The HIV/AIDS Simulation Experience at Crossroads Village was one of the most memorable experiences from the Youth Corps Singapore Hong Kong Learning Journey – a 5-day experience I was privileged to have been a part of; to have immersed myself in a city that, in comparison to ours, is same but different. With the purpose of exposing Aspirant Leaders to the service-learning and social service landscape in Hong Kong, the Learning Journey included visits to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), social enterprises and universities. Exchanges came in the form of formal paper presentations and conference-style panel discussions, candid conversations over the dinner table and cultural immersion every other time in between. This piece is a reflection zoomed into the HIV/AIDS Simulation Experience that, for me, raised questions about my consistency between what I claim to believe in and what I truly practice.
The HIV/AIDS Simulation immersed Aspirant Leaders into the stories of 3 different characters who eventually meet with the probability of being diagnosed HIV positive. The stories were experienced through static displays of physical settings (e.g. character’s bedroom, the clinic, the hospital) and an audio recording that is being played throughout the short trail from one display to another. The simulation lasted for about 45 minutes, with 15 minutes dedicated to each story and the stories were chosen out of 4 excerpts given in the beginning of the Simulation. Here are brief descriptions of the stories I had chosen with my partner (simulations were experienced in pairs):
- Story 1 – A Hong Kong University student headed for Medicine studies in university faces peer pressure in his younger days and submits to vices, engaging prostitutes and taking drugs. The drug intake came in the form of needle insertion and the engagement of prostitutes sometimes did not come with the necessary contraceptive measures. Later in his life, he meets a female partner whom he falls in love with and hopes to marry. The story ends with her finding out about her pregnancy and her HIV positive diagnosis.
- Story 2 – The main character is an East European lady who is working hard to earn a livelihood with her husband. Their daughter had earlier passed away from Leukemia and in a car accident after which, the East European lady is hospitalized in a run-down healthcare facility. In her stay, she receives a blood transfusion. In weeks, she is discharged because there is a lack of bed space at the hospital. Her slow recovery necessitates a visit from the nurse, who upon examination of the lady, informs her that she might have contracted HIV due to inadequate sterilization at the hospital.
- Story 3 – An Asian teenager from an impoverished family gets tricked into being a prostitute in another country. Her father had recently passed away and her grandmother is gravely ill, incurring high healthcare costs. She is told there is an opportunity to serve as a waitress overseas for a high pay but ends up working in a brothel. There is a surprise visit from some journalists from the United Kingdom – they ask her questions about her story and decide to “buy her over” from the owner of the brothel. Just as they are about to bring her away, they receive a call asking them to run an important errand for their boss. They are unable to bring the teenager away from the brothel and leave her with some cash. At the same time, she receives a call from her family – her grandmother’s condition has taken a turn for the worse and her mother has signed a longer contract with her boss to have her continue working there because they need the money urgently. By the end of the story, her health begins to worsen and she is sent for a HIV assessment.
Rather than the myriad of coincidences that culminated in the eventual contracting of HIV/AIDS, what was more appalling to me was my subconscious judgment of the choices made by the above-mentioned characters during the course of the simulation. The fleeting questions I posed in the immersion – What was he thinking? Why couldn’t she choose differently? How did she not see this coming? As a fervent believer of choice theory, it appears counter-intuitive to explore the limitations upon which our choices are based, but here’s where I’ll start. The gap between my reality and theirs was where the questions emerged – the only bridge to the gap, empathy. My judgment of their choices assumed that the context against which their choices were made were similar to that I’m familiar with – the privilege of having money just be a number, family support rid of vices ever being an option and of having healthcare facilities of high quality. The momentary shame experienced was born from the realization that my blanket of comfort had also blinded me from the possible reality that others face (vastly different from my own). The blanket, a shield of oblivion and an excuse for apathy.
Earlier this year, in my reads by storyteller and shame researcher, Dr. Brene Brown, I learned about the power of operating on the basis that everybody, in general, is always trying their best (refer to Note at the end) Therein lies the crux to empathy, where we are ready to assume the best and then plough through the realities, priorities and hence perspectives that may differ; seeking to understand rather than to judge, in search of connection instead of contempt. This is the process where we reconcile social injustice, transform shame (about privilege) into gratitude and allow empathy to take action. The simulation came as timely reminder to judge what appears to be choices less than I seek to find the driving forces upon which they are based.
Note: On Believing We Are Always Trying Our Best
Storyteller and shame researcher, Brene Brown, once asked a large sample size of test subjects if they believed that, in general, people were “always trying their best”. The yes/no question quickly divided the sample into two large groups – those who believed that people were, in general, “always trying their best” and those who did not believe this was possible. Those with the latter response often elaborated with confessions that they themselves were not always trying their best and explained that they did not expect from others what they could not achieve. The crux to her analysis, though, lie in that those with the former response often displayed “Wholeheartedness” to a greater extent.
Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It is about cultivating compassion and connection, to wake up in the morning and think, “No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.” It is about carrying a sense of worthiness, belonging and authenticity within rather than finding it outside of us. It requires that we believe that we are “always trying our best” and that our best is enough. That there is sufficiency in our being and to function against a landscape of ‘enough’ rather than ‘scarcity’.
I am striving for a mastery in wholeheartedness and this is but one of the internal challenges I will choose to battle.