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I’d like to teach the world to surf

Nihon de no mokuteki wa nan desu ka?”
“What is your purpose for being in Japan?”

I confess to being lost for words recently when a Japanese colleague asked me this deceptively simple question. Did he mean professionally? Personally? Existentially? Was this an innocent inquiry (a benign translation of “So, what brings you to Japan?”) or was I being asked to justify my presence in Japan on the grounds of not being born here? Regardless, it is a question that internationally-minded FN readers – both non-Japanese and Japanese alike – would do well to ask themselves. For beyond matters of the wallet and the heart, what is it that brings us together at this time and place? Isn’t our common link that we are all striving to build bridges between nations rather than raise the drawbridge on our own? And if so, how do we most effectively promote meaningful dialogue between people of different backgrounds?

IMHO (In my humble opinion for non-webspeakers), few Japanese phrases can have generated so much ink and so little insight as kokusaika (internationalization) and its more recent incarnation tabunka kyousei (multicultural diversity). While I welcome any meaningful attempt to decipher these slippery ideological terms, all too often “cross-cultural communication” is reduced to glib observations on the outward trappings of so-called “national culture”. In this scenario, the global village becomes little more than a global flea market where by-products of culture – food, dress, linguistic differences, etc – are consumed.

Now, while I’m not entirely averse to sharing cultural pleasantries about Britain’s favorite food (long-time champion “Indian curry” this year lost out to…chow mein!), this is not exactly the “meat and potatoes”, as it were, of cross-cultural understanding. And while I’m being flippant, of course (a British national characteristic, apparently, but let’s not get started…), there is a more serious side to all this. Namely, that an obsession with cultural difference can serve as a defensive shield for those who don’t want their values or underlying assumptions challenged. Focusing exclusively on difference allows people to opt out of serious engagement with the world and to fall back on lazy stereotypes instead. Why try to understand each other if our cultures, our value-systems, our ways of being, are just so “different”?

Of course, the truth is that we are not, after all, so very different. And while we can all recognize some truths in our national stereotypes, isn’t the more valuable task in identifying our shared goals, anxieties and expectations? Seeking common ground and, yes, compromise with one another. While judging a book by its cover takes no time at all, attempting to read and understand that same book requires time and commitment. We have to sit down, listen and share our experiences. And we must also be prepared to have our old ideas challenged.

I know what you are thinking. “So, Mr. Peace, Love and Happiness, just where do we find this honest and intimate cross-cultural dialogue of which you speak?” Well, you could do worse than join the million-plus army of international CouchSurfers. is “a worldwide network for making connections between travelers and the local communities they visit.” The idea is simple. Travel somewhere new, stay with someone local, share life experiences. That’s it. Of course, like most things in life, you get out of CS what you put in, and some will use it as nothing more than free accommodation. But the guiding principal of CS is that “We make the world a better place by opening our homes, our hearts, and our lives. We open our minds and welcome the knowledge that cultural exchange makes available.” ‘Nuff said.

I often meet Japanese people who bemoan the lack of opportunity to engage with foreigners. So here is your chance. Sign up today. “But isn’t it dangerous?” Well, there are many safety features like references and verifications. The rest is common sense. And the key is trust. “But won’t I need good English?” Well, you’ll usually need a bit, but that’s why you’ve been taking all those English classes, isn’t it? “But what if I live at home?” Great – get the whole family involved! “But isn’t it just for single travelers or young people?” Well, I had a Swiss mother with two daughters visiting this week. And my oldest guest was in her seventies (she did bring her son, though…).

CouchSurfing won’t bring world peace anytime soon but in facilitating genuine cross-cultural exchange and dialogue, it can help to break down stereotypes and bring us all a little closer to understanding each other. And isn’t that, after all, the real mokuteki? I have had great experiences as both a surfer and a host, and I’ve learned a lot about the world and about my own assumptions. So come on, CouchSurfers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but a Lonely Planet…

Learn more about couchsurfing online:

by Joe Sieder / World Citizen / Couch Surfer

Originally published in Fukuoka Now magazine (fn128 Jul. 2009)


Fukuoka City
Published: Jul 1, 2009 / Last Updated: Jun 13, 2017