The year was 1994. It was the time when the world still didn't know much about AIDS. Then again, that could have been just me. Still, despite being fairly ignorant of the disease I knew the basics - you could get AIDS from sexual intercourse or blood transfusion but you won't get from touching. So there!
One day, a scruffy scrawny 30-something guy came up to the office. Being the only male in the office at the time, I attended to him. He spoke good English, "Sir, I'm dying." Whoa! I was flummoxed. It's not everyday that you encounter such a greeting. And so I stood there, my mouth gaping wide as he stood there... erm... dying. "I'm HIV positive," he went on.
I invited him in to listen to his story. And boy, this boy was prepared. He took out letters and documents certifying his condition. He had medical reports, and letters from his doctors and a sad, tragic story. The poor guy had caught the disease in an unfortunate event of donating blood! What could be more sad than that? At the end of his sorry story, I was so overwhelmed that I gave him 50-bucks to help ease his sorrow. Then, as he stood at the door to leave he reached out his hand to shake mine. "Oh shit!" I thought to myself, "What do I do now?"
I reminded myself that I couldn't catch AIDS just by touch and so I took his hand. Part of it was manners, I suppose. But mostly, I did it so that he would feel a little less like an outcast. He's had a shitty day already - he sure as heck didn't need me rubbing it in by avoiding him like the... erm... plague! So I shook his hand. Held it tight and good. And then he left.
As soon as he did, I opened the palm of my right hand and stared at it. And as I did, I felt a tingling sensation at the center of my hand. Shit! And then it started to itch like crazy. I panicked! "Wash the damn hand, fool!" a voice in my head shouted. I ran for the toilet. The itch got worse. It started to spread to my forearm. Then my elbow. I ran into the toilet and I put my whole arm underneath the running tap. I took up a piece of scouring pad, dabbed it with floor cleaner and started scrubbing like a man possessed.
That, my friends, was the itch of prejudice. And prejudice, as we know, is usually a product of fear. It's funny how the mind can play tricks on you when you're afraid. And that's what AIDS victims face everyday - a fearful bunch of people who'd like to scrub them off with floor cleaner. Okay, maybe not quite but you know what I mean.
These days, I tell myself that if I ever come across another HIV positive person I'd react differently. Perhaps with less of my chickenshit reactions. But honestly, like most things, this one's easier said than done. Oh well... I guess those AIDS awareness campaigners have quite a gigantic task ahead of them.
Ten years on, I still see that scrawny fella walking the streets. These days, he's based himself in Kepong. Now, either he's one resilient bugger or one resourceful