After Thailand’s initial temperature shock had worn off, and I’d sighed in gratitude at both iced beverages and spicy food, I began to notice them. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. They were everywhere – lurking in corners, watching from the shadows, draped across doorsteps and sidewalks and curled lazily in the sun. Some fled at my approach; others welcomed me, coming out to greet me with tails held high. Most took in my presence through half-lidded eyes, twitched the the tips of their tails, and continued their repose.
In the preceding year, I’d grown unaccustomed to seeing cats with any regularity. There were a few to be found in the streets of Erdenet, mostly in the Russian districts, but the sight of approaching humans sent most of them running for the crevices that led below the apartment buildings, the warm dark spaces too small for most pursuers. Some Mongolians hudoo-dwelling Mongolians keep them for pest prevention, but few in the cities have such a use for them. And the vast majority would never keep them as pets.
Most Mongolians, when I tell them that cats were my favorite animal, shudder or grimace in surprise and disgust. They’re not afraid of cats, per se, but they definitely don’t like them. Their eyes are scary, they tell me; their eyes will put curses on you. My protests that cats were smart and independent and graceful, and their hard-won affection heartwarming, fell on deaf ears. “Муур муухай,” they answered; “муур муу.” Cats are ugly; cats are bad.
Most Mongolians are definitely team “cats will kill you in your sleep.”
The Thai people, by contrast, love their cats. I’d see them at fruit and vegetable markets, napping on boxes behind counters and in stores; I’d see them walking the city streets like they owned them. I especially saw them at temples, where they lurked in droves. All, owned or stray, seemed sleek and well-fed – nothing like the scrawny, mangy moggies cowering in Mongolian courtyards. And most, I noticed, watched me with bright blue eyes.
I was, after all, in the country that brought us the Siamese.
The presence of cats made feel both at home and homesick. I’d missed cats during my year in Mongolia, stopping far more often than was wise to pet the strays who didn’t bolt the moment I took a step in their direction. It was nice to be among people who loved these animals as I did, but each new pair of blue eyes sent a pang through my heart as I remembered my own Siamese.
Bailey was an irritable little old lady for most of her life. Her meow was nasal and unpleasant, and she wasn’t particularly playful, though she grudgingly tolerated the dog’s tendency to lick her ears until they were sopping wet. She liked to crawl beneath the covers and bite my parents’ toes at night. We’d had her since before I was born, and it wasn’t until I was in my teens and she grew too old and senile to remember how I’d put a hairclip on her tail when I was three that she began to warm up to me.
I loved her anyway. She was a fixture, not only of my childhood, but of my adolescence as well; it wasn’t until I turned twenty-one, nearly three years after we’d had to put Bailey down, that I was finally the older of the two of us.
I hadn’t thought about her in a while when I arrived in Thailand, but I had plenty of time to do so while I was there. I sat down in a temple and counted the number of cats within sight – sixteen, at least – and petted the ones who let me for a while, remembering my cranky old cat. I’m told she used to play with my grandparents’ long-dead golden retriever as a kitten, running behind the couch and then coming out the other side and smacking him on the butt when he stuck his head behind it to look for her. I hope they’re playing now, reunited at long last.