Dull Days in the ‘Hood

The hallway outside our residence room, a scene representative of the generally bland indoor MTC scenery.

Today, I present a brief overview of life in the MTC as well as a summary of the week’s events. This first part is probably going to be really boring, so feel free to skip it. I just want to convey what an average day in the MTC is like.

At 6:10 AM, an unidentified elder runs through the halls screaming. Those awakened by his ruckus shout at him to be quiet. Twenty minutes later, Elder Heaps’ alarm clock–an authentic analog with genuine hemispherical metal ringers–goes off, and the four of us in the room pray and roll out of bed and into our exercise clothes. We pick up sack breakfasts containing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, milk, and bananas. In the greyish morning light, we eat at some brown picnic tables outside. We walk to the field, the gym, or the fitness center. For exercise, we can run, ride stationary bikes, or play basketball, soccer, volleyball, or foursquare. I’m no good at sports, so I prefer to run or ride the bikes.

After gym time, we shower and dress in Sunday clothes. Then, we study in the classroom. Our first three hours are self-guided. We read the scriptures and study the standard works, discuss and plan with our companions, and practice the language. We always try to speak Chinese as much as possible throughout the day.

Following our first study block, we eat lunch in the cafeteria. We Mandarin-speaking missionaries sit together at one of the long tables and talk as we eat quickly. After lunch, we return to the classroom for another three-hour study block, this one led by a teacher. Our district is usually taught by either Brother Walter or Sister Tanner, although we occasionally learn from other teachers as well. All of the teachers are amazing. They almost never speak English, and they know how to teach the material in an order that makes sense and keeps the class engaged. No minute of class time goes unused.

We finally eat dinner at 4:30 PM, by which time we’re pretty exhausted. I’ve never eaten dinner this early before, but I’m used to it by this time. At last, we have our final three hours of teacher-led study time in the classroom. The MTC’s approach to teaching is to lock missionaries in a small, bare room for nine hours per day, leaving them with no choice but to learn the language. It’s very effective.

As soon as class time concludes, we have 45 minutes of additional study time to review or learn whatever we need. Sometimes, when we need a break, our district watches Mormon Messages during this time. The day concludes with planning, when my companion and I map out our schedule for the next day. Finally, we return to our dorms, shower or otherwise prepare for sleep, and collapse in bed.

Sundays and P-days are more relaxed. We have extra time to clean up and eat meals, and every Sunday, our district walks up and around the Provo Temple. It’s some of the only time we have each week to relax. Here we are, the inhabitants of Room 101, in front of the temple:

Here is a picture of our room, Room 101 itself. It is the most dreaded room in the Ministry of Missionary Training, or Minimish. It is here that everyone is faced with his or her greatest fear–for Elder Winston Smith, rats; for me, spiders. It is here that one learns to win the victory over one’s self and love the MTC.

​Here is a picture of the classroom in which I spend ten hours per day:

​Elder Jensen “borrowed” the Taiwanese flag from another classroom. (Don’t worry; nobody was using it.) The dream catcher protects us from bad dreams when we fall asleep in class. My desk is on the far right.

Our classroom with us in it:

The other side of the classroom (I know it’s not thrilling, but I have to email about something):

Now, for a summary of what’s happening to me. This week was uneventful, and flew past faster than any other week in my life. The routine MTC lifestyle seems tedious, but it relieves stress and makes the time go by quicker.

I’m not feeling too homesick, but there are times when everyone starts bawling about his or her family and friends and starts a whole chain reaction of missionaries crying. Yesterday, we sent a departing district off by singing “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” in Chinese. (We sing all of our hymns and say all of our prayers in Chinese.) Everyone got really teary, especially me, because I remembered the day when my family dropped me off at the MTC.

The food is not treating the elders well. In an attempt to maintain a healthier diet, Elders Jensen and Wheeler have been eating nothing but wraps for lunch and dinner. I actually think the regular meals are safer, because the stuff that goes into the wraps is of suspect quality; last night, Elder Wheeler got food poisoning for the second time and spent an hour worshipping at the porcelain altar.

In order to motivate ourselves to speak Chinese more, our district has started playing a game we dubbed “Zhongwen Bachelorette.” (The name has nothing to do with the game.) Every night, in true “The Lottery” fashion, we draw folded scraps of paper from my scripture case. I mark one slip in advance, using a graphite pencil to draw a black dot in its center. We do not reveal our results. Whoever draws the black dot must speak nothing but Chinese for the following day. At the end of the day, we each guess who the chosen one is. A player receives a point for every other player who guesses them and a point for a correct guess as to the chosen one’s identity. So far, I’ve been chosen once, and I actually managed to speak Chinese for almost the whole day! Everyone’s Chinese has improved vastly.

On Saturday, my companion and I taught a real investigator in Chinese! Normally, we just teach teachers role-playing as investigators, but this time it was a real one. We went to the Teaching Resource Center, where volunteers can choose to help the missionaries by receiving a brief lesson and talking in the missionaries’ mission language. Our teacher assigned us to the one room that had a real investigator! We couldn’t understand much of his Chinese, but we did our best to teach the lesson. His member friend was with him, and he helped us out a ton. He clarified a lot of what we said and bore his testimony at the end. We weren’t feeling too great afterwards, but our teacher said we did very well.

We managed to duplicate the exploding OJ results twice. I’ve found that only the guava-orange-passionfruit juice works, since it’s pretty much nothing but high-fructose corn syrup and water. The amount of juice removed has to be optimized: too much, and it will take too long to build up sufficient pressure; too little, and the volume of gas released will not be enough for a satisfying “boom!” We’ve suspended the experiment to avoid making a mess, though.

I’ve been really clumsy as of late. On Tuesday, I tried to turn what I thought was an empty glass upside down on my dinner tray, as instructed by the dishwashers. It was actually full. I threw water all over the suited elder sitting next to me. The next day, the bottle of Italian dressing at the salad bar was clogged, so I squeezed it really hard. All of the sudden, the dressing shot forth with such great speed that it splattered all over the elder in front of me in line. In light of these incidents, I have resolved to be more careful with handling food in the cafeteria.

Having run out of interesting details to relate, I here conclude my letter. I will be in the MTC for six more weeks, so it may be a while before anything of note happens. In the meantime, I’ll continue to communicate my weekly progress and any interesting stories. Zaijian!

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Mudaoyou: Gotta Teach ‘Em All

​Picture of District A showing off our gang sign. I’ve already introduced the elders, so here are the sisters, from left to right: Sister Strong, Sister Lew, Sister Fisher, and Sister Jenkins. They all have interesting stories and are great missionaries and additions to our district.

Mudaoyou means “investigator” in Chinese, by the way.

On Thursday, our district was sitting silently in the classroom studying our Chinese vocab. All of the sudden, a huge bang came from the garbage can in the corner. The sisters sitting nearby all jumped. Debris flew up into the air, and bits of Kleenex and hole punches fluttered to the floor all over the room.

We looked into the garbage can and saw nothing but a lidless bottle of orange juice and orange juice splattered over the inside of the can. We realized that the explosion had been caused by the orange juice–which Sister Strong had dropped in the can two days earlier–fermenting and producing carbon dioxide, which swelled the bottle and caused the lid to forcefully shoot off. (We later found the lid lying on the floor at the opposite end of the room.)

The next day, Elder Jensen got three bottles of orange juice for breakfast. We drank 1/4 of each bottle and then stashed them at different locations in our room. Unfortunately, none of them have shown any sign of pressure, and they’ve been sitting there for two days now. We think the original bottle was one of the orange-mango-passion fruit ones, which may have fewer preservatives.

My companion and me at the temple.

I’m doing really well at the MTC. The work can be hard, but it really doesn’t compare to the somewhat soul-crushing workload of high school. I can focus all of my efforts on a few things rather than on a wide range of classes and subjects.

Our P-days are the best, because Elder Heaps and I can walk around looking #Babylonian, do our laundry, and email. My laundry bag today was exceedingly full, even unto the bursting thereof, but I still managed to get everything to the laundry room.

I was elated to find that the bookstore sells pocket protectors. They were at a discount–only 49 cents–so I bought myself two, and I wear them all the time. Now I can sleep soundly at night knowing that my pockets are well-protected.

The food here is as sweet as honey in the mouth, but bitter in the belly. It almost always tastes quite good, but it feels kind of nasty to eat such dense and fatty food so often. A few elders in my branch have gained nearly ten pounds in the few days they’ve been here; thankfully, my weight has remained pretty much constant. I exercise a fair deal and try to go for the salad as often as possible, which has helped a bit.

A few days ago, the lunch menu included Teriyaki Stix. At first, I was eager to get a taste of food originating outside of BYU foodservice. I sat down and started eating. After I had taken about two bites, two elders ran past down the length of our Chinese-speaking branch table, warning everyone not to eat the Teriyaki Stix. Apparently, four weeks ago, when they last served it, everyone had diarrhea for forty-eight hours. I didn’t really believe them, since I’ve heard a lot of myths about the food at the MTC, so I finished my whole bowl.

That night, Elder McLaughlin got sick and vomited many times. I had an upset stomach, but I didn’t throw up or suffer any other ill effects.

The Chinese is coming along very well. It’s amazing how fast everyone has learned, especially those who have had no prior experience with the language. There’s one phrase in our grammar book that always gives people trouble. Used to explain baptism, it means “plugging nose.” The first time we saw it, though, our teacher explained that it was an instruction to “plug this nose.” Two days later, when he asked Elder Jensen to translate it, Elder Jensen said, “you grab them by the nose.” Now, we joke about baptizing people by grabbing them by the nose.

I love you all. Bye!

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Last meal and first days in the MTC

On Wednesday, my family ate our last meal at In-n-Out Burger.  I ate a cheeseburger with grilled onions:
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At 12:45 PM, my family dropped me off at the MTC.  Immediately, my host whisked me through a streamlined and efficient process of initialization.  I was equipped with my badges, missionary books, schedule, and an envelope containing important information and my key card.

First, I went to a computer lab and watched an orientation on the gym rules.  Then, I headed to my classroom.
 

As soon as I walked into the classroom, my teacher started speaking Chinese to me–just as I had expected.  At first, I was completely confused, but I quickly picked up and was able to kind of converse.  I learned the words “companion”, “missionary”, “mission”, and the like.  I saw my companion’s name on the desk next to mine.  When he walked in, I greeted him: “Ni shi wo de tongban!” (you are my companion!)  I was excited to meet him.  His name is Elder Heaps, and he’s a great elder.  His Chinese is better than mine, but we can still hold a good conversation together.

As my district filed in, I began to learn about everyone.  I’m part of District A, which is unique in that all but two of us are going to Taipei and in that we’re the only district in our Chinese zone with sisters.  Our district has three elder companionships and two sister companionships.​

Here’s a picture of all of the elders in my district:

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Top row, left to right: Elder Heaps, me, Elder Robinson.
Bottom row, left to right: Elder Vaughn, Elder Jensen, and Elder Wheeler.
 

I was going to upload a big picture of all the elders and sisters, but I exceeded the file size limit.

I can’t run any compression utilities on the MTC computers, so I can only send one picture per email for now.  Sorry about that.

I really love our district.  I know I’m biased, but I definitely think it’s the best district in the whole MTC.  Everyone here is very smart and competent, and we all have skills and interests that complement each other.  Let me tell you a bit about each elder and sister in our district.  First of all, Elder Heaps, my companion.

Of all the people I’ve known, Elder Heaps reminds me most of a kid named Matthias who I knew in elementary school and a bit in high school.  He’s really with-it and has a great sense of humor.  He’s excellent at making friends and conversation, and I feel like I can learn a lot from him.  We get along really well, and I’m having a very enjoyable time learning from him.  I want to learn how to be more outgoing, and Elder Heaps and Elder Jensen have agreed to help me in this respect.

Elder Robinson: our district leader.  He’s a great leader because he gets along with everyone.  He’s always friendly and open, and tells us great stories about his mischievous high-school exploits.  He’s never had much experience with Chinese before, but he’s learning ridiculously fast.  He already knows as much Chinese as I did after a year of Chinese in high school.  He is always writing down and practicing his vocab.

Elder Vaughn: the only elder not from Utah.  He’s from Knoxville, and once again, we really get along well.  He’s really smart and also took a ridiculous number of AP classes in his high school, and we had a lot of fun reviewing L’Hopital’s rule and finding solids of rotation about the y-axis over dinner.

Elder Jensen: a very athletic and well-rounded elder from St. George.  He thinks very deeply about everything, and I think he’s a very interesting person to talk to.  During some of our free time, we both tried to prove why the Coriolis effect (how cyclones/water going down a drain rotate in a different direction in the north and south hemispheres) happens, and with a pretty simple free-body diagram I think we got it mostly figured out.

Elder Wheeler: an elder coming back from three years at West Point.  He has a military sense of discipline, makes his bed extremely well, and tells great stories about boot camp.  One time, he had to do jumping jacks and push-ups in a cabin filled with irritative poison gas without a mask.  Compared to that, the MTC seems like a world-class hotel.

Anyway, my Chinese has improved a huge amount in the few days I’ve been here.  Already, my district is saying all of our prayers and singing our hymns in Chinese.  Elder Heaps and I have taught an “investigator” (acting) twice in Chinese, and she accepted a Book of Mormon and agreed to give the closing prayer last time.  We talk Chinese whenever we can to each other.

The food is good, but it wreaks havoc on everyone’s digestive system.  I’m getting plenty of exercise, and having a great time despite the extremely structured nature of time in the MTC.

A few quick funny experiences: on our first day, the MTC president asked everyone from certain countries to stand up.  When he said “Taiwan”, my companion stood up.  Seeing him stand up, my whole district and I stood up.  The president looked confused to see so many white kids, all sitting in the same place, all “from Taiwan.”

When Elder Robinson and Elder Wheeler went to teach their first lesson in Chinese, she asked them where they were from.  Elder Wheeler said, “California.”  Elder Robinson blurted out: “Jesus Christ is the son of God!”  They laughed themselves to tears as they bumbled through the entire lesson.

We all asked each other our ACT scores.  When the elders heard mine, they were fairly surprised.  Now, they always call me “San shi liu zhanglao” (Elder 36).
 
That’s all for now.  I’m doing well and having a great time.  Bye!
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All ready

luggage

Luggage

The past few weeks have quickly elapsed.  Tomorrow night, my stake president will set me apart as a missionary, and I will report to the MTC (Missionary Training Center) at 12:45 PM on Wednesday.

As evidenced above, I finished packing last week.  My clothing and supplies barely fit into the suitcases, and they’re both almost exactly 50 lbs.  The bad news is that I’m supposed to reserve 12 lbs for supplies I’ll receive in the MTC, so I may have to jettison some of my stuff there.

When my mom read other missionaries’ blogs, the first thing she looked for was always what kind of messenger bag they used.  In case anyone reading this has similar concerns, I’ll go through the specs of my bags/luggage really fast.  The two suitcases are Samsonite, and they seem fine so far.  They hold my stuff, which is pretty much the only thing I can say about them based on my limited experience.  They do have four omni-directional swiveling wheels on the bottom, which are convenient.

The messenger bag is a Timbuk2 “classic messenger” model.  Once again, all I can say is that it is capable of containing the items I have placed within it without catastrophic failure.  It was difficult to find a messenger bag that was the right size, and this one seems about right.  It seems to be loaded with many unnecessary features, but that’s not too much of a problem.

My bags are marked with cyan ribbons and name tags, because cyan is one of my favorite colors.  Can’t beat 0-255-255.

Today, I went hiking with my family.  Afterwards, I had my hair cut even shorter:

haircut

Haircut

Don’t worry, the sides aren’t even close to touching my ears.  The foreshortening just makes them appear as if they were encroaching upon the otic region.

At this point, I feel like I’m all ready.  I just hope nothing goes wrong between now and Wednesday at 12:45 PM.  The following is what happened to my dad right before he served his mission.

The day before he was to report to the MTC, my dad was cleaning out his room when he discovered a couple of bottle rockets he had stashed away in a drawer for later use.  Figuring that he might as well use them up, he brought them outside and shot them off.  A few landed out of his sight, but he didn’t worry about it.

About an hour later, he heard the sirens.  Unbeknownst to him, one bottle rocket had landed on his neighbor’s fabric awning and lit it on fire.  Luckily, his neighbor’s house was unharmed, but the awning was destroyed.

He confessed to the neighbors and offered to pay for the damages.  Thankfully, they told him not to worry about it, and that they were going to replace the awning anyway.  My dad reported to the MTC as planned.

(Sorry if I didn’t get the story completely right, Dad.  This is how Mom told it to me.)

Anyway, I’m looking forward to tomorrow and Wednesday.  Bye!

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