Welcome warm in coolest of countries

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 February, 2006, 12:00am

A student exchange programme is helping forge ties between the unlikeliest of partners, Hong Kong and Iceland. Two students share their experiences on pristine snowfields and in a high-rise Legoland

SNOW-CLAD ICELAND IS a country of epic sagas, volcanoes, dark winters and long summer nights.

The sparsely populated northern European country couldn't be more different from the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong. Yet it proved to be a valuable learning ground for the first local student to go there on an educational exchange scheme.

Belle Yiu, now 19, learnt about overseas exchanges from a friend who had been to New Zealand. Then she heard about scholarships for those visiting countries that had not hosted Hong Kong students on the scheme before.

As the first student to participate in an exchange to Iceland organised by the international non-profit organisation AFS Intercultural Exchanges, she benefited from a full scholarship - worth $63,000 - because of her outstanding performance and financial situation. Forty per cent of Hong Kong AFS students receive a scholarship or financial aid, funded from corporate sponsors, to help them extend their horizons overseas. There currently 134 on exchange out of Hong Kong, in countries ranging from Argentina to Austria.

AFS arranged an orientation camp for students heading overseas with returnees from previous exchanges giving advice. Belle learnt about her host family - three daughters aged 12, 19 and 20, regional bank manager dad and economist mum - quite a change from her family of mother and 12-year-old brother Tommy. The Form Five graduate didn't know much Icelandic before she arrived in the island nation where winter nights last nearly 24 hours and summer days nearly as long. She couldn't even find a Cantonese-Icelandic dictionary, but the lack of information about the country made her curious.

She said: 'I love to explore new things and take up different kinds of challenges.' The former Sha Tin New Secondary School pupil was 17 when she set off in June 2004 on her epic 28-hour journey to the house in Reykjavik, the capital of the country in the north Atlantic, touching the Arctic Circle.

She was undaunted by the prospect of adapting to life in a strange culture. Within three months of arriving she was handing in schoolwork in the European language.

She said: 'Unlike Hong Kong, there aren't many tall buildings and the sky is beautiful, very blue.'

Approximately 300,000 people worldwide speak Icelandic, including 20,000 to 30,000 in Canada and the US. By contrast an estimated 66 million people speak Cantonese. Belle said: 'I think it's quite difficult for Asian people to learn Icelandic. It's totally different from Cantonese. But my host family and my friends gave me a lot of support.'

Armed with an English-Icelandic dictionary her language skills increased. She said: 'I think it will help me in my translation work, understanding how people feel in a country where they can't speak the language.' In the early months, she studied in English.

Living with a family for 14 months meant she was totally immersed in the language. The desire to learn helped her develop her fluency and gave her a boost after her disappointing HKCEE results.

Eventually she was able to study in Icelandic. However, she taught her classmates to write some Chinese and gave them Chinese names. Studies included Icelandic, the nation's history, maths, biology and English. Schoolwork included a lot of group projects and pupils even celebrated their teachers' birthdays. Students also participated in a summer camp, helping out on a farm and milking cows.

Belle said: 'The school did not have a uniform. It was very free compared with school here and there were just 26 people in a class, but I thought it was quite big for them. The pupils were quite respectful of their teachers.'

She added: 'Before I went people told me school would be more free and they said it might be noisy. I didn't see that.'

The sports-mad student, who has won prizes for rowing in Hong Kong, had a chance to learn some new sports - with skiing top of her list. Belle was born in Shenzhen and moved to Hong Kong aged three and had never seen snow, let alone clicked on a ski. She had been placed with a family who shared her interest in sports and took her to a ski resort for a week of winter sports. She also learnt jazz ballet.

The family went camping and stayed at their summerhouse. Belle visited geysers and volcanoes.

She is now in her first year of a higher diploma in translation at the Chinese University's School of Continuing Studies, adding Icelandic to the list of languages she speaks, which include English, Putonghua and Cantonese. She is already planning her next trip, backpacking in Europe.

Belle is among exchange students, local and foreign, who will be sharing their experiences at the AFS Intercultural Fair today. Around 500 students from 20 schools will be given a taste of different cultures and global issues at the event, at SKH Tsang Shui Tim Secondary School, Sha Tin.

Belle will urge others to pack their bags too. 'The intercultural exchange has enabled me to develop my potential. This has helped me grow to be independent, open minded and confident.' She is also involved in helping the first AFS student from Iceland settle in to Hong Kong life while maintaining her Icelandic skills.

For more information about AFS visit www.afs.org.hk



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