Sister states: couchsurfing in the name of international relations

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Human Statue of Liberty at Camp Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa; 1918.I used to work for an arts non-profit, doing a variety of things loosely filed under a project manager-type title — and my very favorite experience in that job happened one summer when a group called Iowa Sister States contacted my org about working with a jazz trio from Veneto, Italy.

It took some doing, but in the end we rented equipment and worked these guys into our summer jazz schedule, and I spent a day and a half running around town with a group of incredibly nice men who didn’t really speak a lick of English — and the only other language I speak is enough Spanish to communicate pool rules to you and ask that you please not run on the deck.

Anyway, the guys played amazing music — the best we had that summer — and it turned me on to the work ISS does. This isn’t a super well-known program, but it seems like it’d be right up the Homies’ alley.

Basically, the organization facilitates exchange programs between Iowa and eight foreign states in Japan, Mexico, China, Malaysia, Russia, Taiwan, Ukraine, and Italy. They work to bring in artists, medical professionals, environmental professionals, athletes, educators, chefs, emergency response professionals, and official state delegations who then put on shows, participate in education and seminars in my state and — of most interest to us here on Offbeat Home — bunk with Iowans. In lots of ways it’s like a non-profit that organizes couch-surfers.

Though Iowa has the largest Sister States program — thanks to Governor Robert Ray and his relationship with the USSR — there are programs like this going on all over the world. I sat down with my friend Kim Heidemann from ISS to get a primer on how one dives into hosting international guests — and what one should expect when they agree to board a couple of strangers with whom they may or may not share a language.

The typical international hosting experience

Well, this is easy: there is no “typical” experience. Each relationship is as different as the people who make it up — though it’s very common for people to report their experience felt like summer camp. By the end of each visit, there are tears on both sides and lifelong bonds are formed.

While each visit has different factors, similarities include:

  • Language: Often guests and hosts don’t share a language. The program employs interpreters whenever possible but also emphasizes that interpreters aren’t the only way to communicate! Every guest has a different level of language skills; they may not speak English, but may write, read, or listen effectively. You know, like in Spanish class when the spoken bits of tests were nightmares, but writing in answers was a breeze. According to Kim, hosts should always assume their guests can understand every word.
  • Polite guests. Most guests arrive wary and a bit out of their element. Many of them have no idea what to expect. They’ve heard Americans are cold, uncaring, or decadent. Or they expect Iowa to be dotted with saloons, old west style. Often guests tiptoe about for the first day or two, not wanting to tax their hosts’ generosity — but after everyone has time to settle in together, life gets smoother and more fun.
  • Curious guests. Many visitors want to visit a McDonalds or a Wal-mart — and Kim says one visit is usually enough. Hosts often get to introduce the most well-known parts of our culture to their new friends. Some visitors also come bearing shopping lists and empty suitcases: they plan to return home with everything from American jeans to iPods to microwaves to $2000 worth of John Wayne-style duster jackets.
  • Food insecurity: Iowa Sister States advises hosts to take their guests to a grocery store so they may help select food they recognize and feel comfortable with. Buffets are also a big hit — required communication is minimal and visitors are able to sample many foods without commitment.
  • Calling home. Guests love to Skype, or phone, or at least email. Bonus points when hosts pick up a couple international phone cards in preparation.
  • Cultural understanding. These are my favorite stories. America is a famous country, guys. People all over the world have notions about us — true and untrue. Exchange programs like Iowa Sister States gives Americans the chance to experience other cultures and to put our best face forward. Invariably, guests are surprised by Midwestern friendliness — one man actually thought Kim had planted people along the street with instructions to smile and greet their group. A good example of what Iowans learn? Many guests are astounded by our sense of safety, since they come from unstable, unsafe countries where one must constantly be on alert.

Are you a good international host candidate?

Strong candidates are open minded and look forward to new experiences, and are flexible and patient — especially in communicating, since most guests don’t speak fluent English. ISS doesn’t have a formal application program — getting involved is as simple as giving the staff a heads-up that, hey, you’d like to throw your hat in the ring to host.

In working with organizations like ISS, hosts are expected to provide a bed — one room per person is preferable. It’s nice, but not required, to be able to host two guests. Hosts should be able to transport their guests to each days’ programming with Iowa Sister States, and to pick them up at the end of the day and provide the evening meal. Evenings are also a time for some entertainment — showing guests around town; local haunts, favorite stores, good restaurants.

Learning more

Hosting international couchsurfers like this is a repeat activity for most hosts — one family in Des Moines has hosted more than 150 international visitors. That kind of testimonial goes a long way to impressing me with what a great experience it is.

If you’re in Iowa, start with the ISS site and get in touch with Kim or Carol. Elsewhere, there isn’t a national overarching program which keeps track of these things, surprisingly. Start with plugging your location into Google and SHARE any resources you’ve got.

REMEMBER! Just because you aren’t in the US doesn’t mean there won’t be similar opportunities. Many city halls are also full of info on sister cities and sister states — they should be able to tell you about your city’s sisters and how you can get involved in international relations.

Have you hosted international visitors like this? What was your experience?

Comments on Sister states: couchsurfing in the name of international relations

  1. I love this post! I have been thinking about submitting a post on couch surfing.

    We have hosted 2 Belarussians for 5 days in December and found it to be a great experience. Much like the ISS program, they went off to their program in the morning and came home to us in the evening. We were able to communicate in English (for all of us not a native language), which certainly made things easier. Having an open mind (about when to eat which foods, for example, they really liked soup in the morning, while we normally only eat bread) is definitely a good idea. I really liked talking about our and their lives and the chance of getting a peak into someone elses’ life. I definitely recommend hosting! We liked it so much we ended up joining http://www.couchsurfing.com as hosts and have since hosted a Chinese girl and a Dutch guy (I’m Dutch, so he wasn’t a foreigner, but he did come from the other side of the country). Love and recommend!

  2. In the UK we call it “twinning” – and most villages, towns and cities have a “twin” or several, normally in Europe. I’ve been on trips with the village I grew up, the town I went to secondary school in and the city I went to primary school in – and had guests in our house too. They were all awesome.

  3. When I was a kid, my family hosted two Japanese college students from the sister YMCA to the one my mom worked for. They stayed with us (and other families from our Y) before heading down to World Camp (it was in San Francisco that year, and we lived in Olympia, WA).

    One thing that surprised us was what their perception of Americans was like. We lived practically out in the country, but our guests were *terrified* that someone was going to come and do a driveby in our neighborhood. My parents had kicked my brother and I out of our rooms so they could each have their own, but it turned out they were actually more comfortable sleeping in the same room (even though that meant dragging my mattress into my brother’s room)!

    They told us they’d make a special Japanese breakfast for us, and we were really excited because we always enjoyed trying new cuisines. However, they had been told that Americans wouldn’t be able to handle Japanese food, which meant we were fed sushi made with things like cooked tuna and hot dogs. They were a bit embarrassed the next day when we had a barbecue in their honor and one of the women my mother worked with (who had Japanese heritage) had made these beautiful sushi platters (with all the traditional fillings). 😉

    When people talk about exchange programs and such, they tend to talk about the cultural exchange from the perspective of the person who leaves his or her native country. However, as a host family, we learned a lot about their culture too!

    I was about 10 or 11 when this all happened, and it was absolutely brilliant. If I could convince my partner, I’d do it again in a heartbeat!

  4. I was actually on the other end of the exchange and went to Japan for 2 weeks. It was amazing! I was about 14 when we went as one big group. Me and my partner stayed with a Japanese family with a daughter my age and a younger brother. My partner was actually a college student majoring in Japanese and they taught us rudimentary Japanese before we went over there from North Pole, Ak, so there wasn’t as much of a language barrier. It was the most amazing experience in the world! Actually living there for 2 weeks was the best thing in the world, and the best lesson I could have ever learned with my parents away. And it was such a culture shock to a lot of us who were still in high school. I am a natural red head and the second I stepped off the plane I was bombarded with people wanting to touch my hair. We were like celebraties, everyone wanted to take pictures with the American High Schoolers. It was kind of awkward with all the attention, we just wanted to hang out at the noodle shops and watch crazy Japanese sitcoms and game shows. That was what they did right? But boy do they know how to make a game show! But then the family that hosted us took us to an amusement park, then to a temple where we got to feed squirrels from our hands. In alaska you would never think to do that. It was just amazing to see how alike we are and yet still have our differences! Personally I think we should open our own squirrel park. It’d be like the summertime Ice Alaska park! But all in all the best 2 weeks of my life were spent in Japan, couchsurfing. And I would do it again.

  5. My family hosted a Japanese woman in our home for two weeks when I was eleven. I became fascinated with Japanese culture, and we hosted three students when I was in middle and high school. I ended up studying Japanese at college and moving to Japan after graduation. I lived there for six years, met my husband there, and can’t imagine how my life would be if my family hadn’t said “yes” to that phone call.

    My English husband visited several European countries on sister school trips when he was young. Not as life-changing for him, but still a good experience.

    Now we’re in the process of moving to America. I definitely hope to be a host family again once we’ve got ourselves set up!

  6. I don’t know if I’d be able to convince my husband to accept a temporary international house guest- especially since we both have long commutes and are gone most the day- but I did find this in a quick search: http://www.sister-cities.org/about/faqs.cfm

    Also, for those in PA (which is how I found the link above):
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sister_cities_in_Pennsylvania

    I was fortunate to travel abroad as a teen, and it does change your outlook at least a bit. This would be really cool to do. 🙂

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