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Learning from our students

Andrew Barfield, Tsukuba University

I've worked this autumn with two classes on AIDS education, using authentic reading materials, double-entry journals, drama, student-produced videos, and, finally, term papers and a student-written magazine for other first-year university students. It's been an interesting experience for myself, and for my students, and I believe we have learnt a lot together, and that they have learnt even more from each other. Interesting in the sense of thought-provoking and challenging, and none more so than in this magazine article written by Leo Lin, a medical student at Tsukuba University.

What I learned through studying AIDS

As the problem of acquired immuno-deficiency syndrome (AIDS) affects more and more countries and greater numb ers of people, it is time for all of humankind to face up to this issue. To create some effective solutions, I believe that the provision of proper information and education are required. The first time I heard about something called AIDS was during my physical education class while I was still a high school student in Taiwan. My teacher said something about it while talking to us about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among homosexuals. At that time, this topic seemed kind of out of place and it passed our interest by. It was not until last year, when AIDS became a popular mass media theme here in Japan, that I started to feel anxious without knowing why.

In order to get more information, I began doing research on my own. There are plenty of AIDS-related items on TV, in newspapers and magazines, and on the web. While I was trying to digest all the new information I found, a question crossed my mind. How come no one on campus was talking about this issue if it was so important? People would pick up a newspaper with something on AIDS, and then throw it away as if they had seen nothing. It was incredible that there was no repsonse at all. I couldn't understand why. Because of this, I made a questionnaire on AIDS and did a little survey within the campus. What I got was a lot of passive responses. The students that I interviewed did answer my questions nicely, I suppose, but they looked at me as if I were an eccentric, a weirdo. Some of my friends even call me an AIDS maniac. I am far from being a maniac - just curious as to why university students show such a low level of interest. Many of my friends claimed that they were completely risk-free, but at the same time commented on how others were unaware of the risks of HIV infection. It seemed to me that there was a kind of conflict between their comments and their overconfidence.

I presume that the attitude of 'This is everybody else's problem except mine' is due to a subconscious fear about AIDS. 'AIDS is scary but has nothing to do with me' is a sign of denial. This tendency is also found in our advanced English class as well. We noticed that all the skits we made during class dealt with discrimination. But we noticed also how the skits emphasized elementary school or secondary school students getting false information from adults who were supposed to be able to give correct information. The skits showed us how stupid the bias could be. However, you see no presence of university students in our skits. Why is this? Perhaps it is not important to show university students reactions towards AIDS since we are supposedly more knowledgeable than either children or adults. Perhaps this is a means of denial. By drawing a line between us and those who are badly informed, we put ourselves out of the AIDS-risky circle.

From the point of view of AIDS history, we knew that AIDS has often been portrayed as happening only to homosexual males. The people who insist on viewing AIDS in this way often claim to be at no personal risk at all. Isn't this mechanism similar to that of university students? Perhaps university students avoid talking about AIDS for fear that their self-image will be threatened. The same mechanism can be found in those who discrimate against HIV carriers and people living with AIDS, and in those who use AIDS as a means to bully others. By accusing others, they are able to remove themselves as far as possible from the position of 'been accused'. The 'accuser' is considered further from the 'accused' than the 'unrelated third person'. This is why, in my opinion, the best way to reduce discrimination is to clear away fear around AIDS. This is critically important if we want to promote AIDS prevention.

As far as I know, there are three factors that influence people's willingness to take some kind of preventive actions: (a) acknowledgement of the seriousness of the disease; (b) acknowledgement of one's own chance of getting infected; (c) acknowledgement of the effectiveness of prevention. I believe that most university students are aware of (a) and (c); however, owing to their unwillingness to see (b), I doubt whether AIDS prevention can really be effective. That's why I suggest that AIDS education should stress (b) more than anything else, and one way to do this would be to bring more people living with AIDS into the public eye.

Some people say that now is not a good time to bring people living with AIDS and HIV carriers more into public since our present-day society has little understanding. I don't agree with this point of view. If people with AIDS or HIV don't make public appearances and tell the public how they feel or how they are discriminated against, how are we supposed to enhance our recognition of AIDS, and to stop sweeping it under the carpet? This redundant protection actually creates a vicious circle itself. It is time for us to give up pursuing imaginary assailants. To my mind, the only victims in this AIDS debate are the sufferers. What we should do is soothe their pains and prevent the number of people suffering from increasing any further.

There is another point that has to be clarified, and that is the difference between HIV infection and AIDS. HIV infection is not the same as AIDS. People with AIDS have HIV infection, but only a proportion of those with HIV infection have AIDS. I found that people have only a vague notion about this difference. Sometimes, I hear people say 'HIV patients', but I doubt whether it is reasonable to use this phrase since HIV positive people have no symptoms hindering their daily lives. I think that a clear definition should be given to the public, and that there must be some effective ways to confirm that the public don't mix up HIV infection with AIDS. If this can be accomplished, a positive HIV anti-body test result would no longer be considered a death sentence. In actual fact, it has been found that many HIV carriers do not develop AIDS until between 6 and 10 years after infection. Educating people about this could also help decrease discrimination toward HIV carriers as well.

To conclude, it seems to me that AIDS is not only a severe physical disease but also a serious mental and cultural disease to some extent. Therefore, in providing treatment and educating people about prevention, the emotional reactions that AIDS provokes should also be taken into consideration. If these complex aspects of the AIDS problem are carefully handled, AIDS should no longer be a threat to humankind.

Leo Lin, November 1996

If you would like to get a copy of the English magazine that one class produced; send comments to Leo Lin; or have a copy of the ten-minute video, please send a SASE (with a blank VHS cassette if you want a copy of the video) to me at the following address: Andrew Barfield, Foreign Language Centre, Tsukuba University, Tennodai 1-1-1, Tsukuba-shi, Ibaraki-ken 305. Thanks.

This page found at: http://www.japanetwork.org/teachers/lin.html

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