(KTSF by Kristen Kayan Choy)
Some HIV-infected patients in the Chinese community, under tremendous pressure, hide their medical condition from family members and co-workers. Some patients give up hope while others step away from the clouds of fear and help change the lives of others.
62-year-old Edwin Mah has lived with HIV for 25 years.
“The biggest obstacle of barrier in the Asian community is denial, because if you cannot be open about this disease, you will not be able to take care of yourself,” Mah said.
Born to Chinese parents, Mah grew up in a conservative community in Idaho. Mah’s father worked for his brother’s Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately, his biological mother had tuberculosis and died shortly after he was born in the 1940s.
“I was the only Chinese kid in my class, you know, (it was) kind of interesting,” Mah remembered.
This single-father of two young children was struggling. Mah’s father looked for help at the Salvation Army in the community. There, an officer kindly offered help to Mah’s father, and even became Mah’s stepmother.
Edwin Mah said while growing up as a gay person in a conservative family, there were tensions in the family. He then decided to move to San Francisco in 1974.
“My stepmother is a very religious woman, and when she found out I was gay, she told me I was gonna go to hell .” Mah remembered.
In his 30s, Mah said he was diligently working for a law firm, specializing in preparing court-exhibits, and getting ready to be a first-time home buyer. But life turned sour, when he was diagnosed with HIV.
“I just felt like numb, you know. my whole senses just shut off. I just sat there,” Mah recalled.
Facing fears of losing his job and suffering reproach from family, Mah said he was living in fear and in depression for years. During this most difficult period of time, he found out his half brother was dying from AIDS.
“When he got sick, he was not taking medications; he was not been taking care of himself. He said, I regretted that I did not take care of myself.”
Mah said his father did not accept his gay half-brother and did not attend his brother’s funeral. Mah said “He was living in denial too. Chinese culture loves to live in denial. They don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist.”
Mah said his half brother’s death inspired him to actively participate in HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention education. Mah spoke publicly at high schools and has advocated for the HIV/AIDS communities for years. He has been named one of the emeritus board members of the Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center in San Francisco.
Mah said “Most of the people that I know and work with are on the edge living with this disease. They are almost one step being homeless.”
Once living in denial, Mah said when he got sick and finally revealed his medical condition to his employer to request medical leave, he was treated fairly and kindly. Mah hopes the Asian community can also open their arms to accept and care more about HIV patients.
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