Couchsurfing to Love

Ed. note: The author of today’s post won our Eid contest, “tweet us your love story,” with her entry: “I came to a foreign town & Couchsurfed while finding an apartment. Moved out in a week & moved back in 10 mths later, married.” This is her story…in more than 140 characters. 

sya-1

It was the autumn of 2010. I had made several applications for a postgraduate course in four different cities and I was finally down to two choices. Between London or The Hague, I figured Holland would be less expensive and I would eat better food.

I was a self-funded student and I was looking for the cheapest alternative for everything, especially since I had spent the last two months desperately raising funds. I didn’t expect the university hostel to be so expensive (400 euros, seriously?), so I looked to Couchsurfing for tips.

Hi Dutchman,

This isn’t a CS request, but a general request for help if you know anyone that has a room (in student housing or otherwise) to rent — I’m going to study in Den Haag from this September onwards. I’ve posted some ads but I’m finding it quite difficult… If you have any information at all it would help me a lot, thank you so much!

Cheers, Sya

p/s: I hope you make it to India!

Dear Sya,

Your message reminds me of the need to update my profile again. I actually did make it to India – about a year ago! Haha! Well, anyway, I don’t know about any rooms for rent at the moment. Den Haag can be quite difficult because of all the expats living in the city. There are a few websites that offer rooms (however they do charge quite a high fee for “finding” you a place).

One thing you could actually try is contact my friend, L, who actually moved to Den Haag, surfed my couch for a week and spent her time looking for an apartment. She’s moving to Copenhagen soon and might have her awesome room still free for the next person. Or she might be able to ask a few people since she knows a lot of folks that do internships here.

Oh, and if you need a place to bridge the time from arrival to moving into your new room, you are of course always welcome to Couchsurf at my place :)

Good luck, and take care!

- Dutchman

I had no idea as to what would happen in the next ten months – it was as much a surprise to me as God’s plans usually are.

“Aren’t you scared?” and “Is it safe?” are two questions I’m always asked when people find out that I have stayed with strangers in foreign lands. I can only reply that I’ve always had really positive experiences with Couchsurfing (with one exception in Morocco, but hey you live and learn) and that I still keep in touch with some of my hosts and guests. I’ve travelled by myself to many countries, and those experiences taught me to place my faith in God to protect me and my gut to warn me if people who were up to no good.

The only scary thing about travel was that I was intimidating to many of the Malay guys I knew back home. Coming from a culture where many Malay Muslim families hesitate to let a girl study overseas, I knew and was grateful that my parents were an exception. As far as they were concerned, I could travel by myself for study or work. And I knew I had the privilege to do so.

But whether these guys didn’t see traveling as a worthwhile activity, or secretly thought it was slutty of me to travel without a mahram, Malay guys often treated me like I was from another planet. I remember one boy got so mad when I told him I was travelling to France for a week (we weren’t even dating – his definition). Another sweet but woefully insecure boy would constantly ask why I chose him over all the other people I had met in the world (and after much soul-searching, he eventually dumped me).

Having to constantly justify my travels was at best frustrating, and at worst made me feel that I must be the only young woman around who liked to leave the country and see other places. I was going to keep traveling alone and grow old alone because no man thought that independence and a love of travel was a good thing. To solve this dilemma, I decided to stop dating, indefinitely.

Before I left, my best friend jokingly gave me some advice, “Sya, don’t marry the first Dutch guy you meet, OK?” I rolled my eyes – I wasn’t even planning to date! I was going to put all my energies into my studies.

On a Monday in September, I arrived in Central Station. I placed my luggage in a locker and went to the university for registration. I had arranged to meet the Dutchman somewhere in the station later that evening, in front of a record shop.

I forgot what he looked like, and started to panic.  I tried to recall the photo on his profile. Wait a minute, he was winking – what if he’s lecherous? Good guys don’t wink in their photos, right??

A little after six o’clock, the Dutchman appeared around the corner. Glasses, a striped shirt, a big smile. He had kind eyes and seemed totally harmless. We took the tram to his house, and he gallantly dragged my enormous suitcase over the cobbled sidewalks (so European) and up the steepest flight of stairs (so Dutch).

Crashing after the long flight, train ride and a busy day, I promptly fell ill. When I felt better after a few days, I got around to looking at some apartments and quickly found one (and a flatmate too!). When my sinuses were no longer stuffed and my head was clear, I started to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

I had noticed that in the mornings before he left for work, he would stand at the door longer than usual to say goodbye. He had (and has) this way of smiling; blinking very slowly while tilting his head (just like a cat). And look – here’s a note he left me before I went to school, and a text to wish me good night from the next room. And hmm, he even posted on my Facebook wall?

Maybe I was making something out of nothing. Or I just couldn’t recognise nice when I saw it. The classic is-he-just-nice-to-everyone problem. We planned to go cycling that weekend — he promised to bring me somewhere full of nature, picturesque and typically Haagse.

After a week of living out of a suitcase in his guest room, he helped me move into my new apartment. That afternoon, we went cycling through small oak trees growing in between sand dunes and thick windswept grass. At some point we took a break and laid on the grass, talking. I laughed, threw my hands up, and touched his hand.

A little while later, he turned and asked, “I know you’re still my Couchsurfing guest,* but…”

*An unspoken rule in Couchsurfing: Any romantic advances could be misconstrued as sexual harassment, ruining your reputation forever.

We were lying on the grass. I marveled to the Dutchman that I could never do this in Singapore, because there are always ants and other insects in the grass (which is too damp and smelly anyway). I thought it would also funny to stick a blade of grass up his nose (ah, well, he found it endearing).

Over the next few months, we talked constantly – during our walks, cooking dinner together, and cycling to the park. We cooked vegetarian food, discovering treats like tempe (fermented soy beans) and also sate, which I pointed out as Dutch appropriations of Indonesian culture. He told me he had noticed me praying in his guest room when my head made a resounding thunk on the wooden floor, as I prostrated in sujud. He asked me a lot of questions, some of which I was prepared for (having worked as a tour guide of a mosque) but which increasingly grew a chance for me to open my Quran and read for myself too. We had many, many discussions about not only the usual topics (God, pork, alcohol) but also slightly uncommon ones (angels, zabihah, legal conversion).

I thought back to when I was 19 and wrote in my journal almost every night (already worried that I wouldn’t find someone): “God, please send me someone to love.” But there had always been too much that made me fail in my relationships: passive aggression, difficulty in talking about my feelings, difficulty in accepting criticism, difficulty in apologising. And now, I was adding in multi-cultural and multi-faith difficulties?

I was at an impasse. Psychologically I was not ready to have a relationship, but here was this awesomely kind, funny, and good man. Couldn’t I just accept him as a summer fling? What if he was the man that God had sent to me?

But he was just so… white. And because of colonial history, I had never felt so conscious of my race or the colour of my skin as when I walked around with him. I felt like a traitor to my ancestors, who died under his ancestors. If I was not worrying about this, I worried that people back home would label me a sarong party girl.

Plus he was not a Muslim. Well, at least not in the sense that he didn’t drink alcohol or eat pork sausages, know how to pray and fast, believe in certain things (whether ‘pillars’ or ‘articles’) or how to exclaim appropriately in Arabic. But he was a Muslim in the sense that he was kind to his parents (and everyone else too, for that matter), he was level-headed and patient and accepted the flow of things, and he always tried to make things good. There was a lot of beauty in that.

After ten months of uncertainty and insecurity about how this was all going to unfold, I went home for summer vacation and fieldwork research. The Dutchman came to visit for two weeks and decided to do a legal conversion in Singapore. There he would also learn about Islam at a convert’s association (an exciting story for another time) – but there wasn’t much else that he didn’t already know after doing his own reading, I think.

The night before his conversion, my father asked us to sit down. This was going to be a serious talk – my father almost never sat me down.

“Dutchman, I can see that you’re a decent man. I can see you two are happy together. I appreciate your efforts in learning about Islam. My wife and I, we really like you, but now we have to ask, what are your intentions?”

“Well, we plan to marry in December.”

“What if you do something small and symbolic, just an exchanging of rings, a nikah or an engagement. We are getting older, and it would make us very happy. But I leave it to you, think about it.”

My father was proposing to him! Something “symbolic”! Caught off guard, I tried to blend myself into the green couch, mortifyingly embarrassed at being cornered like this. We sat at the playground below my apartment and I explained to him the local concepts of engagement (his family traditionally would come and ‘reserve’ me for marriage) and nikah gantung (lit. ‘hanging’, an Islamic marriage without a walimah; sometimes without state recognition).

Brushing away mosquitoes in the humid night, we decided to get married. I didn’t think that an engagement would make any difference our relationship, and besides, I knew he was the man for me. He was good for me and we were going to be good together.

I had a non-state nikah gantung in mind, the kind where my father would give me away to the Dutchman, at home, for the price of a ring. My father, however, had other plans. He wanted a state-recognized wedding, even though it seemed impossible because we weren’t planning to tell the Dutchman’s parents (there was drama enough just from having converted) – besides, it was illegal to keep a state wedding secret from the Dutch authorities.

In the end, bureaucracy came to the rescue. The Dutchman was missing a crucial document from his municipality in Holland so we couldn’t do the state recognized wedding. We told my parents that we would do a nikah gantung. (Later, we told his parents that we had moved in together — a legitimate ‘next step’ for relationships in contemporary Holland).

That ‘small’ and ‘symbolic’ ceremony turned out to include 50 guests (my father’s wishes), searching for hours for specific traditional dresses in white (my mother’s wishes), and a full force of elderly men with authoritative white beards, who gave me some stunning pre-marriage advice (clearly they had no idea of my feminist leanings).

And that’s how I ended up marrying the first Dutch man I met and, moving back into his apartment 10 months after I first stayed there as a Couchsurfing guest.

Sya accidentally migrated to the Netherlands from Singapore in 2010 after doing her MA in Development Studies. Between deciding what to do with her life and looking for a steady income, she writes and blogs at Musliminah in NL. From time to time she weighs the options of getting a cat or a constantly sneezing husband.


2 Comments on “Couchsurfing to Love”

  1. Eri Awais says:

    Came across a link to your entry here on one of those random FB posts. Made me smile. I started CS solo circa 2005, met wonderful people of all races and cultures and faced ‘opposition’ from (perhaps, well-meaning) family and friends. Though I met my hubby through another online source, we went on a similar journey. Happy to hear that a fellow countrywoman (shall I say ;P) has settled down blissfully. Take care and Salam Maulidur Rasul.

  2. Iman Wong says:

    Salams Sis NurSyahidah : Thanks for sharing your beautiful story and May Allah grant you all a blissful marriage and also a beautiful baby, amin amin. :-D

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