International exchange students broaden horizons in Hong Kong

Exchange programmes benefit the students who participate and those from host schools by enabling them to learn about each other's culture, writes Mabel Sieh

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 9:21am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 9:21am

The prospect of communication and cultural barriers did not deter Eduardo Jose Andres Medina from becoming an exchange student in Hong Kong. Hailing from Mexico, he is 1.9 metres tall - much taller than his peers in Form Four at the SKH Lam Woo Secondary Memorial School in Kwai Ching.

He chose Hong Kong to experience a different culture. "Hong Kong is interesting as it has both Chinese and Western sides," he says.

"Everybody was looking at me [like they're saying]: Who's this weird tall guy? The other boys didn't talk to me much; the girls did," says the 16-year-old.

This is about learning what they can't learn in the classroom
Simon Mak, Vice-principal 

Eduardo is one of 50 exchange students from 17 countries who have come to Hong Kong under the AFS Intercultural Programmes.

"It was my dream to be an exchange student - it's a popular concept in Mexico because it's a good way to meet people from outside the country and learn about their cultures."

AFS Intercultural Exchanges is an international non-profit organisation that has been promoting international exchange activities since its inception in 1947. It aims to establish understanding among participants with a view to achieving world peace. The Hong Kong office was established in 1982, providing teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18 a 10-month overseas exchange programme.

Hung Truong, executive director of AFS Hong Kong, says the programme affects local schools, communities and families. "The programme allows local people who may not have a chance to study or live abroad the chance to build friendships with foreign teenagers, practise foreign languages in a relaxed environment and understand other cultures. Host students internationalise local schools by offering a glimpse of their world to local students," he says.

For Sara Franssini, an exchange student in St Stephen's College in Stanley, the hardest adjustment was the school uniform.

"In Italy, we're free to wear whatever we want, except for short skirts. We can dye our hair, have piercings and also wear make-up. We're allowed to express ourselves through the way we dress.

"So I was kind of disappointed with my uniform dress and I didn't want to wear it. But after a few months, I found it's not that bad to have everyone looking the same. Now I don't have to wake up early in the morning to decide what to wear, how to do my hair or make-up," she says.

However, Eduardo had deeper adjustments to make. "Relationships among Chinese are tricky. They tend to keep their feelings inside. It's hard to tell what they like or dislike. There were times when someone became angry with me but wouldn't tell me until later. It's pretty scary. In Mexico, people are very open."

He called his mother and told her he wanted to go home. But eventually he decided to stay. "I told myself to stay open-minded and everything would be okay."

He was right. Not long after, he began to meet a few good friends, which helped to make his school life more enjoyable. At school, he would introduce himself using his nickname "Lalo" instead of Eduardo because he thinks it's easier for them to pronounce.

"Lalo looked scary at first. He's so tall. But after I said 'hi', we started talking," says Oscar Wu Chun-hei, 15. "I would help him with his maths and translate for him when the teacher uses Chinese to explain something in lessons," says Oscar.

"I didn't dare to look at him until he spoke to me. He asked me what my name was," says Terry Lo Ho-pan, 16. "I wanted to get to know him and his culture more. So I took him home for dinner to meet my family and my dad, who's a chef. We had a good time," Terry says.

For Zoey Tom Kei-yiu, the impact is even greater. The 15-year-old has applied to be an exchange student in France in autumn. "Through Lalo, I learned about the world more. He told me there's no MTR in his city and everyone has a car and that's their transport. He brought a few other exchange students to our school and introduced them to us. They all encouraged me to be an exchange student, too. I also want to be exposed to another culture like them, so I've applied with AFS."

His two classmates agree. Both of them have opened up their minds after meeting Lalo.

"As a Chinese in Hong Kong, we're living and learning under a fixed frame of mind. You don't get to see or hear another perspective often. Having an exchange student in our school let us see a different person and culture; it broadens our minds," says Oscar.

This is exactly the result hoped for by the school's vice-principal Simon Mak Cheuk-sang, who has been overseeing the school's exchange students for the past seven years. "This programme is not about boosting students' academic results. It's about learning what they can't learn in the classroom. By interacting with each other, both parties will learn how to get along with people from another culture. They will learn about other skills like problem solving and critical thinking. These are all important skills that will help them survive in the workplace," he says.

Mak says for a school situated in a local estate with students from ordinary families, the exposure to foreign students and culture is rare and important. He is particularly pleased about Zoey's decision to be an exchange student herself.

"After having this programme in our school for so many years, finally we have the first student going out for exchange. I'm sure the experience will be an eye-opening one for her," he says.

The school restricts the arrival of overseas students to senior levels, when the local students are more mature and accepting of another culture. "All of our teachers also have an understanding that we won't expect Lalo to pass all academic subjects or to sit for the final exams. Like I said, this is not an academic programme and we want Lalo to enjoy the experience and not have to worry too much about his results either," says Mak.

Leaving Hong Kong soon, Eduardo has made a video about his life in the city.

"I want to show my family and friends back home my memories of Hong Kong. I really like it here," he says.

"I came here with an idea to learn how to work with people from another culture. And I've learned how to make a relationship with the Chinese people. That's my biggest gain. I've also learned to speak and write better English.

"Studying in Hong Kong is very different from Mexico and I had difficulty to adjust at first. But I'm glad I've made it. If I had a chance, I would do it again," says the young Mexican.