored the M50 art district and imagined a fantasy in which we could purchase eccentric modern art as a hobby, on Saturday I wrote my name in traditional Chinese characters, and today I confidently walked across the street without getting mad at a moped driver that refused to stop for pedestrians. Even though I’m still tired and feel out of touch with reality, I am having a lot of fun and even finding peace in this wild place.

My language buddy and I on a night stroll!


Hannah candidly examining a painting we can’t afford

As I write this, I’m sitting at my new favorite restaurant called “Snoodles,” eating spicy noodles and wearing a bumblebee shirt I bought today in the mall (that reminded me of the lemon uniform on the cat), feeling tired, yet satisfied. There are new faces around me and the whole restaurant is covered in cartoon pandas that aren’t quite cute. I’m a little grumpy, but just as happy and oddly serene. Most of all, I have an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for getting to experience this journey to Shanghai. I never thought a fat cat wearing a dress embroidered with lemons would open my eyes to its beauty.

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