Monday, July 23, 2012

Couch Surfing

"Please come, my friend." So began the response to the first couch request I ever sent through Couch surfing, for the uninitiated, is a new term for a very old concept—hospitality. Through the Couch Surfing website, travelers to an unfamiliar city can find locals who are willing to meet up for coffee, show them around the city, or even offer a place to sleep. It is citizen diplomacy in its purest form.

When I was planning my trip through China, I decided to give couch surfing a try. I had heard about it before but had never been in the position to host, so I never got around to signing up.  On a whim I thought, "well, let's see if they have any couch surfers in China." It didn't take long to find out that China has an active and vibrant couch surfing community. Just to see what would happen, I sent out a request to a couch surfer in Shanghai, the first stop on my journey. Within five hours I had received a reply. The minute I received that reply, I was hooked. In the three months that I crisscrossed China, I spent 53 nights in the homes of 30 people I had never met before. I stayed with Chinese nationals, foreign expats, college students, families with children, retired people, gay, straight, men, and women. I slept on couches, floors, and beds in lavish homes and modest, spartan apartments. Every host was gloriously different and added something new to my Chinese experience.

A few highlights (leaving many out):
  • One host was the assistant artistic director at a Cirque du Soleil type show at a big casino in Macau. He was able to get me good seats for the amazing show for a much better price than I could have afforded otherwise, and then I got a backstage tour afterwards. 
  • One host's father was generous enough to gift me with an old sweater from his closet when it seemed like I was cold. I wore that sweater every day for about a month (I received it just before the coldest parts of my sojourn).
  • One host drove me to and from a different city two hours away just so we could sample some of that city's street food.
  • Several hosts (or their families) included me in big traditional Chinese dinners and made me feel very welcome.
There are many more highlights and lots of great stories; these are merely a sample.

Becoming a couch surfer is easy. Registration at the Couch Surfing website is free. Once you've signed up, you can search for other registered surfers anywhere in the world. Likewise, they will be able to find you if they search for your city. New couch surfers often express a concern for safety, which the Couch Surfing website addresses with several safety measures. First, all participants have the opportunity to become a "verified" member. Essentially, a couch surfer can use a credit card to make a small donation to the Couch Surfing organization. This allows the website to verify that a surfer is using his or her real identity on the website. The second key safety measure is a community vouching system. Only couch surfers who have been vouched for three times by other couch surfers have the ability to vouch for the people they have met and trust (the vouching began with the site's founders and the people they trusted, and spread from there). The best safety measure, of course, is that you are never under any obligation to host a person who wants to stay in your home. You can judge from the person's request and profile page (including reviews from other members) whether or not you feel comfortable hosting him or her. For more about couch surfing safely, visit

Speaking from personal experience, couch surfing is an exciting way to interact with people of different cultures. As a solo traveler, the free accommodation was nice, but the opportunity to learn about a new city from a local was priceless. My book (and this website) are 100 times richer because of the local knowledge shared with me by my hosts and their families. I joined the community on a whim. That was, perhaps, the best whim-based decision I ever made.

Note: This article previously appeared, slightly modified, in the July 2012 issue of the NCIV Network News.


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