In yet another eye-opener, my Chinese organization (The Amity Foundation, 爱德基金会) had its foreign language teachers’ winter conference in Nanning, the capital city of Guangxi . All the foreign teachers in our program, about 17 at that time, and their sending agency representatives from numerous countries came to attend a 1-week meeting. We teachers shared classroom lessons, discussed our experiences and also learned about the many Amity Foundation projects in southern China. This meeting included lectures and informative gatherings by locals running such Amity co-sponsored programs and then, later, visits to the project sites themselves.
In Guangxi Province, Amity projects centered on many things. One of their key programs was micro-loans to individuals. A sum of 300 to 1,000 yuan ($50 – 166) was loaned to those who submitted their plans to the organization. The money was used to help them start up small businesses in their villages (convenience stores, bakeries, supply shops) or raise farm animals (goats, sheep, pigs, cows) to make a living. Loans were then returned after a successful profit had been reached by those borrowing.
These micro-loan ventures were set up by Amity throughout China but in Guangxi, some receiving this aid were AIDS’ victims. We weren’t told how they contracted AIDS but most likely it was from sharing needles as addicts, unsanitary blood donations to disreputable groups paying money for contributions or unprotected sex with an AIDS victim. These are all great problems in Southern China, more so than any other part of the country.
Learning First-hand of AIDS’ Prejudicism
Our project visit was to actually go to a small village where one such AIDS victim had received a micro-loan to raise goats. We would be able to talk to him and see how the loan had completely changed his life, making him a productive citizen and able to support his family.
As it turned out, we were only able to see his animals, his small bedroom-sized home and talk to his older sister. He was too shy and nervous to be surrounded by so many foreigners so he sent his sister instead.
Her story was one that stunned us.
After her brother was diagnosed, his family and village ostracized him. AIDS awareness is still very limited in many rural parts of China. He was shoved into a make-shift tent in the yard, away from everyone, and not allowed to enter anyone’s home or be in contact with others. He could only eat using his own utensils and was brought food on plates that no one else would use. She told us how the food was left outside of her brother’s tent entrance and not even handed to him, so fearful were others that they would get AIDS. Her brother was slipping deeper and deeper into a depressive state, feeling alone and hopeless. She worried for his safety, not only from the villagers, who wished him to leave, but from himself as well.
The sister was very distraught about the entire situation so when she heard there was an AIDS awareness meeting taking place in the town Chongzuo, she went. This meeting was sponsored by the Amity Foundation, who had trained residents through informative educational sessions about AIDS. These trusted locals then held weekly meetings in their own areas to help others understand what AIDS is and how to support loved ones or even themselves if exposed.
During the sessions that she attended, the sister learned that you can’t get AIDS from eating off of another person’s plate or using their utensils, living close to someone or hugging the person. She discovered the fears they all had had about her brother were unfounded.
With the help of the meeting leaders, she was able to assist her brother in applying for an Amity micro -loan so he could begin living raising livestock.
The success of his first micro-loan allowed him to ask for another so he could build shelters for his goats and eventually a one-room brick home for himself. While his family still hesitated to have him live with them, at his sister’s urging, they allowed him to become a more present member of the family, such as eating meals with them. She also invited other villagers to attend the AIDS meetings with her, hoping to ease their fears about her brother being in their midst.
While this visit took place 3 years ago, today’s attitudes toward AIDS are still very much grounded in misconceptions and misinformation , much like what we heard from the sister about her brother. China has a long way to go, which makes the Amity Foundation projects such as the one we saw so very important.
A Drug Users’ Support Group
Yet another Amity-sponsored project we visited was a drug users’ support group, held on the second floor of a small hotel in Chongzuo.
Being allowed to attend this weekly meeting for drug addicts was a very generous invitation extended to us as Amity teachers and foreign guests. We all felt shy and uncomfortable when entering the large meeting room, where we sat behind the 20-some Chinese drug users attending. We were served tea as we waited for the program leader to open the meeting. A banner above him announced this was an Amity-sponsored meeting for AIDS awareness.
It was a slow start as he conducted the first 30 minutes with our English language interpreter at his side. He welcomed us, gave us a brief outline of the group present and stressed that this was not a place where blame was given but a place where addicts could talk. The purpose was not to convince those who came to stop using drugs, mostly because they never would, but how to be safe when using them so as not to infect yourself or others with diseases such as AIDS.
Things livened up when picture cards in Chinese, produced by the US Drug Administration, were distributed.
The colored drawings of people in various drug and sex related situations were followed by Chinese texts explaining the facts about getting AIDS. Every participant received a card to share with a partner. These were passed around the room for a good 10 minutes as a review from the week before. Then our leader quizzed everyone.
“Can you get AIDS by hugging?” he asked, to which one person raised his illustrated card and said, “No!”
He then read the Chinese text which stated that this was impossible.
Everyone murmured in agreement.
“Can you get AIDS by sharing needles?” our leader continued.
There was a lot of group affirmation on that one, with another person raising his hand and reading from his card that, yes, needle sharing was definitely an at-risk action.
“Can you get AIDS by using a condom while having sex?” was the next question.
“No!” was echoed throughout the room.
As the questions continued, we all began loosening up. A number of us started enthusiastically chiming in our “yes” and “no” answers along with the Chinese. Walls were starting to break down.
Soon, some of the questions solicited a personal sharing session by the attendees. One young man told how his family had kicked him out of the house and wouldn’t allow him to return until he gave up his habit. He was sleeping outside, in the street. Another said she had stolen money from her parents to buy drugs. She just couldn’t stop. Others voiced how ashamed their families were of them and how coming to the group was a place where no one hassled or criticized them.
I had the impression that this afternoon gathering was the only thing in their entire week that added meaning to their lives. The information they were given and retained made them feel educated, a tad superior to the ignorance around them. It gave them a feeling of accomplishment and purpose, that they were still worthy of being here on this earth.
Like I mentioned before, this meeting was not to place blame, criticize or reform others for their life choices. It was merely a place for those struggling with life problems to come together, share and learn how best to protect themselves and others from viruses such as AIDS. I’m sure there are many who would disagree with this approach, wanting more life-changing, positive results to come about from such projects. Amity does have other projects which focus more on drug recovery but this just wasn’t one of them.
Recently, a Chinese English teacher, who called himself Ben, told me of his visit to America for 3 weeks. He accompanied his teenage students on a summer exchange program to their sister junior high school in the U.S.
It was his first trip abroad and he thought himself very learned about my country after returning. He was quite full of himself, wanting to show off all the knowledge he had discovered. Much of his information was over-simplified and not at all accurate of a majority of the country.
His most noted off-the-mark comment had to do with the drug situation.
“Why do all students use drugs in America?” he pointedly asked me, adding with a superior tone, “Our students never use drugs. It is forbidden. It is against the law for anyone to use drugs. We don’t have this big a problem in China.”
Oh, my dear, dear Ben! How little do you know.
First of all, not all students in America use drugs. And, secondly, China’s drug problems are far more reaching than you think. It’s just that no one hears or talks about it.
When I’m in these kind of situations, it’s always nice to bring up the Amity Foundation, a Chinese organization (not a foreign entity), that is dealing with such “nonexistent” problems in China.
Ben had an Amity brochure in hand before he left me and a website referral if he was interested in learning more about the organization. He was a bright young man, not wanting to look too ignorant in the presence of other foreigners, so I’m hoping he took to heart my invitation for him to educate himself.
Whether he did so or not, I have no idea. As I see it, I at least tried. Perhaps next time, he will be a bit more cautious before spouting such opinionated statements.
From China, here’s wishing you Ping An (Peace) for your day .