Recently I gave a lesson to my freshman classes about AIDS, as that was the topic of the homework reading. AIDS and related topics like sex and drug use are not exactly common conversation topics in China; other than Little Ma's crude sense of humor, I can't recall a single time I've heard a Chinese person mention sex in the past two years. Seeing as the word "girlfriend" is enough to get giggles from a class, I was curious how my students would respond to the lesson.
My first surprise was how little they learn about AIDS growing up. When asked, some students said they learned a little about it in school, but many said they didn't learn about it at all. So I asked if parents talk about it and there was a loud, resounding "no." I asked if there is sex education in school, and apparently there is none. I again asked if they learn about it from parents, and there was an even louder, unanimous "NO." One girl said aloud "that's impossible." I asked how they learn about sex, and after a pause a few students said "from the TV" or "from the Internet." I know the government provides AIDS education (in fact the only two posters adorning the faded and cracking walls of my classroom are about AIDS, including the first photo above, taken by my brother Erik while in Zhangye) and an AIDS day is promoted on December 1st, but it seems AIDS education in China is not quite where it could be. Many Chinese believe you can get it from mosquitoes, for instance.
During the lesson, which I actually borrowed from another teacher, the students had to separate a number of activities into the categories of "high risk," "low risk," or "no risk" for HIV. For example, "sharing a toilet" or "kissing" should go under "no risk" while "intravenous drug use" and "from mother to infant" should be placed under "high risk." The homework was very informative about HIV/AIDS and they overall did very well with this. One of the activities included was "oral sex" (low risk). Many students asked me what this meant, which was probably one of the more awkward things I've had to do in the classroom. Not knowing the Chinese word and not wanting to get too graphic, I simply said "sexual activity using the mouth... if you don't know what I'm talking about, ask a friend." In one class a girl said in Chinese, a little too loudly, wo mei zuoguo! - "I've never done that before!"
There was also group work during the lesson that had the students discussing HIV/AIDS-related issues. One of the questions asked if HIV testing should be required for certain jobs. While answering this question, one girl told me in a quite serious, deadpan voice "yes, I believe HIV testing should be required for some jobs, especially whores."
I also learned from my students that testing for HIV is not common in China, as there is a stigma attached to it. If you get tested for HIV others around you assume you have it, and will avoid you. I've since read that those diagnosed with HIV also may be ostracized, even to the point of their family refusing to eat with them or doctors refusing to touch them. Condom use is not universal, as it is associated with promiscuity. Until 2003, condom advertisements were illegal in China, and one survey found that 60% of Chinese condoms are faulty. Needles are also sometimes reused in China, even in hospitals.
At the end of the lesson, I gave students the chance to write down any questions they had about HIV and AIDS or the day's lesson. A few examples:
Are there a great number of students having the sex innections [I think they meant "intercourse"] with the different sex in American?
Is it possible for them to suffer from HIV if two lovers have sex without using condoms?
This is the first time I heard someone talk about sex in the public. I being to realize the importance of sex.
Use a condom weather have a side effect?
I think though China is a feudalist society, when children are thirteen or fifteen it's time for parents to teach them something about sex, and to teach them how to make friends with boys or girls, or what to do to protect themselves.
Can you give a kiss to a girl if she is infected with HIV?
Once someone had HIV, did they have the equal rights to do what they want to do? Like go to school, contribute to the society. If the others, especially their relatives didn't understand them.
In America, when students grow up a adult, their parents are encourage (or allow) them to sex with somebody. Is it true?
Our country passed a law, people can get married during their university. Do you think AID will spread faster?
In American, are old people frightened with AIDS?
Is it common that in USA, the middle school students having a sexual experience?
In China, if you want to test HIV or AIDZ, you are thought a patient who get infected HIV. Many people around you will be away from you. I want to know what do the American people think about?
I heard there are many people having HIV in America. Is it true? Does the government find the better method to control the AIDS?
When did the first HIV appeared? Why did he have HIV? Did he has too much freedom to infect HIV?
In your country female's virgin is concerned a lot, isn't it? In college, if you allow to married with somebody? In America, what's the average age people get married?
I remember when I told other Americans of my decision to go to China, there were mixed reactions. Many people, especially family and close friends, were enthusiastic and sometimes envious. However, many people had a negative and usually ill-informed reaction: "China has AIDS," "China is full of poverty," "they put people in jail for no reason," etc. My girlfriend at the time's immediate response to the idea was "China is full of AIDS." In China, AIDS is often associated with the West, and I once read a story about an American dating a Chinese girl whose mother's first reaction was to ask "does he have AIDS?" In truth, America does have the bigger AIDS problem, with more than 1,000,000 people infected with HIV, compared to China's 650,000 (China also has more than four times as many people). During the height of Maoism and China's isolation, parents in the countryside would tell naughty children that the foreigners would come to eat them if they didn't behave. While American parents were telling children to eat up because "there are starving kids in China," Chinese parents were telling their own children to eat well because there were oppressed capitalist children "starving in the West." It's funny how much I appreciate the importance of education now that I'm not actually in school.
HIV/AIDS in China
HIV/AIDS in America
Sex statistics by country