Couch surfing and house swapping are popular among Western travelers worldwide and they are just getting started in China. Surfing mostly involves foreigners, while swapping is almost exclusively by Chinese taking domestic trips.
For both free arrangements, the key words are "trust" and "share," and Chinese are especially wary of hosting couch surfers - total strangers - who find them through the Internet. However, there are a few young, adventurous, open-minded Chinese hosts with their own flats and no parents to object. They like the idea of getting to know others, both Chinese and foreign.
The reason for resistance is that every Chinese grew up hearing the two sayings - "domestic affairs must be kept inside the home" and "it's wise to prevent even the one-millionth chance of danger." Of course, concern for private space and keeping family issues private is not limited to China.
These deep-rooted sentiments about the sanctity of the home and private space work against the spirit of couch surfing and house swapping. So, the idea of letting a stranger sleep on your couch, or in your spare room (if you have one), or letting strangers (even people you know) move into your house while you are away makes many people say "no way."
It's all so informal and unpredictable.
Here's a look at both.
Couch surfing - seeing the world from other people's couches, not hotel beds - got started in China in the past two or three years. The biggest international Website (www.couchsurfing.com) started in 2003. There's a Shanghai page.
At the beginning, the idea was simply to offer your couch to travelers with limited budget to sleep for a night or two. Hosts and surfers connected through agencies, acquaintances or advertisements.
Now, with the Internet, travelers or expats new to a city can search online for hosts, who provide detailed descriptions of the location and facilities of their homes. Hosts can discuss security and certificates from past hosts, length of stay, living habits (smoking, tidiness, etc), and other issues through e-mail.
The largest couch surfing community (www.couchsurfing.com) has more than 300 members in Shanghai and some of them host more than 100 individuals, couples or groups a year. However, most hosts are expats working in Shanghai.
Of the Chinese hosts, most have lived overseas, work in a Western company or just have many expat friends. Some are only willing to show surfers around the city or to take them for a drink, rather than opening their homes. Virtually all are men.
"This is a phenomenon worldwide - lots of hosts are expats or travelers, even in couch surfing's most popular city, Paris, but it is particularly obvious in China," says Philip Tzou, a prominent host in the city. He rents an apartment.
Tzou grew up in Belgium and he knows about foreign travel and the need for a place to stay.
People who have lived outside their home country can sympathize with and understand those in similar situations. Many know how difficult it can be to find a place to stay for the first couple of days in a new city.
One young Chinese women says the idea of hosting would be okay, but adds that most foreign surfers want to come to Shanghai to party - she has to get up early to work and can't accommodate them.
American Sierra Melcher from Los Angeles has been hosting surfers since she arrived in Shanghai more than a year ago. The teacher of ancient history at the Shanghai American School is in her 20s.
She enjoys sharing her unique apartment in an old-fashioned house in the city center because "it is great to meet amazing people from other parts of the world."
Melcher has hosted 75 surfers in the past year and she now considers "30 of them among my 50 best friends in the world." She feels satisfied "because those people view Shanghai partially through my eyes and I feel it's my obligation to share my apartment, my experience and my love."
To 26-year-old office lady Peggy Li, Melcher's idea is "too naive and innocent." She wouldn't be a host but she has friends who do and she thinks the very idea is wrong.
"We always say 'it's wise to prevent even the one-millionth chance of danger' and that's so true. Because the one-millionth chance might be fatal," she says. "What if your guest is a serial murder? You know nothing about them besides their profiles online."
Melcher says concern for security is universal. "In the current society, people don't trust each other," she says. But she believes "people are good and I make it a practice to trust people."
Hence, Melcher has hosted a lot of first-time surfers, who don't have much proof or credibility in the online community.
Tzou says that all profiles online are divided into different verification levels to inform viewers whether the person's name and address are confirmed. Review your surfer's profile and especially references, he says.
"References give you first-hand information from people who have spent time with the person," explains Tzou. He also says the couch surfing community proves the "six degrees of separation" theory - that you are connected to a total stranger through less than six degrees in your network.
"You can always find someone in your couch surfing network who is acquainted with the coming surfer," he says.
Li urged her friends not even to try and though they have had good experiences, she remains opposed.
"We grew up learning that domestic affairs must be kept inside the household, which means anything ugly inside the house should not be known to others," says Li. "It doesn't mean that I have ugly things at home, but everyone has something that you don't want people to know about, not to mention it is a complete stranger that you know nothing about."
Of course, Li also has concerns about security, and even more about status or "face" (mianzi).
"It's not like I don't have the money to stay at a cheap hotel. How would I tell my parents and friends that I toured, say, Europe staying at strangers' homes, and sometimes with people of the other sex in one small room?" she says.
Young Chinese who are willing to host must often deal with parents who are not. Jennifer Liu loves traveling and was excited to hear about couch surfing. Since she still lives at home, she tried to explain and persuade her mom many times.
"It wouldn't work. It is okay for a friend to stay, but my mom just can't accept the idea of welcoming a total stranger who doesn't have money to stay at hotels," notes Liu. "I also told her many people do it to get direct contact with the local community, rather than lack of money, but she wouldn't listen to me at all."
And Liu herself admits that she would not dare to give her house key to a stranger.
Tzou is not surprised by the resistance. "More and more Chinese people are joining the community. Most of them became a host after they tried surfing."
Tzou says many people learn to trust others after they feel trusted.
"Many members told me how amazing they felt when their hosts gave them the key to the house five minutes after meeting with them. Then they came back and became hosts themselves. They feel the need to host because they have been given."
Although the only official rule on coachsurfing.com is that you have to be 18 or above, Tzou offers some tips for potential hosts and surfers - don't expect too much, like learning English, meeting Mr/Ms Right or getting gifts - then you will always be pleasantly surprised.
"To be a good host, you need a soul for travel and genuine interest in people and society to bring down cultural barriers. But also you need to protect yourself: be clear about your living habits, preferences and issues, review your surfer's profile carefully and discuss the stay in advance." You might also want a copy of the surfer's passport, Tzou says.
As for surfers, Tzou says they should be "independent, communicative and it would be great to bring some specialty from your region as gifts to your hosts."
In the film "The Holiday," Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet swap their houses for a holiday, leading to two romantic relations with local guys. In real life, it might not be so romantic.
There are concerns about security and privacy. It is not only arranged through individuals: Many agents will arrange house swaps, taking you to some expensive service apartments and houses in the city.
While it is mostly expats who go couch surfing in China and all over the world, house swappers in China are mostly Chinese going on domestic trips, swapping with other Chinese. It gets too complicated with foreigners.
There are many local Websites for house swapping and more people are coming to accept the idea. It's more appealing to Chinese than couch surfing because "there is an exchange and you don't need to worry about your private life being interrupted since you probably don't have to meet with the other side," says Sophie Tang.
Tang, 29 and recently married, says the arrangement is "quite fair." She and her husband swapped apartments over the past National Day holiday and went to Qingdao in Shandong Province.
"We spent a great time staying in a local house rather than a hotel. We made friends with their neighbors and felt more connected to the local culture there. I'm thinking about doing the same for our next trip to Hainan."
Tang feels safe because "at least they have an apartment, a permanent address so you can track them down if necessary."
Is it really secure? Most free local house swapping Websites do not require any identify verification or other documents to sign up. That means you don't have to own property to sign up and there is no way the other side would know about that. You could be a renter operating without a landlord's permission.
Nobody wants to risk coming back from a trip to find everything is gone from their home.
For security, many Websites require an annual membership fee, from 100 yuan (US$13.50). Those Websites promise to conduct identity and address verification, sometimes even property ownership.
The long process and high requirements automatically prevent many people from signing up and the sites are filled with advertisements for expensive service apartments.
Even when one successfully and securely swaps a house, he or she is still facing risks - a messy house, appliances broken, even unpaid telephone and utility bills.
Tips for house swapping
Get photocopies of the house swapper's ID.
Have your relatives or friends pick them up at the airport/train station and check their IDs.
Don't leave valuables at home.
Leave a detailed note about how to use the facilities in your house.
(Shanghai Daily December 3, 2007)