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The Free For All Of Big Hostel Culture

I was awaken by a knock on the door of the room next to mine at the City Central Hostel in Shanghai. It was around midnight, and as the door creaked opened I heard a hostel employee tell a resident rather harshly that he had to get out. “I will pay you in the morning,” [...]

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I was awaken by a knock on the door of the room next to mine at the City Central Hostel in Shanghai. It was around midnight, and as the door creaked opened I heard a hostel employee tell a resident rather harshly that he had to get out.

“I will pay you in the morning,” he argued. His accent was overtly American.

“No, you have to pay now or you have to leave.”

“I’m sleeping right now. I will pay you in the morning.”

“But you didn’t pay for yesterday.”

“I talked to the girl about that.”

“You have to pay or you have to leave!” the Chinese receptionist countered. His voice was starting to crack, the treble cranked up.

“I will pay in the morning! Right now I’m sleeping.”

Both men were getting uppity, angry, and stuck on opposite sides of a chasm: the backpacker refused to vacate the room and the receptionist was more or less physically powerless to remove him. The receptionist was beginning to demonstrate the type of desperate anger that comes from having expended all other options. The backpacker seemed to think the Chinese guy would just fuck off like they usually do. He didn’t.

The receptionist kept pulling at the stubborn root. He’d get him out somehow. He had to: we were in the middle of China’s Golden Week, the country’s second biggest holiday where 600 million people go traveling. To say that there were plenty of people standing in line for that dorm bed would be an understatement — even at midnight they were queuing up at the reception counter, dejected and homeless.

I’ve never witnessed a Chinese service employee go after a foreign client so explosively before; I’ve rarely observed an American backpacker in China be such an uncooperative douche. I thought of all the reasons the American could of had to not pay his bill for two days and couldn’t come up with any. In China, you generally pay for accommodation when checking in and the hotels and hostels are overtly militant about getting payment out of the way ASAP. Maybe he was robbed? Maybe his ATM card stopped working? But if this was the case I imagine he would have said so as part of his defense. He didn’t. He probably just couldn’t be bothered to stop at an ATM during the day to make a withdrawal from his trust fund.

I wasn’t a fan of this hostel and I had an natural inclination to get out of bed and stick up for my countryman, but I could find no position to back his corner: even if something shitty happened to him you either pay up or leave. The more I listened to the argument the more the typecast of the backpacker emerged:

An entitled kid who has become accustomed to getting things his way and when he doesn’t he thinks there is something wrong with the world. A type that views rules as abstract constructs for other people to follow, who seems to think that they are special and unique and deserve to be treated as such. A person who cultivated the belief hat everyone is just going to naturally find his reasoning and position to be as righteous and justified as he himself finds it to be.

“I’m not leaving, I’m sleeping right now,” he again asserted. “Do you have a problem with that?”

“Yes,” replied the receptionist.

“You have a problem with that?” the American repeated more aggressively.

“Yes, I do,” the receptionist stepped up to the challenged.

“Fuck you then!”

I anticipated the sound of a fist thumping a face. It would have been much deserved. Instead, the receptionist responded with a threat:

“I’m going to call the police.”

“Call them,” the pouty American responded as he slammed the door.

Nobody stormed his room.

Sometimes people don’t get that in certain circumstances they are just a number, a phantom, a fleeting biological apparition, and they get offended when they’re not treated special. This kid seemed to think that the hostel would be empathetic to his situation, that they would take the time to understand his point of view, that they would make an exception and treat him like a unique human being. He didn’t get it that he was nothing more than a booking, a number, a residency registration form. He didn’t get big hostel culture.


A couple hours later the door of my dorm room opened and a crowd of drunks stumbled in. The queer Swede who was in the bunk opposite mine had picked up a Tarzan. The guy even had the curly golden locks and was wearing a leopard print tank top and matching leopard print short shorts (seriously). I don’t know what metro jungle this guy was plucked out of, but it was the type of scene you come to expect waking up to at 3AM in a big city backpacker hostel. The two queer guys were flanked by an overtly drunk, tall, thin blond woman who spoke her slurred English with Scandinavian precision. Along with Tarzan she was not booked into the hostel, and it became apparent that they both were hapless wanderers who underestimated the voracity of a Chinese national holiday and were left without a bed to sleep in.

I laughed a little as I realized the genius of their strategy: go to a bar, get drunk, and get picked up by someone with a bed. I’ve never tried that one before, but then again I’m neither a leggy blond European chick nor a Tarzan.

I wasn’t bothered by the potential of an impending orgy. People screwing in dorm rooms is something you just get used to as a traveler, and we all need to atone on occasion for the bunks which we ourselves have set a rocking from time to time. As a writer it’s also interesting to listen to pre-coital dialogue (though it’s generally far too unbelievably stupid to ever reproduce). What was awkward here was that I was clearly going to be the odd man out. Though I found little in that room particularly enticing, I still felt pretty lame.

The queer Swede offered a vacant bed to the drunk chick and informed me decisively that Tarzan would be sleeping in bed with him. I defended the rightful occupant’s right to the empty bunk, as he was still out partying somewhere, though I immediately felt a little guilty about doing so. In point, it’s probably a fantasy of many young men to stumble back into their dorm room in the middle of the night to find a rather attractive, completely drunk young woman in their bed.

But my defense did not damper the resolve of the drunken chick. She would find herself a bed somehow. Serendipitously, another occupant of the room opened the door and entered into the fray. He was a young Australian guy, and though he was also pretty drunk he sized up the situation with admirable quickness.

The Scandanavian girl found herself a bed, and it was yet again proven that a fully booked hostel is no obstacle for an attractive young female ready to spread em. The rest of us ugly bastards need to make reservations or sleep in the bushes.

“Tell me something about Austral . . . [slurp].”

“Do you want to?”


These were the last words I heard the amorous pair say from down below.

No names were exchanged in the transaction.

For the record, the queer guys proved more civil, they just spooned.


It was early evening and the big lit up florescent marker board in the hostel’s bar caught my attention. Pina Coladas were advertised as being on sale. This is a superior drink, as it takes in juice and coconut milk it’s packed with vitamins and electrolytes which help to directly counteract the pernicious impacts of the alcohol. They are also delicious. So I ordered one.

The bartender took my money, reached for a shot glass and poured an ounce of Bacardi coconut flavored rum and handed it to me.

Here’s your pina colada.

I understand that if you pull up to a bar in China and try to order some kind of hipster drink you may not get what you ask for, but this wasn’t a hipster drink and, on top of this, it was being advertised.

“That’s not a pina colada,” I informed him in Chinese. “A pina colada has pineapple juice.”

Overtly annoyed, the bartender then dumped the shot into a cup, opened the fridge, and deftly removed a carton of pineapple juice. He filled the cup with it.

Here’s your pina colada.

“That’s not a pina colada. A pina colada has pineapple juice, rum, and coconut milk.”

The bartender spread a big “I got ya” kind of smile over his face, produced the bottle of rum, and pointed to the words that said “coconut flavor.”

The dude pretty much just should have said “fuck you, laowai, and your laowai drink” and we could have moved forward with things, but I preferred to believe that he was simply an idiot.

I told him to add coconut milk to the drink, and he dumped out half of the contents of his creation into a second cup, poured coconut milk into the first, and handed it over to me.

Here’s your pina colada.

Half of the rum was of course in the other cup behind the bar. I told him to give it to me and we’ll call it even. He at first refused but then complied after I explained to him that he was only giving me half a “drink.” With a wry look on his face as if I was pulling a fast one over on him he handed it over and I went off to drink what was more than likely the worst pina colada ever made.


I can understand why the staff of big hostels are often less than caring. The people they interact with daily just come and go and they all seem to want something. If 10% of guest are assholes in a two hundred bed hostel, that’s a whole lot of assholes there at any given time. I sometimes sit around these places watching the asshole show. I generally feel empathy for the workers sometimes and appreciate their phony smiles when they point them in my direction. I suppose occasionally taking passive aggressive jabs at guests when they can is just a part of being human.


The guy had to be over 70 years old. There are plenty of spry, energetic, active, decent looking old(er) travelers out there, but he was not one of them. He looked like a rapidly decomposing prune as he sat all hunched over, bent up in the hostel restaurant.  He just finished lecturing the waiter about how he wanted his eggs cooked some particular way that I couldn’t even  understand. He seemed to miss the fact that Chinese people speak a whole other language and that the waitstaff couldn’t understand English. But this mere trifle did not deter him, and he essentially brow beat his Anglo tongue into waitstaff to get his eggs cooked precisely the way he wants them somehow.

Also on Vagabond Journey: Learn the local language or don’t be a picky eater

The guy was sitting with two younger blond women. I at first took them to be his grandchildren, but it quickly became apparent that he’d just me them. I listened as he told them about his Filipina wife who is half his age, and, right after discovering that one of the girls was only 25 years old, he then propositioned them both for sex.

After the girls recoiled in disgust, chocked back their vomit, and nervously sat for a moment in silence the old guy tried to say that he was just joking. Of course.

I am not sure if I shuddered with the hibigeebies or with admiration that 70+ years of living had produced such a brazen and bold pervert.


None of these scenarios are unique. Unique events and situations can be interesting in the retelling, but they rarely show the larger pattern of a social sphere, a place, a culture. The anecdotes that I shared above are typical of big hostels worldwide. These are places where relationships are transient and fleeting. Places where people so rarely seem to care about anyone else as you and everybody else is on the brink of eminent departure.

Big hostels are different than small hostels. The closeness of living quarters of small hostels often produces an intimacy between people that’s full of contentiousness, mutual interest, and respect. But up the number of residents in a hostel to one or two hundred, stack everybody into barracks, throw in a full bar, a restaurant, and other “public” settings, charge the clients for everything and anything, don’t provide enough room in the common spaces and not enough stalls and showers in the bathrooms, add a disinterested and uncaring staff, and people start crapping all over everybody and everything.

Humans are pack animals perhaps programmed to function in small groups of less than 20. When thrown into a living environment with too many people packed closely together we develop some kind of strange uber-selfish psychosis. Our identities are diluted in the sea of other people, and this lack of identity leads to a lack of responsibility. When you and everyone around you is just another number it becomes easy to treat people as such. This is why housing projects and high-rises are inevitably doomed to become slums. Add in the fact that most people in big hostels are transient and these places become real cesspools of humanity.

The only social ties that anybody has are to those they show up with. Beyond this, nobody has a history, nobody has a reputation, and all anybody knows about anyone else is as fleeting as the booking of the most senior resident — and even this is wiped clean the moment you check out.

This anonymity can be freeing. Generally speaking, what you do in this setting will not impact your future, you will not be held accountable for your actions, and you can do or say things that you would never consider back home. In this way, these big hostels can be fun, and you can engage circumstances more primaly and find yourself in situations that would not be possible in just about any other social sphere.

So big hostels are interesting places to observe how humans act (a little more) in the raw, without some of the checks and balances of our respective cultures and the fear of losing face or damaging reputation. In big hostels we can be assholes, we can be perverts, and we can be sluts and get away with it.

These are good places to watch some weird shit.

Filed under: Accommodation, Articles, Culture and Society, Traveler Culture

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

6 comments… add one

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  • Jess October 3, 2013, 4:50 am

    Great article. I only stay at small hostels for the exact reasons you have described above. I used to work at small hostels in Europe (20 to 30 beds – you even stayed at one of them!). I now work at a 500+ bed hostel in Australia. We have a bar, a restaurant and yes, we do charge for everything. I don’t like having to do this, but it’s a necessary evil. I can live with the 1 or 2 people at a small hostel that occasionally abuse the privileges of free towel rental or free wifi, but that becomes about 50 people at any one time at my new place of work. As you said, people feel anonymous in a big hostel, and so they don’t feel any accountability for their actions. Unfortunately, some people only remember their responsibilities when you put a dollar value on them. Although I agree that sometimes the staff at big hostels can be uncaring and disinterested (I’ve experienced it myself, both as a backpacker and having seen it in my colleagues) I try my hardest to be kind and helpful to all guests – but this gets harder with every guest that treats me like I am not a real live human being. Rarely do guests say hello – as a new guest comes to the desk, they either just hand me a piece of paper, grunt their last name or simply order “check-in”, to which I respond “hello, how are you?” in the hope they remember they are talking to another person. And when people do treat my like a real person, then they get the same back. A free towel, a free upgrade – I even once used my own money to buy wifi access for a guy that had to contact his parents to wire him some cash. People are more than a booking number to me, but I expect the same in return – I am not the check-in robot.

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    • Wade Shepard October 5, 2013, 4:29 am

      Good to hear from you again, Jess. Yes, the difference between a hostel like Poets’ Corner and a big 500 beder is incredible. At that small hostel in the Czech Republic most people were generally respectful, they hung out with each other, and the copulators . . . well, uh, I think that’s what the little sun room on the side was for . . . right? Maybe not 🙂 Anyway, I definitely understand why the staff of big hostels sometimes act the way they do. It takes an indomitable spirit to be treated like a pet monkey all day long. I know how this feels well, as I’ve worked in hostels from time to time, and know that the clients sometimes have a difficult time seeing you as anything other than someone who serves them. After reading your comment I also understand why everything has a price. It guess it’s a form of social management, as when there are only a half dozen computers in a place with hundreds of guests something needs to be done to make sure they’re available for everyone to use and a few people are not just sitting on them all day. It’s interesting how the social sphere in small hostels can be more self-regulating, but once hundreds of people are packed in together a more overbearing set of rules are often developed and implemented. You’re right, when there are 50 jerks in one place at any given time things can degenerate pretty quickly. Thanks for the comment, keep in touch.

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      • Jess October 14, 2013, 5:06 am

        Haha regarding the sun room comment! It was meant for smokers, so I’m sure at least some of those cigarettes were post-coital….

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  • Jack October 4, 2013, 11:23 am

    That’s just crazy. I’ve never stayed in a big or small hostel. I guess always either found someone to stay with or found a hotel just as cheap for my uses….or maybe it is because I travel with a family in tow. 🙂

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    • Wade Shepard October 5, 2013, 3:02 am

      That’s a good call. The smaller hostels can be pretty friendly and fun places to be in depending on how well they’re ran and what type of clientele they attract, but the big ones are all too often debauchery zones — which is pretty interesting if you’re on the outside just observing. I don’t know of any other common social sphere like these places, but I think I probably find them more interesting because I’ve worked in them before and have become adept and identifying the nuts and can sort of hover around them waiting for something strange to happen 🙂

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  • dad October 10, 2013, 8:03 pm

    why havnt you been writing?

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