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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Cat’s Tale

    The culture shock began with the rickshaw. The best way to describe a rickshaw is to call it the love child of a scooter and a car half the size of a Mini Cooper. The driver steers the single front wheel with the handlebars while four passengers cram into a backseat designed for two small adults. The driver carefully balances the extra weight on two small scooter wheels, leaving the passengers afraid of falling out at every turn because of the conspicuous lack of doors. Drivers weave in and out of lanes, barely missing motorcyclists and other rickshaw drivers, causing buses to stop and honk their horns. Your life flashes before your eyes with every tight squeeze between buses.

    But the culture shock doesn’t end when you get out of the rickshaw.

    No matter how many hours you spend planning a lesson, there are things you just aren’t ready for when you finally get out of the rickshaw and into the classroom. For example, when you ask your students if they understand the difference between HIV and AIDS, you expect them to move their heads in unison either up and down or left and right. This isn’t the case in India. The sea of heads moves in a figure eight. After weeks of teaching, in-depth discussions with other volunteers and careful analysis, I still can’t tell you what it means. I’ve learned to stop asking “”yes”” and “”no”” questions.

    I was one of 20 volunteers this summer helping curb the spread of HIV and reduce the social stigma associated with it by teaching in Chennai, on the southeast coast of India. Over the course of my work, I discovered it was most effective to ask open-ended questions like, “”What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?”” By avoiding “”yes”” and “”no”” questions, I helped my students grasp the more complicated topics of HIV biology, transmission and progression. As they learned more, I could see my students’ fears about HIV disappear, making my trip worth the cost, time and effort.

    While my weekday schedule was full travelling around Chennai, teaching different groups of students about HIV and AIDS, I spent my weekends working with orphanages for HIV-positive children. The orphanages house more children than their capacity and barely have money to provide food, clothing and beds for the children. Despite the hardship, an outsider would never guess the daily struggle these children face by looking at them. Regardless of where they are in their battles against hunger or the fight to keep their immune systems strong against a “”blood dragon,”” their faces and smiles are still full of joy that can brighten any room.

    What made them happiest was a hug, a kiss on the cheek or simply holding hands, because at school these HIV-positive children encounter social stigma. No other students sit and eat lunch with them – or in some cases even talk to them. In addition to difficulties with their peers, the children in the orphanages have already suffered the loss of their parents to a disease that will ultimately claim their own lives. Leaving those kids at the end of the summer was probably one of the most difficult things I had to do.

    Being immersed in a culture and country very different from the one I grew up in helped me realize the complexities of the human condition when it comes to our vulnerabilities, dependencies on one another and ability to face adversity and overcome challenges. I had a chance to grow through the challenge while engaging students, breaking myths, providing life-saving information and making lifelong friends. I saw what it meant to help someone and have a tangible effect on curbing the proliferation of the virus.

    The International Alliance of Prevention of AIDS trained me to teach about HIV in India, but ended up teaching me how to lose myself in the service of others and truly become a better person.

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