“So… What is CS?” asked one member of my most active WeChat group one day after we were talking about our monthly “cs meeting”. Fair enough. “CS”, according to the English Wikipedia may stand for over 40 different names of places, organizations, things and so on. While any of you who teach teenage boys might associate the abbreviation with the first-person multiplayer game where you shoot everyone, in this context it is just short for CouchSurfing.
The concept as well as the CouchSurfing website (Chinese: 沙发客网 sha1fa1ke4wang3) are still pretty new to China and may not be well-known outside of backpacker circles anywhere.
Although many members of the popular WeChat group as well as people attending the events might actually not have an account on the actual CouchSurfing website. Very little that goes on at events that has anything to do with the website or its concepts.
But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the group embodies the (non-profit) couchsurfing spirit. It’s supportive, social, inter-culturally curious, helpful, fun open-minded and most of all, geared towards building communities around the world. Throughout its brief history in Ningbo the group has offered friendship, support, tips, recommendations and last-minute answers to any kind of questions that may come up while moving, living or traveling around in Ningbo and its surroundings. Whether the question is where one might find a good kebab in this city, who might be hiring, how to get to Jiulong Lake or even just who wants to turn up tonight, someone in CouchSurfing has you covered. It might not purely offer as many couches to surf, but it welcomes, supports and connects people, whether they are in Ningbo for the long term or just passing through.
When I asked Benji, one of the most active members of Ningbo’s CouchSurfing community, to describe the site and idea in three words, he said, “All about friends.”
“Couchsurfing initially was created as a way in which to connect people, sometimes like-minded people, but sometimes not necessarily so, but people from different places, different worlds and aspects of life.”, he says. “It’s meant for people to meet each other, for people to connect and show others their community, and the beauty of their places, and the beauty of their lives, and to let someone from the outside in.”
The original incarnation of CouchSurfing was as a non-profit organization, with its site first launched in 2003 by American Casey Fenton and a few of his friends. The idea was to create a community to help people to find not only places to stay at, but new friends to make when traveling around the world.
“There is often a misconception there that it is for people who cannot afford to rent a hotel room or to stay in a hostel,” says Benji. “But that’s not in fact what it is.”
Emily Williams, a CouchSurfing veteran explains, “Even if I had all the money in the world, I would probably still use couchsurfing and hitch-hike.”
For “CSers” like Benji and Emily, it’s more about creating and fostering a global community and connecting with people.
“I’ve used couchsurfing a lot both hosting and surfing and in fact I have a lot of friends, people who have just become friends all over the world,” says Emily. “One of my favorite things is, once you’ve been on the site for long enough, you start to reconnect with people around the world. I’ve taken specific trips just to visit CouchSurfers who’d become really good friends. And some of my best best friends and actually, oh my gosh, even my ex I are people I’ve met through CouchSurfing!”
October 8th saw the first CS meeting after the summer break that started with burgers and beer at Uncle Bruce’s in Laowaitan on the 8th of October and continued at Bad Monkey Club with a smashing dance party. This event had a very special, exciting atmosphere as it was the first one after a long break during which many of Ningbo’s good people have said their for good-farewell, but new, great people have arrived at the same time.
“Ningbo has a very interesting couchsurfing community in comparison to some of the places that I have been,” says Benji. “For a city as large as it is, there is quite a small and I think tightly knit community here.”
Emily, who has never attended many CS meetups, but used it genuinely to host and surf, couchsurfing in Ningbo feels a little different. “My impression of Couchsurfing in Ningbo is that it is more of a social thing. And perhaps less about people, you know, genuinely offering up their couch.”
Being “more of a social thing”, the Ningbo couchsurfing group seems to offer something that the actual website has lost a little though.
“The site actually used to be a lot different”, says Emily. “There used to be groups that were actually super developed, that had a lot of information and resources, for like food sharing and hitch-hiking and stuff like that. And I used to use those groups a lot. For ride sharing too. I often found rides and found groups that I camped with at different festivals all through CouchSurfing. But, when CouchSurfing sold out (the company transitioned into a private “ “a mission-driven for-profit corporation” company in May 2011) a lot of those groups were dismantled.”
Luckily, this is exactly what Ningbo’s CouchSurfing community does best: providing information, resources, company and friendship, and sometimes, to a lesser extent, even couches.