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Mr. Zhou's AIDS Teahouse

The AIDS virus came to the quiet town of Gongmin in Zizhong County of Sichuan Province in 1997. Fate had dealt a cruel blow to group of migrant workers from the village. These most unfortunate men then found discrimination waiting for them when they returned to their remote hometown.

Only Zhou Zaiguang, an ordinary countryside teacher, held out the hand of friendship and treated them with the compassion they deserved. This kind-hearted and thoughtful soul made a place for them to meet in his own home, calling it the "AIDS Teahouse."

A tale of the AIDS virus

By the roadside, a tall elderly man came up the slope with one grand-daughter on his left arm and another carried on his back. In his right hand he held an umbrella against the midday sun. This bright eyed and gray haired man seemed to be the very picture of warmth and affection. This was Zhou Zaiguang.

With a gentle smile, he talked about the time he had met British Prime Minister Tony Blair. When he arrived at the school gates, his students led his grand-daughters around the playground. In a bare unpainted classroom with old worn-out school desks, he gave the students a candid lesson on HIV/AIDS.

Zhou is a native of Gongmin town. He had spent all his days there and had not left his hometown until late in life when he received an invitation to go to Beijing to meet the British prime minister.

As one of the few educated people in the town, he is well respected in Gongmin. In his many years of service in the local central primary school, he had always been ready to teach across a wide range of different subjects. He has taught the students through all their grades bringing them whatever they needed to know from reading and writing to arithmetic, from singing to drawing.

Li Bencai, the present-day host of the AIDS Teahouse, was one of his students. Li was the first from the town to fall victim to HIV/AIDS. He contracted it when he was away in Shenzhen City.

When HIV/AIDS came to Gongmin this dreadful disease disturbed the quiet life of the small town. Rumors spread as people voiced all sorts of strange ideas at every street corner. Some said that infection would spread in the air, or that mosquitoes could carry it from person to person when they took their blood.

More confirmed cases were to follow. Simple villagers who had once admired the get-up-and-go of the migrant workers now subjected them to cruel discrimination.

But this was not the way for Zhou Zaiguang. While others slipped into the path of blind discrimination, he worked tirelessly to learn the real facts about HIV/AIDS. He found that the scientific evidence pointed to just three channels for the spread of the virus. He said that as a teacher it was only natural for him to take a rational approach. After all, he actually believes in science. He is not the sort of person who would exaggerate the truth or unthinkingly look down on the unfortunate victims. What's more, Li Bencai had been his student so he considered it was his responsibility to help him.

Zhou's AIDS Teahouse opens its doors

These were difficult days back in 1997. The mere mention of AIDS was enough to make healthy people turn pale. Those who had been infected didn't dare to go out for fear of infecting others. But by then Zhou knew something of the disease. He sought to offer some comfort to Li Bencai and four others infected with the virus. "You can come and spend some time in my home if you feel you need to stay away from other people. I would not be concerned about this even if the whole town is nervous."

Before extending this invitation, Zhou held a family meeting. He explained what he had found out about HIV/AIDS and spoke of the hardships these local people carrying the virus were facing. His kindly, elderly wife was first to confirm her support. His children trusted their father's judgment and they gave their support too.

And so in the spring of that year, Mr. Zhou's AIDS Teahouse opened its door to Gongmin's HIV/AIDS sufferers. It became their spiritual home where they could meet, talk, and play cards away from all the discriminatory stares.

As time passed, people became more familiar with HIV/AIDS. This together with the implementation of the China-UK HIV/AIDS Prevention and Care Project at the town in April 2002 meant the victims' circumstances improved considerably.

In May 2003, Li Bencai opened a new larger AIDS teahouse. By then discrimination against the local HIV/AIDS carriers was a thing of the past and Zhou Zaiguang closed his own teahouse. He said his duty was finished now that the sufferers had been accepted back into society.

Children play together, not separated by a virus

The students were already familiar with HIV/AIDS for this was not the first time Zhou had spoken to them on the subject.

Asked if they would be afraid to be around someone infected with the AIDS virus, they answered together, "Never."

"Why are you not afraid?" he asked.

"There are only three channels for the spread of the AIDS virus," they answered knowledgeably.

He went on to further reinforce their understanding that we would not be infected through normal everyday contact. He was careful to treat the difficult subject of sex in a sensitive manner with his young audience.

There were two students whose parents were infected with the AIDS virus in Zhou's class. However, they were soon accepted by their classmates. At first, their fellow students would not play with them or even study beside them as their father had the virus. But Zhou taught them by example. He made a point of being beside them and sharing food with them. Soon, other students accepted them and began to play with them. Then they all had a birthday party together.

Zhou meets Tony Blair

Zhou felt greatly honored when he was invited to meet British Prime Minister Tony Blair in July 2003. And he was doubly fortunate for he was the only healthy person among the delegation from Gongmin town. All the rest were HIV/AIDS carriers.

During his visit to Beijing, Zhou was able to see round the city in between attending training sessions held at the British Embassy.

On his last day in the capital, Zhou visited Tian'anmen Square. When he set foot on Jinshuiqiao Bridge, where generations of state leaders have reviewed the three services of the armed forces, many thoughts and emotions came flooding into his mind.

It was there that he experienced a sudden realization. This increasingly prosperous nation belongs not only to the national leaders, but also to all the Chinese people. Before this moment, he had not known why he had cared so deeply about his unfortunate fellow citizens. Now he had found the answer. China belongs to all its people, healthy and HIV/AIDS carriers alike.

"We owe a duty of care to all our compatriots. We must never abandon them. We must make sure we include them in society." This is the goal that Zhou has pursued for so long.

(China.org.cn by Wang Ruyue, September 14, 2004)

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