WHATEVER the reasons for their being there, Sweden has opened its doors to Malaysian's Lee May Yin, Angela Rao and Dr Ooi Kee Beng, revealing to each a rich cultural experience.
In a series of e-mail interviews, all three talked about studying in a foreign country and adapting to a different culture.
For May Yin, the chance to go to Sweden as an exchange student was an opportunity too good to miss. The second-year Biology student from the National University of Singapore (NUS) signed up for a six-month exchange programme under an agreement NUS has with Lund University (LU).
“I wanted to learn a new language, but at the same time I wanted to take the course in English. As such, Sweden was the perfect country.”
She is currently taking Molecular Genetics, Pharmacology and Swedish at LU.
“I like the small class sizes here – typically 20-30 students per class – because this allows for close interaction between lecturers and students.”
May Yin, 22, from Johor Baru, adds that it is a real privilege to work on a project with a professor in LU's Biomedical Centre.
“Sweden has such a vibrant and exciting research environment, it makes working a pleasure.
“I come into the lab at around 9am and before I know it, it's already 6pm! And in between, I get to learn new lab techniques and be involved in scientific discussions. Fika (Coffee breaks) are indispensable, of course!”
On the overall study experience, May Yin says the working and studying environments there are extremely conducive and less stressful.
“I find that most people do what they do purely out of interest, and not because they're forced to or because the job market compels them to do so. Taking a one-year break from your studies is common, or even changing courses.”
There have, of course, been things that called for some adjustment.
“Teachers here are like your friends, there's no 'generation gap' to speak of. My project supervisor told me one day to dispense with the formality of 'Professor', and just call her Bryndis (her first name), which I declined to do.
“And there are only three grades here – Pass, Fail and Well Pass – and not the grade point average (GPA) system I’m accustomed to.
“Exams are conducted typically for five hours, so there’s no need to regurgitate the material you’ve read the night before. There’s sufficient time to think, unlike some exams back home.”
And arriving in the middle of winter from hot and humid Malaysia was quite an experience in itself.
“The temperature was sub-zero most of the time. I've learnt not to underestimate the weather, which can be pretty unpredictable. That's why I always put on an extra layer before heading out,” says May Lin.
The Swedes, she observes, are generally a shy bunch.
“But they're really friendly once you get to know them. They don't like to stand out in the crowd too much, and I find myself having to initiate conversations most of the time,” she says.
Language, however, is not much of a barrier.
“Most Swedes speak good, fluent English. But since one of my aims is to learn Swedish, I try to speak it whenever I can.”
Besides the lab, May Yin also finds time to check out the student scene.
Most youngsters there like to party, she says, adding that sports “is a big thing” and watching a good ice hockey or handball game with her friends is common.
Unlike May Lin, Angela Rao, who moved to Sweden with her Swedish fiancé last year, felt a greater pressure to master the language and has decided to concentrate on studying Swedish before entering the job market.
“As I have emigrated to live here, I want to adapt and understand. It is therefore important to learn Swedish above everything else,” says Rao, who is currently attending free classes at Svenska fِr Invandrare (Swedish for Immigrants or SFI) – a place for all new immigrants to study Swedish as a second language.
A former journalist for eight years, Rao says SFI also provides an introduction to Swedish society and helps immigrants to plan for further studies and choose a career.
However, the first three months, she says, were the hardest.
“The culture shock for me was in the language and the food. If you can’t speak Swedish and intend to live here for more than six months, you get isolated and frustrated.
“Everything, including TV and radio programmes, are in Swedish and you really have to look for English newspapers from outside Sweden.”
Rao has yet to get used to the typically meat-heavy Swedish dishes.
“There are a couple of Malaysian restaurants in Stockholm, but the dishes are altered to suit Swedish taste buds. Read: 'Bland'. I've learned to cook most of my favourite dishes as I can get ingredients from a dozen or so Asian stores and I still have some spices from home.”
But things are definitely better these days.
Setting up her www.malaysianslivinginsweden.com website, she says, “forced me to go out, meet people, be active in the society and search for information about Sweden”.
“Now I can read the papers and watch Swedish television! I am also able to obtain a world of information as I now can trawl through Swedish websites as well,” she adds.
Clear goals needed
Contrary to common perception, heading for Sweden is not something new among Malaysians.
Dr Ooi Kee Beng, 49, did that 26 years ago after looking around for places offering free or cheap tertiary education with a high international standard.
“I checked out some European countries, and since I had brothers who had moved to Stockholm years earlier after travelling around Europe, I gave extra consideration to Sweden,” says the Penangite, who left Malaysia when he had saved enough for the trip.
After working for two years, he passed the national exam in Swedish and took up courses in Sociology and Psychology at the same time. He eventually went on to pursue his interest in philosophy, and obtained a doctorate in Sinology and has since been writing and lecturing on Chinese history and philosophy at various institutions in Sweden.
“A Malaysian planning to study in Sweden should have a clear idea of what advantages he is seeking.
“Students will enjoy the intellectually stimulating environment and gain a lot from the Swedes. Plus, education is free,” says Dr Ooi.
Echoing this, Rao highly recommends this “interesting way of life”, which offers a “stark difference in food, society and weather”.
“The students here have a lot of fun, freedom and opportunities,” she says.
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