Reluctance to Love: How our Desi-American family adopted 2 cats

Eid 2020 Abbasi family photo

MAY 26TH, 2020
By Samia & Ferheen Abbasi

We’ve been wanting to write this piece for a while. It was primarily sparked by how our parents have generally felt about pets (read: reluctant) and how their reactions share similarities to other immigrant parents. There are TikToks of dads carrying around their cats or dogs, singing to them, and sneaking them more food—behaviors that are very different from their initial reactions to the pets. “Pets are a big responsibility,” is a common and valid phrase that’s said by parents. For our parents, growing up, pets weren’t common in their Indian-Muslim households. There’s an element of “That’s not what we do,” which stems from a cultural divide and elements of the poverty mindset. But if 2 family members have mild cat allergies, what can you really do? 

Ultimately, that didn’t stop us. On January 16th, 2020, we brought home Zaytun aka Zayn and Naariyal aka Naru. Zaytun means olive in Arabic and Naariyal means coconut in Urdu—very fitting! With COVID-19 shelter-in-place, it’s even more apparent that our cats have brought joy to the Abbasi family. This blog post explores how we got our cats, from strategies on talking to parents, to dealing with annoying cat allergies. To build this blog post, we conducted a series of interviews with our family members that you can read HERE.

Baby Zayn (FFR website)

FERHEEN | ZAYN & NARU’S ORIGIN STORY: 

Zayn and Naru were stray kittens that were found by Furry Friends Rescue based in Fremont, CA. I found Naru on an adoption website after searching Lynx Point Siamese after being inspired by my former coworker’s beautiful Lynx Point Choppy. Naru’s original name was “Abu” and Zayn was “Aladdin.” Fun fact: in Urdu, “Abu” means “father.” I was fated to find this adorable little white stripey cat named “Abu.” 

Baby Naru (FFR website)

In order to even see the cats, my parents were required to go, because they are the home-owners. The foster program explained that there were two ways to see the cats, either at the foster home or at the public adoption event where anyone can see the cat. I knew that someone would take the kittens quickly because they were so cute, so I knew we had to go to the foster home. This meant I had to talk to my father about seeing the cats. 

The Friday before we were supposed to go see Naru and Zayn, I sat my father down and explained to him that I had been feeling very lonely. I had just turned 27 and felt very stuck for a multitude of reasons. I was in a transition period, after finishing my Master’s in Japan and then coming home to pursue medical school. Leaving Japan was really hard for me because it was the only place where I felt like I could truly be myself. Furthermore, the house had negative energy. All three adult siblings had moved back home and we had to navigate a complicated space. We weren’t babies anymore, and yet we were treated like ones. I explained that I had been thinking of strategies to fix this sense of loneliness and powerlessness. I presented him with two options: 1.) Move out, get my own place, and live my own life. Or, 2.) getting a cat. My therapist had explained that getting a cat would change the dynamic of the household. I then showed my dad a picture of Naru, and explained the conditions of visiting the cats. After I showed him a picture of the cat, my dad’s face lit up. He started doing that “I’m not trying to smile, but I’m actually smiling inside” kind of smile, and even said, “…Yeah, that’s a cute cat…” 

So then we coordinated with the foster mom to visit the following day. Zayn was so extroverted and had lots of energy. Naru, on the other hand, was very shy and hid under the chair for most of the time. I realized in that moment that we needed to get both cats. Zayn and Naru were bonded, and Zayn’s energy brought Naru out from his shell. I was scared that if we only got Naru, he’d be lonely and hide the whole time. But if we got both, they’d have each other. Even though my dad wasn’t super keen on getting both of them, I went ahead and did it anyway! And that’s how we got both our cats!

FERHEEN | CAT-CONVINCING STRATEGY:

*licky licky licky licky*

The way I approached this situation was a bit unconventional, as you can imagine from the story above. There are a few strategies I employed to successfully convince my dad that we needed to adopt a cat. But, I think it fundamentally starts with the fact that he actually *likes* cats. If I had the exact same conversation with Dad about a dog, there would be nothing we could do to convince him because culturally, dogs are considered dirty, although for some reason, he has a thing for Huskies and I don’t really know why. Because he has a softness for cats—whether it’s hearing about one of his clients who has an outdoor cat and really liked it, or when my cousin fostered kittens and he really liked playing with them. Whereas, if you have a parent like Mom who is scared or doesn’t have a visible sense of softness toward cats, it would be difficult to convince them. So, if you have a parent who’s more open, who has pyaar (love) in their heart for it, then maybe it might work. I also knew that Dad initially didn’t like our fish at all when I first got them, but then after a week, he was like, “Ferheen I really like this fish. Can we get more fish?” And I asked him if he wanted to feed them and he did. That showed a level of openness.  

The other key point to my appeal was the pathos surrounding it. I think it really hit him that I was lonely. And he knew that; he went to visit me in Japan and knew how independent and happy I was. When I returned home, I stopped exercising and started feeling depressed. He seemed to understand me better when I was vulnerable with him. See, my dad has a very specific personality type—he is a homebody. I had to approach the situation very carefully by explaining, “I want to make this home better. The only way I can think of making this home better is introducing something else.” I had to think about how the family dynamic can change in the easiest way, which turns out to be adopting a pet. There are a lot of studies that show pets truly do bring happiness, even hope, into a home.

You have to figure out what type of pet works. You can start by sending your family cat memes and starting to gauge their reactions. You have to have a partly emotional / partly logic based approach. 

On the other hand, parents adapt. Desi parents often love meddling in the lives of their children (usually well-intentioned!). But when you become an adult, it’s frustrating when parents insert themselves into your life, especially if you’ve moved back home with them. When you introduce a pet to them, though, they can take care of the pet instead. I’ve seen so many stories of that happening in an immigrant family, where someone just brings a pet that their parents don’t want, and the parents fall in love. 

So, you want a pet but your immigrant parents say stuff like, “Taking care of you is enough! Why should we get an animal too?” Here are some strategies you can employ to get the animal of your dreams:

Babies in a fresh-out-of-the-dryer jacket

1. Start with fish. My dad was really annoyed at first that I had a fish tank in my room, but after a while, he not only got used to them, but even got excited to feed them. Having a small animal to take care of helps introduce your immigrant parents to the idea of having a pet. It also shows them that YOU are responsible for the animal, not them. I think this is key: a lot of parents end up taking care of the animal instead of the kid who wanted the pet. So prove to your parents that you aren’t going to abandon the animal once the novelty wears off.

2. Introduce your parents to pets that are really nice. Let’s say a friend has a really sweet dog. Consider taking your parents to your friend’s house to introduce them. If they start liking the dog, it might work in your favor!

3. If you have a more logical parent, come at the conversation in a down-to-earth logical way. It helps if you’re older (sorry, kids) because your parents start looking at you more as an adult than child. If you can calmly explain why having a pet is important to your health, your parents may be more inclined to indulge you. I explained to my father a few key points: 1. that I had been feeling very lonely, 2. that I lost my sense of independence after moving home, and 3. that the energy of the house had been stagnant and negative. Then I expressed to him that my therapist said getting a pet may help solve a lot of those feelings. Unfortunately, if your parents aren’t super thrilled about the idea of mental health issues, it might be hard to bring up these points, but I urge you to try. I think being vulnerable about these issues with your parents is key to strengthening that adult relationship you have with them. 

FERHEEN | THE MONEY FACTOR:

Money is a big concern that a lot of parents have. How much will the pet cost? It would be a great idea to write out a budget: the initial costs of adopting the animal, toys, beds, food, doctors visits, etc. Start saving! Money was the other reason why I never pressed getting a cat. When I was in 4th grade, my dad lost his job and my mom had cancer. When that happened, our finances tanked; we were very poor.  I’ve always wanted to provide as much as I can if I were to have an animal: buying quality food, being able to spoil them with toys, having money for when they get sick. All those things combined, I realized that I needed to afford having a cat and never felt that way. Even now, I still don’t feel like I can afford a cat, but because my brother is willing to help out financially, I feel more comfortable about it. I even have a stock account specific for the cats—just in case. 

Zayn is always a squirmy child

SAMIA | WHY HAVING A CAT ALLERGY ISN’T A PERSONALITY TRAIT:

Basically, I have bad cat allergies and this has come up in many conversations with people in the past when talking about cats. I remember meeting my cousin Arifa’s late cat Billo when I was little and erupting in sneezes. The same thing happened when my cousin Safa and her family took care of a friend’s cat named Zaytun (inspo for Zayn’s name for sure!). The few sleepovers I had at her house was marked by a clogged nose, watery eyes, and the haziness of Benadryl. I felt robbed that I had a cat allergy, because my siblings were perfectly fine. It was just my mom and me who had allergies. Even so, I became an Emotional Support Animal (ESA) RA when the opportunity arose the fall of my 2nd year at Mills. My days were spent listening to cats meow and dogs bark, answering calls related to rogue escaped cats, and best of all, getting to play with cute puppies. I think I gained some immunity to cat fur, because when I encountered a cute neighborhood cat after moving home from college, I had very little allergic reactions (I pet him, too!). The type of cat hair might also have factored into this. 

I already take a daily nasal spray, Kirkland Aller-Flo (generic Flonase) for my dust allergy, but in order to function allergy-free with 2 cats, I also had to start taking Kirkland Aller-Clear (generic Claritin) pills. By taking 2 different types of allergy medicines, I could effectively suppress the histamine response in my body that occurs due to cat saliva antigens (yes, Ferheen wrote this sentence, lol). With these 2 allergy medicines, I barely ever feel allergy symptoms. It’s quite amazing to bury my nose into their fur and not feel anything except Zayn and Naru’s softness. My mom’s cat allergies are pretty nonexistent as well. This is our particular case, so I’m not sure how this pans out for other people with cat allergies. 

SAMIA | COVID-19 & HOW THE CATS HAVE BEEN SO BENEFICIAL: 

Our Eid card

“I wish we got them a long time ago,” our father had stated—not once but twice—when Ferheen interviewed him.  We’ve had the cats for about 5 months now, and it’s safe to say that they have 100% had a beneficial impact on our household. We’ve noticed a change in our family dynamic: taking care of their needs, telling each other about the silly things we see the cats do, sharing pictures in our family chat group. While working from home and being sheltered-in-place during the pandemic, we especially notice that the cats have brought such calming energy to our lives. They remind me of the small joys in life—when I’m working and Naru or Zayn will come to my room and stare out the window or sniff the floor in search of crumbs. We get so stuck in our priorities and stresses and work that we forget to stop and appreciate the small wonders and moments of happiness. I love walking around the house to look after them while taking a break from work. Before the pandemic, Ferheen and Sufyan noted how the cats have given them something to look forward to about coming home. Let’s face it: we’re 3 adult children whose parents expect us to live at home until we get married—it’s a cultural thing—coupled with the ridiculous cost of Bay Area rent prices. It’s ultimately a privilege that our parents own their house and we get to live there. Zayn and Naru have helped our house feel more like a home. 

You can follow Zayn & Naru’s adventures on Instagram @zaynaru!

Sleepy muffins

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