Remembering Oolong, the Well Travelled Hamster


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Today I’m going to tell you the story of oolong. A silly little guy with iconic round, smart eyes.

He always made sure to have the prettiest fur, even in the toughest of times.

He loved peanuts, of all things. The picky bastard always left behind some food in his bowl. He also enjoyed pears, carrots and parsnips, broccoli less so.

He also gave the most memeable reactions.

I remember the very first time we met.

My sister and I were in the pet shop, ironically considering getting a bunny, but we were hesitant. Then suddenly, we passed by a cage labelled Syrian hamster and saw him curled up in his nap. We were instantly in love with the pattern and colour of his fur and got him on a whim. We named him oolong because as a baby, his fur had the exact shade of brown that oolong milk tea had. We begged the shop to keep him for one more day so we could get his home ready.

How should I describe oolong? He was definitely a hermit like me, but he was also my roommate for two years, where he watched me work, study, practise, and do everything in my room.

As an architect, He enjoyed digging craters in his environment, and would build houses using anything imaginable. His little hut was constantly lined with something resembling hardened sand. But he was also a clean boy, having taught himself to only pee in his sand bowl by himself, so his home never ever stank.

He had a particular habit of ‘cycling’ his food: he would first dig himself a crater, then repeatedly pick up food from the bottom and drop it at the top, forming a cycle.
In his emo teenager phase, whenever I invited him out of his hut, he also enjoyed throwing his poop at me. Or maybe he thought I was his binman. Who knows.

During the pandemic, he was my only roommate and friend IRL. Every morning, I’d greet him in his hut, and made it my routine to refill his water before bed. Whenever I left home overnight, I was always scared to leave him alone, so I set up all sorts of contingencies, from a remote-controlled camera to housemates and giving a key to friends living nearby.

But when I left home for two weeks in a row, I couldn’t just leave him. So I took him along with me to live in Glasgow for a bit. I can proudly say he’s a well-travelled hamster, having lived in 3 cities in 2 countries.

Now the problem with keeping a rodent is that they can’t roam free, so their cage is all the living space they get. As he grew, I thought I wanted to give him a bigger and nicer home. So I did what Hongkongers do best when we run out of space to build on: I built upwards. I took two storage boxes, connected them with a tube, and used them for living and playing respectively.

When I got the news that the Hong Kong government decided to heartlessly slaughter thousands of hamsters, I looked into Oolong’s eyes, and thought about how fortunate I was to have him over here with me, as thousands of children in a distant land lost their friends.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I ever gained 100% of his trust. While he was perfectly comfortable hanging out while I was around, he was always cautious not to put all four of his paws on my hand at once. I think the only time he willingly hopped on was when he was sick and weak.

One of his strongest suits was destroying things. His favourite toy of all time was a wooden unicorn head, which he often hugged to sleep, and more often, chewed the living sh*t out of. I later also got him a second, chewable hut, whose straw roof he promptly took apart.

Perhaps it was precisely that which went wrong. It would be quite ironic, that his best feature was what took him away from me.

A few months before he was two years old, his left eye started swelling. His vet had no idea where it came from, but it could be either an infection from an injury or an internal problem.

Every time I took him to the vet, the vet always said to keep him comfortable – words that I didn’t know at the time meant something was very wrong.
He was always good at giving me that glimmer of hope, telling me hamsters can live longer than this. Or his fur is still tidy. Or more medically speaking, his eye will die, but his body will heal.

Throughout the months, I spent my savings on Oolong’s antibiotics and painkillers, to aid his body in healing. I assume he didn’t know what was going on, or was simply suffering, such that whenever I tried to feed him the meds, he would push the syringe away like a grumpy, annoyed child. I actually tried tricking him with a strategy that my mum used on me when I was a kid, by lining the syringe in sweet honey. But he was so smart and aware, it only worked once. So he was definitely smarter than childhood me.

But despite all that, his eye worsened and scabbed over. The vet predicted that that meant the eye had died and he had healed, but as he removed the scab, reality would prove to be otherwise. That was the moment the exasperation truly set in. I knew I had to be ready.

After I deep-cleaned his home for the last time – something I wouldn’t have known back then – he stopped filling up every one of his many hideouts with crap and simply left them empty. He also kept changing where he slept, something that he rarely used to do. He also flipped over one day and struggled to get back up.

In late February, I had to be away for only a couple of days, while my mother would take care of him. I said to him: promise me. Promise me you’ll make it at least until I’m back to say goodbye. Only a couple of days. Please.

Perhaps he did promise and he did make it. I can’t tell. But at that point, I already had a feeling of what was about to happen. My worst fears were surfacing.

In a sense, I’m glad I was there for most of his final days. I was about to go on a much longer trip, and if he had to go, I’d rather he didn’t go while in someone else’s care for weeks on end.

When I got home from this short trip, I immediately looked into his home. I was 60% sure I saw him breathing in his sleep. But just a few hours later, I was about to go out, and thought I would refill his water bowl. That’s when I found out he was truly gone.

My last words to him were what I said just after arriving home. Oolong? Are you there? Are you sleeping? Sleep tight.

Perhaps he did hear me. He heard me and thought “I made it. It’s time to go.”

As we gently laid him in the ground, all my brain could think was: What if he’s just sleeping? Maybe as we look away, he’ll climb out of the hole. And then he’ll find a happier life in the freedom of mother nature.

That was a year ago. The days after he left, I had so many thoughts racing through my head.

I wonder why he went to his least favourite hideout in his final moments, the same one that he’d destroyed and might have destroyed him. He entered his least familiar environment and never came out again.

I thought I was going to make him chicken at some point. Why didn’t I do it sooner? The last good thing I did for him was cleaning his play area.

The first night after oolong left, me and partner were sleeping in the same room with the empty enclosure. I hallucinated a sound from the nuts, while she was unconsciously waiting for his wheel to start squeaking the moment the lights went off. It was all so eerily quiet. I could hear it in my head. I could hear everything. But it just wasn’t there in real life. For a while, every night I would feel, deep down, that something was missing in this silence.

I kept his home untouched for a good few months. And whenever I looked in the direction of the cage, I’d pause, expecting to see him roaming about, minding his own business.

All those rigid schedules and routines I’d set up were just gone in a puff. No more supplying water/food every day, feeding him antibiotics, spot cleaning, replacing bathing sands, changing half his bedding every once in a while. I had so much more free time, I didn’t know what to do with it but to think of him. I’d got so used to all these things…and they were just gone now?

It’s just… a baffling thought that he will never run again, will never have another peanut again. And all I can say is…

Dear Oolong – ever since you left, I’ve been thinking if there’s anything I could’ve, would’ve should’ve done differently, to give you a better life or made you happier with me. But as with anything else in this world, what’s been done is done, and we work with the cards we’ve been dealt. I still don’t know what ultimately took you from me, but I’m glad you were there. For two of the hardest years in this generation, I’m glad it was with you that I lived, laughed, and stared into what seemed like an endless void (laugh) – just like the one that you’ve left in my life.