A young intern arrives from New Zealand and learns a lesson about HIV ignorance
By Wanyin Liang

Wanyin here, just a young 21-year-old, Chinese-born Kiwi (as we New Zealanders call ourselves) traveling to America for the big OE (Overseas Experience, it’s bloody popular back home). I was visiting for three months on an internship at TPAN (publisher of POSITIVELY AWARE) as part of my public health degree. This was gonna be easy!

Ha! I discovered I had a lot to learn. Working at TPAN introduced me to an HIV/AIDS community. It’s like a totally different world from what people think they know, the rumors, stereotypes, and what they teach kids in health class about STDs. Equipped with zero knowledge about HIV, I became the brand new social media intern.

Fortunately, I made friends and got along with everyone in the office. By the second week, I learned that some of my co-workers were HIV-positive. No biggie, they’re friendly and don’t bite. Third week, I became more comfortable and learned a lot about HIV medications, how some treatments were as simple as one pill a day to keep the virus at bay. Kinda like my gran and aunt. Gran takes medication daily for her diabetes, and my aunt likes to take vitamin pills daily. Taking a daily pill is so normal to me that I don’t see why there’d be any stigma behind it.

By the fourth week, I was prepared to tell my roommate and my new friends about where I was working. One morning I casually said, “I work at a non-profit organization that supports the HIV/AIDS community. It’s fun and real chill.”

My roommate gave me this “Oh” face. “What?! Are you not scared?! Won’t you, like, get AIDS and stuff?” It was so funny and yet shocking. Her idea was just so wrong that I thought it was a joke, but then she seriously asked me, “So, like, you work with people who are positive, right? Have you touched them?”

That’s when it hit me: she was serious. I was shocked. I mean, I expected a big reaction, but not this. How disappointed I was. Don’t worry; I educated her. Although she was real sheltered, she was open to learning, so the information got through.

In nearly all my outings to bars and nightclubs, when I told people about my job, they’d make this weird face at me. It made me feel like they were judging me; I had to point out that I’m not HIV-positive before they would act normal again. The public’s lack of knowledge about HIV/AIDS was shocking.

The stigma behind HIV is staggering, and the people who are in the HIV community don’t deserve to be judged like this, no matter what their HIV status. I feel disgusted when people give me the side eye for working at a place with good people who do good work. The important thing is that stigma can be overcome if people are open and willing to learn. There’s no point in force-feeding facts. I made friends with people who are HIV-positive. My roommate was willing to learn the facts. The more educated you are, the less at risk you are.

My last month in Chicago, I realized how much I learned and how much my worldview had expanded. After encountering the HIV/AIDS community, I’ve discovered how much injustice they experience, but how strong and resilient they are. There’s too much stigma, but really it’s just too many ignorant uneducated individuals spreading bad vibes. I want these individuals to know that not everyone catches these vibes.

I’ve found a mission and a passion. I will be direct and bold. I want to open people’s minds to facts and liberate their hearts from bad vibes. Nobody should be influenced by misleading and false information.